Friday, November 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Today, we return to the blog's ongoing survey of the fantasy films of the 1980s. 

Last week, we remembered the visually-impressive and wholly entertaining Krull  (1983), a swashbuckling pastiche of every "heroic journey" story from Arthurian legend right-up through Star Wars (1977) and Tron (1982).   

Now, we turn our attention to 1984's quirky and heart-felt The NeverEnding Story (1984), a more child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will recognize immediately for his efforts in the genre like Enemy Mine (1985) and those outside it too, such as Das Boot (1981).

The NeverEnding Story also features stellar practical effects from Brian Johnson, the accomplished special effects director amd guru behind Space: 1999's (1975 -1977) miniatures and pyrotechnics, plus the effects of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986).  Many of the landscapes and creatures Johnson devised for this cinematic effort remain positively wondrous a quarter-century on. 

Both tonally and visually, The NeverEnding Story boasts a softer, more whimsical vibe than the film's appreciably darker and more adult contemporaries,  Krull or Legend for instance.  But the world  The NeverEnding Story so ably depicts is also refreshingly fanciful and indeed, a bit surreal; what Variety called a "flight of pure fancy."

I realize the movie won't be everybody's cup of tea, however.  It's not all orc battles, clashing armies and sword fights; and there's never any sense that this tale is part of some larger, realistic, otherworldly saga. 

Instead, as valuable description of the film's atmosphere, let me quote the Boston Globe's Michael Blowen.  He termed the movie "so wonderfully appropriate to children that it seems to have been made by kids.  But there is enough artistic merit in the tale to enchant adults equally."

Looking back today, it's clear that The NeverEnding Story succeeds most powerfully indeed as this "dual track"-styled fantasy that Blowen hints at.  On one hand, this is a  genre film starring children and intended for children; alive with adventure, whimsy and excitement.  On another level all together, however, adults can enjoy the film because it cleverly references (albeit symbolically), the vicissitudes of adult life. 
When young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) faces several dangerous tasks in the film, it is not just adventure or ordinary fairy tale creatures he countenances, but existential dilemmas about self, about the human psychology.

In the beginning, it is always dark....

A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.
The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced.  Critical reviews were mixed. 

In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother.  His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.

One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others.  It is called "The NeverEnding Story."   Koreander claims that it is not a safe book.  He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.

Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time. 

A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest.  The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing."  Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing."  But it will not be easy.

Early on, Atreyu loses his beloved white steed, Artex, in the "Swamp of Sadness," attempting to contact "The Ancient One" -- a giant old turtle "allergic" to young people. 

There, Atreyu begs the apathetic old creature -- who lives by the motto "we don't even care whether or not we care" -- for help.  The Old One finally informs the boy warrior that he must travel ten thousand miles to the South Oracle if he hopes to get his answer about the Empress.

Fortunately, a luck dragon named Falcor rescues Atreyu from sinking further into the Swamp of Sadness, and transports him to the Southern Oracle.  There, with the help of two kindly elves, Engywook and Urgl, Atreyu faces two critical tests. 

First, he must walk through a gate in which is self-worth is judged.  If his self-worth is found lacking, two giant statues will destroy him with eye-mounted particle beam weapons.

The second test at the Southern Gates is the "magical mirror test."  There, Atreyu must gaze into a mirror and countenance his true self.  Here, brave men learn that they are cowards inside.  And kind men learn that they have been cruel.

Surviving both tests, Atreyu learns that he must next pass beyond the "boundaries" of Fantasia to save his world and his queen.  This is something of a trick answer, however, as he learns from his feral nemesis, Gmork. 

As Gmork confides in the warrior about Fantasia: "It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries."

In the end, worlds collide. Atreyu needs the help (and the belief) of Bastian in his world; and Bastian must be the one to save the Empress, even though at first he can't quite make himself believe that he can help.  As the Empress notes, Bastian "simply can't imagine that one little boy could be that important."

But, of course, he is...

We don't know how much longer we can withstand the nothing.
A beacon of hope in Fantasia, The "Ivory Tower."
In the synopsis above, one can easily detect how the dangerous, fanciful quests in Atreyu's Fantasia (Fantastica in the Ende book...) translate into relevant messages about human life here on Earth, and in particular, the challenges of adulthood.

"The Swamp of Sadness," for instance, is a place that -- if you stop to dwell -- you sink further and further.  In other words, this specific trap is a metaphor for self-pity.  If you stop to focus on how sad you are, how depressed you feel, you just keep sinking.  And the further you sink, the harder it is to escape; to pull yourself up.  Sadness creates more sadness.

And the Ancient Guardian?  He represents apathy and old age; wherein acceptance of "how things are" has overcome the desperate need of  hungry youth to change (even save...) the world.  Appropriate then that this guardian should be visualized as a turtle...since he can just hide from everything in his over sized shell, never to face reality.  As the movie notes, "There's no fool like an old fool!"

