Sports figures often resemble mythic gods, and The Natural, director Barry Levinson’s lyrical adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel, chronicles the arduous struggle of one gifted athlete to overcome tragedy, adversity, and temptation in an effort to fulfill his destiny. Sony’s 4K UHD rendering of this classic film features strong HDR video transfers of both the theatrical and director’s cuts (the latter making its high-def debut here), solid but disappointing Atmos audio, and all the supplements from the 2010 Blu-ray release. The Natural may have lost a step or two since its premiere 35 years ago, but it remains a finely crafted, emotionally stirring motion picture. Recommended.
Many sports historians and fans call baseball “the perfect game.” Its symmetry, complexity, purity of form, and dramatic confrontations have made it the stuff of myth and legend for its legions of rabid devotees. Sadly, though, baseball’s perfection on the field often breeds imperfection off of it. Scandals involving gambling, drug use, corruption, racism, and sex have permeated and tarnished baseball since its early days, testing the integrity, courage, and morality of the pedestaled players who become instant heroes in our starstruck eyes. Living up to our lofty vision of them and fulfilling our wildly inflated expectations can be a Herculean task for many athletes, requiring far more strength and skill than stealing bases, fielding grounders, and crushing a ball over the fence. For baseball’s most gifted players, the meteoric rise to the top is the easy part. It’s the equally swift fall from grace that’s hard. Worse still, picking up the pieces of a shattered career and learning from one’s mistakes can take a lifetime.
The Natural cogently explores all these themes while adopting a majestic tone that lofts baseball onto a rarefied plane. Director Barry Levinson’s poetic adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel may brighten the original story’s dark tone, inspiring us to believe in our heroes instead of become disillusioned by them, but an insidious air of treachery nevertheless hangs over this textured film that examines right and wrong, good and evil, and pride and humility in stark terms. Thirty-five years have passed since The Natural was first released (can it really be that long?), and though the movie shows its age around the edges and drags a bit in spots, it remains an elegant, thoughtful, and ultimately rousing portrait of perseverance, passion, luck, and destiny.
Nebraska farm boy Roy Hobbs is a teen phenom in the Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry vein. (Can you tell I'm a Mets fan?) He vows to be “the best there ever was” in baseball, and his dazzling talent wins him a tryout with the Chicago Cubs in the mid 1920s. Unfortunately, a cruel twist of fate sabotages his big chance, as Roy (Robert Redford) runs afoul of a mysterious woman (Barbara Hershey) who all but destroys his dreams. Fast forward 15 years to 1939, and at age 34, Roy successfully claws his way back and becomes one of the oldest rookies ever to land a spot on a major league roster. His team, the fictional New York Knights, is a perennial cellar dweller that’s being methodically run into the ground by its greedy owner, The Judge (Robert Prosky), a devilish figure who seeks to wrestle control of the Knights away from the squad’s sourpuss manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), a crusty, old-school baseball maven who greets Roy with a mixture of disbelief and disdain.
It takes a while for the aged Roy to snag a slot in the lineup, but once he does, he and his prized bat, Wonderboy (which he crafted himself from a tree that was struck by lightning on his boyhood farm), take the team by storm. Roy becomes a warrior, a hero, a shining white “knight“ who fearlessly leads his fellow Knights into a pennant race. Temptation, though, in the curvaceous form of Pop’s sultry niece, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), once again rears its ugly head, and when Roy takes the beautiful bait, he wanders off the primrose path and falls into a serious slump that puts the Knights’ miracle season in jeopardy. Yet just when Roy seems poised to really go off the rails, his teen sweetheart, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), resurfaces, but she might be too late to get Roy back on the right track.
Life is filled with pitfalls and detours, and The Natural does a better job than most films at examining their myriad causes and effects. Roy, like most heroes, is strong, noble, yet eminently fallible, and throughout his life forces beyond his control seek to taint and corrupt him. He soldiers on as best he can, but his own ego and hubris conspire against him, too, exacerbating his difficulties and making his strenuous journey more circuitous. It’s no wonder parallels have been drawn between The Natural and the legends of Homer’s Odysseus and the knights of King Arthur’s court. Tests and trials confront Roy at every turn and two tigresses seek to destroy him. But can the allure of a pair of femme fatales be thwarted by an angelic woman who toils to save him?
