Set in 1935, the movie tells the story of a 15-year-old tomboy girl, Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger). Out of work because of Depression-era unemployment, Natty's widowed father Sol (Ray Wise) parlays his surefootedness into getting a job as a lumberjack. To take the job he must leave on almost no notice on a company bus from Chicago to the state of Washington. Unable to find Natty before the bus leaves, he leaves her a letter promising to send her the fare to join him as soon as he has earned it. Meanwhile he makes arrangements with Connie (Lainie Kazan), the shallow and insensitive innkeeper of their roominghouse, so Natty can stay on under Connie's temporary supervision.
After overhearing Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, Natty runs away to find her father on her own, embarking on a cross-country journey riding the rails along with other penniless travelers and hoboes. Along the way she saves a wolfdog from a dog fighting ring. In return the dog, whom she calls Wolf, becomes her friend and protector in her attempt to return to her father. She has a brief, innocent romance with another young traveler, Harry (John Cusack), and encounters various obstacles that test her courage, perseverance, and ingenuity, such as being falsely accused of cattle rustling and remanded to a juvenile facility. Natty escapes the detention center and confronts the blacksmith who has been given control of the captured Wolf. The smith turns out to be kind and fair-minded, releases Wolf to Natty, and gives her food, a ride to a train station and enough money for a ticket. She is cheated of her ticket money by an unscrupulous ticket agent and narrowly escapes his attempt to turn her in, returning to "riding the rails" illicitly on freight trains, where she is unexpectedly reunited with Harry in a railside shantytown.
When Natty's father calls Connie, she tells him Natty is gone. In a later phone call he is grieved to learn that Natty's wallet was found underneath a derailed freight train - unbeknownst to him, she lived through the crash. He is given a week's leave from the lumber company to search through the wreckage for her, to no avail. He returns to the lumber camp and requests the most dangerous jobs, known as "widow's work", now that he seems to have little to live for.
Arriving on the west coast, Natty's journey takes several more challenging turns. Harry finds work through the federal Works Progress Administration in San Francisco, but she declines his invitation to go with him, in order to find her father. The logging operation does not list Sol Gann among their workers, and Natty searches fruitlessly for him, showing other loggers his photo in a pendant he has given her which is her last trace of her parents. Wolf is entranced by wolf calls from the woods and she urges him to go; it is a painful parting. Her search is thwarted by the company clerk who catches her in one of the backwoods camps, and she is waiting to be sent back down the mountain for her own safety when the clerk unexpectedly shows up with the returned letter her father had sent enclosing her train ticket to rejoin him. The clerk has located him and Natty is on her way on foot to the high camp where he is working when the camp bus whirls past her going down carrying injured loggers including her father. Glimpsing him, she calls to him but sees no sign he has heard her. They are, however, reunited in a heartwarming embrace further down on the mountain road.
- Meredith Salenger as Natty Gann
- John Cusack as Harry
- Ray Wise as Sol Gann
- Lainie Kazan as Connie
- Scatman Crothers as Sherman
- Verna Bloom as Farm Woman
- John P. Finnegan as Logging Boss
- Garry Chalk as Chicago Worker
- Frank C. Turner as Farmer
- Gabrielle Rose as Exercise Matron
- Don S. Davis as Railroad Brakeman
- Alek Diakun as Station Master
- Grant Heslov as member of Parker's Gang
- Bruce M. Fischer as Charlie Linfield
- Jack Rader as Employment Agent
- Matthew Faison as Buzz
- Jordan Pratt as Frank
- Zachary Ansley as Louie
- Campbell Lane as Chicago Moderator
- Max Trumpower as Chicago Worker
- Jed as Wolf. Jed later appeared as the title animal in the 1991 Disney film White Fang. He also appeared as the first form taken by the alien creature in The Thing (1982).
One of the filmings on the BC Rail, known as the British Columbia Railway formerly the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) before 1972, between Pemberton & Lillooet is ranked as one of the top 10 most-scenic rail journeys in the world.
The film has been released in the United States on VHS & DVD in 2004. The DVD version was released using the pan and scan format. The title was also made available for streaming and download in SD and HD versions (without pan and scan).
The movie has gained universally positive reviews. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 100%, based on 14 reviews, with a rating average of 7/10. Critics praised the actors' performances and the film's portrayal of Depression-era life, while lamenting its pace and level of sentimentality.
At the Young Artist Awards, Salenger won for Best Leading Young Actress in a Feature Film, and the film itself was nominated for Best Family Motion Picture (Drama). Albert Wolsky's costume design received an Academy Award nomination.
Elmer Bernstein originally scored the picture, having to rewrite much of his material in the process; ultimately most of his music was replaced with a new score by James Horner. Both scores were released on compact disc – Bernstein's in 2008 as part of a four-disc set of rejected scores by Varese Sarabande (also including Gangs Of New York and The Scarlet Letter) and Horner's in 2009 by Intrada Records.
- This is one of the few Disney films to have rough adult expressions. When Solomon is told of Natty's apparent death due to her wallet being found on the train tracks in Colorado, his reaction is: "What the hell was she doing in Colorado?"
- Meredith Salenger appeared in the 2009 remake of Escape from Witch Mountain as a character named "Natalie Gann." This character cannot be the same as the one in this movie, since the age of the character would be significantly older. The name must simply be an in-joke.
- ↑ Box Office Mojo: The Journey of Natty Gann
- ↑ LA Times: A Test Case For The Family Film October 19, 1985
- ↑ Team Disney--flying High In Burbank July 28, 1985
- ↑ "The Pacific Great Eastern Railway".. Retrieved on 29 September 2014.
- ↑ Amazon: The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
- ↑ The Journey of Natty Gann DVD Review
- ↑ Can I Stream it?: The Journey of Natty Gann
- ↑ Disney Movies Anywhere: The Journey of Natty Gann
- ↑ "The Journey of Natty Gann". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved on August 30, 2014.
- ↑ LA Times: Movie Review : Grimness Of Heart In 'Natty Gann' Saga October 11, 1985
- ↑ New York Times: FILM: TALE OF RUNAWAY, 'JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN January 17, 1986
- ↑ Variety-Review: “The Journey of Natty Gann” December 31, 1984
- ↑  "Seventh Annual Youth in Film Awards 1984-1985"
- ↑ "The 58th Academy Awards (1986) Nominees and Winners." Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
- ↑ Christian Clemmensen. "Filmtracks: The Journey of Natty Gann".. Filmtracks. Retrieved on February 11, 2015.
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