This Walt Disney production is a bittersweet tale about the friendship of a Depression-era waif and a domesticated wolf, recalling some of the lovable animal-and-children movies of the 1940s like Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka.
Meredith Salenger – a 15-year-old newcomer whose voice and demeanour are reminiscent of the young Natalie Wood – plays Natalie Sue “Natty” Gann, a motherless tomboy pluckily enduring the hard times of 1935 Chicago with her hard-working dad, Sol (Ray Wise).
Father and daughter are wrenched apart when Sol grasps his only opportunity for a job – at a lumber camp in the Northwest – and must leave immediately without a chance to say goodbye.
He heads for Seattle with instructions to his landlady, Connie (played with consummate nastiness by Lainie Kazan) to care for the girl. Natty promptly runs away from this hair-raising harridan, and the rest of the film concerns her cross-country odyssey across an America filled with other homeless adventurers.
Resourceful and independent, Natty soon learns the lessons of life on the road. Along the way she meets some strangers who reinforce her determination to survive, including a brusque but kindly young vagrant (John Cusack) and a farm wife (Verna Bloom) who is risking midlife childbirth after her other children have died.
Most memorable of all is Natty’s encounter with a fierce wolf that is being mistreated and used in dog fights. The animal responds to the girl’s kindness and becomes her inseparable companion and protector.
Natalie Sue “Natty” Gann
Bruce M. Fischer