Malamud's story is much bigger than baseball, but thankfully Levinson’s film gives us plenty of magical moments on the hallowed diamond as well. The bulb-busting climax is a classic cinematic moment, and the reverence with which Levinson treats the sport oozes from the movie’s every frame. Nostalgia is something Levinson does very well (just look at Bugsy, Avalon, Tin Men, and, of course, Diner), and here he fashions an immersive atmosphere that enhances the power of the narrative and its themes.Though the screenplay is a tad talky and occasionally feels too preciously constructed, its literacy and lyricism complement the tale’s mythic aspects and lend The Natural a gravitas other baseball movies lack.
The cast is top-notch, too. Though at age 48 he’s more than a few years too old for the part (especially in the scenes where he plays an 18-year-old!), Redford perfectly embodies Roy Hobbs. The role fits him like a freshly oiled cowhide baseball glove, and his soft-spoken, almost monotonic acting style suits the stoic character. Far more colorful are the supporting actors who surround Redford and supply the film with its critical emotional core. Close received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her radiant portrayal (can anyone forget the moment when she rises in the stands bathed in a heavenly shaft of light like an angel?), and Basinger, Hershey, Prosky, and Brimley all make notable impressions as well. In other roles, Robert Duvall plays a hard-boiled sportswriter of questionable integrity, Richard Farnsworth tempers Brimley’s bluster as the manager’s even-keeled assistant, and Joe Don Baker portrays a Babe Ruth-like slugger called The Whammer with appropriate charm and swagger.
Flawed heroes are a dime a dozen in film and literature, but The Natural endures because the core values and moral dilemmas it explores are universal, and Levinson depicts them with simplicity and grace. Baseball adds glamor, grandeur, and a fervent sense of Americana that makes this nuanced story even more relatable and wondrously majestic. Though the drama of The Natural didn’t move me today the way it did in my own starry-eyed youth 35 years ago, its serious themes resonate more urgently. Truth, honor, and courage seem to be in short supply these days, and The Natural reminds us just how critical such qualities are - not just for icons, but for everyone.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Natural arrives on 4K Ultra HD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Both the film‘s theatrical cut and director’s cut (making its high definition debut here) are presented in 4K Ultra HD, while the included Blu-ray disc (theatrical cut only) is the exact same disc that was released in 2010. A leaflet containing the code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 and default audio is Dolby Atmos. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it. Note: The pictures used in this review are not screenshots from the UHD disc.
The Natural may not hit a home run on 4K Ultra HD, but most of it looks pretty stunning. Caleb Deschanel earned an Oscar nomination for his beautiful cinematography, and this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer wisely maintains the filmic appearance and nostalgic glow that are essential components of this lyrical movie. Grain is evident in the HDR presentation, but it's never overpowering, and though some scenes exude hints of softness, the enhanced clarity that’s a hallmark of the Ultra HD format is on display at all times. Colors, especially the verdant greens of rural landscapes and bright yellows of city taxis, are breathtakingly bold and lush. Flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout, patterns are vivid, and close-ups are lovely. Deep, inky black levels anchor the presentation, Glenn Close’s signature white outfit is crisp, and shadow delineation is excellent. The Natural doesn’t possess the same wow factor in UHD as more recent films - although the light-shattering climax is a sight to behold - but it’s a welcome addition to the 4K Ultra HD format and will certainly excite the movie’s legions of devoted fans.
Aside from a couple of expansive baseball scenes, The Natural is a quiet, intimate film filled with pregnant pauses, subdued dialogue, and even a relatively muted music score. It doesn’t really require a Dolby Atmos track, but Sony graciously includes one on the disc. Unfortunately, I couldn’t detect any designated Atmos effects. You’d think when Roy‘s home run shatters the bulbs illuminating the field and causes a shower of electrical debris, the Atmos track would kick into high gear, but the mix remains frustratingly anchored on the ground. Though surround elements are quite palpable, with distinct rear channel separation lending the audio a pleasing width, they are all too infrequent as well.
