Redford's Rookie is a Natural
You've got a gift Roy... but it's not enough - you've got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift... then... you'll fail - Ed Hobbs
As a baseball movie Robert Redford's "The Natural" has those big hitting batter moments, the choreographed crowd pleasers designed to lift the audience from their seats when are hero steps up to the plate. But when it comes to the magic of baseball, the stuff of legends which built the sport it goes a bit wrong, well not so much wrong but goes beyond the magic and into the realms of fantasy like theatrics making it at times a bit too unbelievable. None of which actually makes any difference to the actual storyline, which is quite brilliant combining the under dog, too old to play storyline with a mystery element to deliver what is a very entertaining movie.
As a young boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford - The Sting) had a god given talent for baseball and along with the bat he hand crafted he heads off in the hope of making it to the big time. But his dream is shattered when he meets a mysterious woman whilst travelling by train. 16 years later and Roy suddenly reappears making it to the big time and the New York Knights where he not only has to overcome the prejudices of coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley - In & Out
) who thinks he's too old, but also physical pain to help the Knights win the pennant.
The way "The Natural" starts with a young Roy Hobbs playing baseball with his dad before making his special "Wonderboy" bat from an old tree struck by lightening sort of sets the mark for the fantasy like style which keeps on returning to the surface through out. It's for me a bit over done, a bit too fantasy like and a little bit cheesy with heavily choreographed slow motion scenes but just stopping short of being laughable which is a good thing. Thankfully in between all these fantasy elements and scenes which include slugging balls out of the stadium, into flood lights and so on there is a good storyline, one which has a nice sense of mystery, a touch of romance, an element of humour and of course being a sports movie that under dog element.
The fact that whilst "The Natural" has that sort of traditional storyline of a player too old to be playing in the majors, the fact it's wrapped up in a mystery makes it a lot more interesting. After the opening scenes which culminate with Hobbs young career being cut dramatically short you are left wondering what happened, especially when we pick things up 16 years later and Hobbs finally making it to the majors with the New York Knights. Of course we do learn what happens but the whole mystery surrounding Hobbs who seems to arrive out of nowhere keeps you engrossed because you do want to know, although the answer isn't as spectacular as I hoped for.
Thrown into the mix there are other story elements such as the dodgy owner and gambler who are trying to gain control of the New York Knights through under hand tactics delivering an entertaining match fixing sub plot which also brings in a double romantic element. Strangely the romantic element doesn't feel out of place with Hobbs falling for the scheming Memo Paris, a character obviously based around a Marilyn Monroe like figure and also Hobbs's childhood sweetheart Iris Gaines. The romantic trysts add an embellishment to "The Natural" rather than just feeling like padding and also add to the fantasy mysticism especially when Iris turns up at a ball game just as Roy hits a batting slump and in that moment turns it around.
But on top of this there are some nice touches which tip their hat to the real life world of baseball such as rivalries between players and that players are quite superstitious. When one of them spots the lightening flash on Hobb's home made bat it suddenly becomes part of the teams uniform and causes several players to suddenly improve. It's a minor point but balances much of the fantasy side of "The Natural" with a sense of realism.
As for the performances well I wouldn't have chosen Robert Redford to appear in a baseball movie, but then I would have been proven wrong because he does a pretty decent job. He makes the mystery side of the storyline work brilliantly delivering that tight lipped nature of someone trying to keep their past a secret, whilst also being handsome enough to carry off all the romantic embellishments to the story. In fact Redford looks so good for his age that it's hard to believe that he is just a couple of years younger than his co-star Wilford Brimley. But it is actually when he takes to the plate to slug a few balls or to the mound to pitch one in that Redford excels looking unbelievably natural as a baseball player with a god given talent.
Alongside Robert Redford there are many recognizable stars such as Glenn Close who gives a sweet and restrained performance as Iris Gaines and also Kim Bassinger who is both sultry and scheming as Memo Paris. But in a strange way it's the minor characters which make "The Natural" work so well with Robert Duvall delivering a fine performance as journalist Max Mercy, Wilford Brimley is equally as good as Pop Fisher the coach of the Knights and Robert Prosky delivers that evil owner in the same way that Lionel Barrymore delivered evil as Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful life".
What this all boils down to is that "The Natural" is a very entertaining movie and is much more than just a baseball movie about an old player getting his shot at the big time when he should be nearing the end of his career. It combines mystery, romance and even a little humour into the proceedings to make it far more interesting but then spoils things slightly by trying to hard to deliver the magic of the game with scenes which border on the fantasy like rather than being realistically magical.
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