Film review – The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story: Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer)
Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer)

A year after the digitally remastered ‘print’ of Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) was re-released in Australia, comes the digital re-release of another beloved children’s fantasy film from the 1980s: Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story (1984). It is a film that contains a significant nostalgia for Generation X who grew up imagining they were riding Falkor the luckdragon in between being traumatised by Artax dying in the Swamps of Sadness and having to endure the kids in the grade above them doing jazz ballet routines at assembly to the film’s theme song. As was the case with Labyrinth, not only does The NeverEnding Story hold up magnificently well, but it demonstrates a level of thematic and technical sophistication that elevates it above most films targeted at younger audiences that have come out since.

Loosely adapted from the first half of the 1979 novel Die unendliche Geschichte: Von A bis Z, by the German author Michael Ende, who came from Bavaria where the fantasy sequences of the film were shot, The NeverEnding Story presents the case for the importance and power of imagination. Like Labyrinth it celebrates classic fantasy and science-fiction literature, naming the works of key authors such as JRR Tolkien, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Also similarly to Labyrinth, the protagonist of The NeverEnding Story, Bastian Bux (Barret Oliver), is an adolescent who prefers the world of fantasy to the real world. However, while Sarah in Labyrinth must learn to find balance between the real world of responsibility and the comforts of the fantasy world, The NeverEnding Story firmly presents the real world as one that Bastian legitimately would want to escape from. While Labyrinth is a coming-of-age story about an older child navigating the path between maturity and innocence, The NeverEnding Story is a far more straightforward tale about the joys of childhood wonderment triumphing over apathy.

The introductory scenes to The NeverEnding Story very efficiently introduce the real world as one of injustice, sorrow and loneliness for Bastian. He is bullied on the way to school, does not seem to have any friends and is emotionally distant from his father (Gerald McRaney) who struggles to understand that Bastian’s retreat into the world of make-believe is partly a way of coping with the death of his mother. Bastian is shown struggling to open a jar, establishing his lack of physical strength to reinforce how vulnerable he is. Even for children who have not been through the same level of trauma, Bastian is an endearing character who is very easy to identify with.

Bastian is an unusual protagonist, as the audience does not identify with him as the conventional hero of the film, but as a kindred spirit discovering the same story that the audience is. Similar to The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987), the fantasy story is presented through the narrative device of it existing within a book in the film. (As a curious footnote, The NeverEnding Story has a line about young people preferring video arcades and The Princess Bride opens with the disinterested grandson playing a computer game, demonstrating how in the 1980s computer games were blamed for youth disengagement in a way that social media is today.) The key difference between the stories in the two films is that while the story of The Princes Bride is kept at an almost ironic arms length, the story of The NeverEnding Story spills into the real world.

Hiding in the dark school attic, which is filled with mysterious objects such as old theatrical costumes and science laboratory skeletons, Bastian occupies a transient space between the world of the book and the world he comes from. The gateway is the book itself, although the attic production design effectively suggests the scares and delights Bastian experiences as a reader. The film very effectively edits between the adventure story in the book and back to Bastian in the attic, to constantly remind the audience of his presence as the reader and to slowly introduce the idea that he can influence what he is reading. In a more practical sense, the cuts back to Bastian also allow the film to make large leaps in time and space in its depiction of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) as he travels across the world of Fantasia to find a cure for the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach).

The device of Bastian being able to influence the world of Fantasia and ultimately save it is integral to the key themes of the film. The Empress is sick due to the arrival of a force called The Nothing, which as it grows snuffs out all it comes into contact with, as if those things never existed. Over the course of the film Bastian and Atreyu learn that Fantasia is the world of human dreams and hopes, and as humans on a whole have stopped being imaginative, Fantasia is now under threat unless Bastian’s imagination is powerful enough for him to act in time.

In an astonishing breaking of the fourth wall moment, the film goes one step further to directly appeal to the cinema audience. After the Empress tells Atreyu that Bastian has been with him all along, she then speaks directly to Bastian through the pages of the book. And then she looks directly into the camera – so appearing to look out into the audience – and tells Bastian that like Atreyu he has never been alone as the cinema audience have been with him the whole time. It is a remarkable moment where the audience are directly informed that the story only exists because they are experiencing it, and stories such as this can only survive by us engaging with them.

The appeal for a childlike view of the world in place of cynicism and cold rationalism, certainly juxtaposes against the free market materialism of the 1980s, where anything without an obvious economic value was increasingly seen to be worthless. The aftershocks of the 1980s political climate and corporate culture born out of Reaganomics still resonate thirty years on, making the appeal for finding shared humanity through art, literature and cinema just as relevant now. One thing that is especially alarming about The NeverEnding Story in a contemporary context is how the dramatic scenes of The Nothing devouring Fantasia evoke images of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate changes. This creates a new context for the film’s heartfelt message about embracing new ideas and creativity rather than continuing on with business as usual.

The power of imagination message could have potentially been somewhat saccharine if it were not for the emotional complexity within the film. Atreyu is not just Bastian’s idealised self, but his alter ego whose adventures reflect the process Bastian undertakes to heal after loosing his mother. Early in the film Bastian’s father tells him to stop daydreaming and start facing his problems, which proves to be terrible advice since it is Bastian’s ‘daydreams’ through reading the book that allow him to heal. In this sense The Nothing also represents the emotional void left by the death of a loved one and by renaming the Empress – a maternal figure who benevolently rules Fantasia – with his mother’s name, the void is filled with new ideas and rebirth. Through Atreyu Bastian constantly encounters death, including the infamously upsetting death of Artax scene, while constantly being pursued by G’mork (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), Bastian/Atreyu’s shadow who serves The Nothing. And the trials faced by Atreyu are ones that Bastian also must face, including having his self-worth tested (and almost failing) and being confronted by his true self, Dorien Gray style.

The magic of Fantasia would not have been communicated to the audience if it were not for the gorgeous production design, cinematography and optical effects used to create the fantasy world and its wondrous inhabitants. Watching The NeverEnding Story again in the age of digital effects draws attention to how far special effects have come in the last few decades. Compared to the photorealism of contemporary CGI special effects, the techniques used in The NeverEnding Story seem closer in spirit to the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès than even films made a decade after The NeverEnding Story was originally released. However, as Martin Scorsese demonstrated in Hugo (2011), those early effects possess a remarkable tangible visual pleasure that deliver a type of cinematic spectacle that digital technologies are yet to truly capture. So while the animatronics and puppetry used to bring Falkor (also voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) to life are clearly dated and even a little clunky, there is enough detail and movement in the luckdragon’s face to convey an enormous amount of humanity and character. Similarly, the combination of puppetry, dialogue and voice acting (Oppenheimer again) is all that is needed to make the Rock Biter’s ‘big, good, strong hands’ speech completely heartbreaking.

The NeverEnding Story remains a testament to the power of imagination and the type of inventive cinema that was possible in a pre-digital era. Dark, frightening and often upsetting, it treated children with respect and in return delivered an ultimately uplifting conclusion where everything works out alright, even if the weakest aspect of the film is the very final scene that more naively than maliciously indulges a childish revenge fantasy. It is a minor quibble for a glorious film that may on the surface seem like an episodic series of set pieces, but is in fact a rich and detailed exploration of a child’s mind as they travel from grief to renewed hope. And like Fantasia itself, such a film can only exist if there is an audience to see it and believe in it, making its remastered re-release one of the most welcome cinematic treats of 2013.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013