I also noticed some issues with the dialogue. Most of the time, it was well prioritized, but on a couple of occasions its prominence would recede for substantial stretches of time, then jump back to the forefront. I never had to adjust the volume and never had any trouble understanding what was said, but the balance seemed just a bit off. This anomaly could have been caused by a system glitch on my end, but I couldn’t detect any issues with my set-up. The end result was merely that a quiet film became that much more quiet for finite periods.
A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated music score without a hint of distortion, and sonic accents like the crack of the bat, thunder and lightning, and gunshots are potent and well defined. Subtle atmospherics also come through nicely and bass frequencies are appropriately weighty. Though this isn’t a particularly exciting track overall, it has its moments, and when it shines, it lends this 35-year-old movie a nice contemporary feel.
Because the 2010 Blu-ray disc is included along with the 4K Ultra HD disc, all the extras from that previous release remain intact. A couple of minor supplements are included on the UHD disc, the most notable of which is the introduction to the director’s cut (which makes its high-def debut here) by director Barry Levinson.
4K UHD Disc
Barry Levinson Intro to the Director’s Cut (HD, 2 minutes) - Levinson tries to sell the director’s cut - which runs a scant six minutes longer than the theatrical cut - as a complete “redoing” of the film’s prologue, but aside from a stark title sequence and the inclusion of one additional scene in which Roy retrieves his Wonderboy bat from his abandoned and dilapidated childhood home, the openings appear to be identical. The director’s cut might provide a tad more context, but it’s hardly worth all the hype.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 90 seconds)
Documentary: “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural” (HD, 50 minutes) - This well-made, three-part documentary examines the novel upon which the movie is based, the real-life people and events that influenced the story, the evolution of the project, casting, locations, filming, Levinson’s directing, the look of the movie, Randy Newman’s music score, the picture’s reception, the decision to change the ending, and its lasting impact. Redford, Levinson, Close, Prosky, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, composer Randy Newman, Malamud’s daughter Janna, broadcaster Bob Costas, and writer George Will all share perspectives, memories, and anecdotes.
Featurette: “Extra Innings” (HD, 7 minutes) - This collection of four mini featurettes explores the film’s use of slow motion, the evolution of the uniforms in the movie, the connection between The Natural and a memorable real-life game involving the Chicago Cubs star Ryne Sandberg, and a query by President Ronald Reagan about Barbara Hershey’s character in the film.
Featurette: “Clubhouse Conversations” (HD, 15 minutes) - Notable figures like political commentator George Will, sportscaster Bob Costas, and major league players Ryne Sandberg and Jason Giambi recall their attraction to and love of baseball in this reverential featurette.
Featurette: “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus” (HD, 17 minutes) - This absorbing featurette chronicles the life, career, and tragic incident that changed the life of major league ballplayer Eddie Waitkus, who was shot by an obsessed fan at the height of his career. The violent act eerily mirrors a key plot point in The Natural.
Featurette: “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural” (HD, 9 minutes) - The story’s connections to the legends of Odysseus and King Arthur, as well as the battle between good and evil, are explored in this interesting piece.
Documentary: “The Heart of The Natural” (SD, 44 minutes) - This quiet, thoughtful film allows Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. and director Barry Levinson the opportunity to expound on their love of baseball, the movie’s themes, the story’s characters, the influence of the media, the importance of role models, magical moments on the field, and other personal topics.
A mythical, moralistic, and often majestic tale, The Natural uses baseball to chronicle one man’s spiritual journey and salute his resilience in the face of tragedy and adversity. Though I found director Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel a bit plodding and self-conscious 35 years later, it remains a finely crafted, poetic, and emotionally affecting film that recognizes human frailty while celebrating honor and old-fashioned heroics. Sony’s 4K UHD presentation features both the theatrical and director’s cuts of the movie, strong HDR renderings of both, solid yet disappointing Atmos audio, and all the extras from the 2010 Blu-ray. If you’re a fan of The Natural, you’ll naturally want to upgrade. Recommended.