Widely regarded as one of the best sports films ever made, The Natural celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with a full 4K HDR restoration and newly remixed Dolby Atmos soundtrack, available now both on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and download from the Kaleidescape Store.
This continues the recent trend of re-releasing classic fare in fresh new Ultra HD resolution transfers, as we’ve recently enjoyed the 30-year anniversary release of Field of Dreams, the 35-year release of The Karate Kid, and a spectacular 40-year anniversary release of Alien.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and The Natural has been fully restored from the original 35mm
camera negative, supervised and approved by both director of photography Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson.
Nominated for four Academy Awards in 1985—Best Cinematography (Deschanel), Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Original Score (Randy Newman), and Art Direction—The Natural was based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, which I’ll admit to disliking immensely. Where Malamud made Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) bitter and wholly unlikable, Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry’s screenplay instead makes him a likable, believable character who just caught a bad break, making him easy to root for, especially when played by Redford with his signature easygoing charm.
I can’t imagine too many readers not being familiar with the story, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Hobbs discovers an almost superhuman “natural” talent for baseball growing up, and carves himself a bat named “Wonderboy” from a mighty oak tree struck by lightning outside his home. He leaves his childhood sweetheart Iris (Close) to pursue his dream of joining the majors, but just as he is about to get his big break, he has a chance encounter with a Babe Ruth-esque character named The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), which results in an even more tragic encounter with Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who could best be described as a sports super-fan psycho killer.
Sixteen years later, Hobbs once again gives baseball a go after a scout signs him to join the struggling New York Knights. Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) takes an
instant dislike to Hobbs due to his age, but ultimately gives him a chance, at which point Hobbs’ near-mystical baseball abilities lift the team toward hopes of winning the pennant.
The Natural has a bit of a supernatural feel to it and asks you to check your skepticism at the door. Hobbs has essentially two modes—homerun or strike out—and these are often directly impacted by his moral decisions at the time. Stay on the straight and narrow, good things happen, but allow yourself to be distracted by booze and dames in the form of Kim Basinger’s Memo Paris, and you’ll face struggles. But the story, the acting, and the cinematography are all so good, it’s easy to get swept up in the tale, and you can’t help but get chills during the film’s climax.
Visually, The Natural is an absolute treat. As mentioned previously, Sony knows how to lovingly restore old films to their greatest potential, and this is another winner. Early on, you can see all of the wood grain and detail in Wonderboy, and every
stitch in the Glen plaid pattern of The Whammer’s suit. The detail lets you feel the wooly texture of the ball uniforms, even seeing the pilling.
Closeups show tremendous detail, with incredible sharpness and depth. One example is the image of Iris’s hat shown at left, which, sadly, the pixel structure of my camera doesn’t do justice. This image features almost single-pixel fine detail that holds up without any jaggies or loss of resolution. Powdery-blue skies often create issues with noise and grain from older film stock, and that is evident in some scenes, but not overly so.
I’m not sure I fully appreciated Deschanel’s cinematography as a younger viewer, or perhaps it was just because it
wasn’t allowed to truly shine on previous home video releases, but here we are treated to sumptuous golden hues and sunbathed tones in early scenes, as well as carefully lit interiors (likely to help disguise the actual ages of stars Redford and
Close). Lighting is used to create deep shadows in many scenes, to conceal detail and reveal just what is intended, and here HDR does a great job keeping black levels clean. This is especially evident in the dugout scenes and the conversations between Hobbs and The Judge (Robert Prosky) in his dark office. Bright outdoor scenes also benefit from HDR’s boost, with exploding Klieg lights having extra punch.
I was surprised by how much the new Atmos mix elevated the audio experience. Right from the opening scene, it is used to expand the room’s size and atmosphere, placing you in a train station with all the surrounding sounds and noises. This continues through other outdoor scenes and those at the ballpark, where audio is lifted overhead and around you to smartly place you in the action. One nice use of the overhead speakers was when Chicago’s El train goes charging overhead. Bass is also used judiciously to add just the right amount of dynamic energy to key scenes.
The new audio mix also helps you to appreciate Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated score, and I felt I could hear hints of musical themes heard in his later work, such as Toy Story. Also, voices are clear and easy to understand, vitally important in a dialogue-driven film.
Both the Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download feature numerous special features that will keep film buffs busy for hours. These include “When Lightning Strikes,” “Pre-Game—A Novelist Steps Up to the Plate,” “The Line-Up—Assembling the Moviemaking Team,” “Let’s Play Ball—Filming the Show,” “Clubhouse Conversations,” “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus,” and “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural.”
The Natural is a fantastic film the definitely holds up 35 years later, and this new release makes for a spectacular evening’s entertainment. Highly recommended.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.