Today I watched Wolfgang Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Bastian is a young boy struggling with the death of his mother. He copes with literature and grand fantasy which alienates him from his peers who bully him incessantly. While he is on his way to school one day, these bullies accost him and he runs, finding sanctuary in a strange old book store. There he meets a grumpy old bookseller named Mr. Coriander who is reading a strange book, when Bastian inquires he is told not to look at the book, so he steals it. Finally arriving at school, Bastian decides to skip today’s math test to read this mysterious tome in the school’s dusty and cluttered attic. This kicks off the story within a story in which the world of Fantasia is being destroyed by a mysterious force known as The Nothing. Emissaries from all around Fantasia have gathered at the Ivory Tower to beseech the Empress for a solution to this plight but as her world dies so does she. The Empress knows of a solution though, it lies with a warrior from the people who hunt the purple buffalo named Atreyu. but when Atreyu responds to the summons, it turns out he is just a boy, but he stands up for himself and accepts the quest. But for Atreyu to save his world he will need help from Bastian, because, you see, the world of fantasia and our normal world are more connected than either Bastian or Atreyu realize.
Movies for kids were way more brutal back in the Eighties, and this film is no exception. It’s fascinating visuals and impressive special effects build up a fantastic world which the film immediately relishes tearing down before you. That being said this film will be much more effective on a younger audience while I think first time adult viewers may have trouble connecting with it because of it’s very quick pace in the opening act. An infamous scene in the swamps of sadness for instance, did not really set up the connection between Atreyu and his horse Artax as well as could and the scene ends up being held up on the merits of Noah Hathaway’s performance which, frankly, is one of the best performances from a child actor ever.
On the other end of the spectrum of child actors is Barrett Oliver who plays Bastian, he is terrible. I often found myself wishing that the film was just pure fantasy and had no connection to a contemporary setting. Of course if this were the case the themes of fiction coming alive in the minds of the readers and the importance of imagination would be completely lost, so this framing device is a necessary evil. But still, while the finale and wrap up are all great, this part of the trip there is just such a drag, especially since it comes at the expense of learning more about the boundlessly creative world of fantasia.
Even with all that baggage, the film is still a marvelous experience because of just how wondrous it still is. The only thing about it to have truly aged is the soundtrack, which is pure silliness and Eighties cheese. It is a near perfect family film that has some interesting themes for adults and amazingly inventive visuals for the kids. It offers an intense adventure of self discovery filled with splendor and dread in equal measure. It is an utterly wonderful film with an incredible and unique look that has become legendary, absolutely worth the watch. 4/5