The year: 1935, the place: Chicago, and the United States is suffering through the worst of The Great Depression, something young Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) knows only too well. Her father (Ray Wise) is a union activist, fighting for workers' rights across the country, but that does not mean he finds it any easier to secure employment for himself, merely that he is able to complain with the loudest voices when the pay is paltry and the working conditions poor. So when he gets a job in Washington, he cannot really turn it down...
That's right, this was a pro-union movie from Disney at the height of the Reagan years - if Uncle Walt had found out he'd have turned in his grave! Unless the point was to say that unionists were bad parents, in which case it made an interesting case as Natty's father heads off a couple of thousand miles away without making sure she knew why he was going or indeed when she'd see him again. He doesn't get the chance, to be fair, as he has to be away on that bus pretty swiftly, but he leaves a letter behind telling her where his destination lies, which naturally she cannot resist taking off for herself.
So what you got was kind of like Disney's The Incredible Journey remade with a young girl instead of two dogs and a cat, although Natty does pick up a couple of companions along the way. Once it's been established that she's not going to be any better off staying in Chicago with a tyrannical landlady, off she goes, pausing briefly to leave the puppy she had been nurturing behind, our cue that this is not going to be any old wallow in schmaltz. After all, we do see Natty forced to scavenge for food (from bins!) and meet unsavoury characters as well as those who are happy to help her, so there was an edge here.
Indeed, plotwise writer Jeanne Rosenberg, whose pet project this was, looked to have read Stephen King and Peter Straub's horror novel The Talisman and decided to see if she could adapt it for the opposite gender, only without the fantasy setting - Natty travels cross country, narrowly avoids those who wish to take advantage of her, tackles an evil orphanage, and even gets a werewolf as a travelling companion. Well, maybe not a werewolf, but she does have an actual wolf which she saves from a staged fight and tames with scraps, earning a friend for life as they both do each other favours out there in the harsh environment they are experiencing.
Natty did meet John Cusack as well, or at least teenage boy he plays, who the Depression has landed in the hobo lifestyle, though he has less sense of purpose than the girl other than to maybe find a job someday and hope that he avoids starvation or fatal injury as he rides the trains illegally. In its way the film operated as a history lesson for those who were not clued in on the sober realities of the era, but luckily for those not wanting education so blatantly proffered there was enough in the field of adventure that would make settling down with this worthwhile. The notion of running away was not presented as the healthiest of options, even if you had somewhere in mind to go as Natty does, so director Jeremy Kagan walked a wise line between romanticising the tale of a girl and her wolf and showing it up to be fraught with peril. There was a nagging feeling that this was largely unexceptional, but it was a solid work with decent virtues. Music by James Horner.