The Southern Gate's first test, of "self worth," also relates to us, right here, everyday.  If we don't believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish under our own steam, how can we make others believe in us or our abilities?  Feelings of strong self-esteem and self-worth must by need precede all quests of "self actualization," right? If you don't believe you can do something in the first place, why try?

The second Oracle test -- also encountered before victory -- involves facing yourself.  There are all sorts of "monsters" and crises to fear in our everyday lives, but none of those beasts is worse or more terrifying than self-reflection;  how we sometimes view and judge ourselves

The magical mirror test asks us to solemnly reflect on who we are; on who we have become.  Are we the good people we could be?  Or are we hypocrites hiding behind platitudes about being good? When we look in the mirror, which face do we see?

Even the movie's nebulous but effective central threat is contextualized as a danger to the psychology; a danger to self.  What's at stake if you have low self-esteem, if you sink into depression, and you don't see yourself truthfully in that mirror of conscience? 

Well, the creeping Nothing around you -- and inside you -- just grows and grows.  "It's the emptiness that's left," Gmork says, describing the "Nothing."   "It's like a despair, destroying this world...Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger."

So, meet 1984's The NeverEnding Story: the self-help book of fantasy cinema, in which every challenge Atreyu faces alludes to the book's reader, Bastian, and his unique set of challenges.  Not to mention our challenges too.

Should he wallow in self-pity in despair, with the end result that the quicksand will consume him?  Should he hate himself because he is sad, and not pulling himself up by his bootstraps as his Dad desires?

If Bastian succumbs to these visions of himself (and does not see his own self worth), the Nothing consumes him...just as it consumes Fantasia.  The answer, of course, is to believe in himself, and this message is not as heavy handed as it might have been, in part because of the delightful fantasy trappings. 

It's amusing and also rather charming to see our grown-up fears (of depression) and foibles (like low self-esteem) made manifest into the physical genre trappings of the heroic quest; dangers to be avoided and beaten down.  Depression as a swamp. Apathy as a turtle inside his shell. Self-worth as a hurdle that must be crossed, etc.

Another highly commendable aspect of The NeverEnding Story is how it views imagination and education

Of course, the act of reading (and of imagining the adventures of literary figures) is championed here as a way of dealing with unpleasantness in real life; unpleasantness like death, and like bullying.  Reading is the catalyst of everything important in the film: the introduction to adventure and the key to saving the world.  As Julie Salomon wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1984, The NeverEnding Story "brings back the early excitement of reading as a child, when the act of turning pages took on a magical quality."

But more than that, I appreciate how The NeverEnding Story turns the idea of "the Ivory Tower" on its ear.  In metaphor, the Ivory Tower has become synonymous with something negative.  The phrase Ivory Tower widely "refers to a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life."

Today, people decry Ivory Tower residents as "elitists" or as being somehow bad, even evil.  Instead, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are raised up as virtues, instead.   Don't read the newspaper?  Great!  Don't know geography?  Terrific. Who's the leader of Pakistan?  Don't know?  Outstanding. 

Well, as The NeverEnding Story makes plain, nothing bad EVER originates from the Ivory Tower.  Self-enrichment and education are universal any reality.  There is no down side to being smart; to  gathering knowledge; to being a resident of this "Ivory Tower."

Ask yourself, what do others gain by keeping another person away from learning, away from the proverbial Ivory Tower? By keeping others ignorant?  That's the danger of anti-intellectualism right there; that someone will "bully" another being into being something less than what he or she could be.  

Gmork makes the case aptly:  "People who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power."

When you tie together The NeverEnding Story's multiple strands of education (and learning to read, to experience literary worlds), imagination (putting yourself into the literary fantasy...)  and self-worth to the movie's paradise -- "The Ivory Tower," --  you get the point plainly.  

It's a message perfectly suited for adults and kids: don't for a minute believe that one person can't be important.

The question, for viewers, of course, is simply: are you interested in a fantasy film created in this vein, a fantasy film in which the advice "never give up, and good luck will find you," is championed at the expense of more mature, nuanced themes.  

I can easily imagine that, before having a son, I might have felt that this message was somehow cheesy or over-the-top.   But being the parent of a four-year old, I find myself appreciating The NeverEnding Story more than ever before.  The movie is fun and inventive, and it has a light touch with this material. I find it audacious and courageous that a fantasy movie should take the form of, literally, the aforementioned "self-help book."  

Now, I don't know that I would want other fantasies to emulate this mold; but in this case, the unusual symbolism successfully differentiates The NeverEnding Story from its many brethren of the early 1980s.  The result is that the movie is distinctive...and memorable.

Of course, not everyone agreed.  Critic Vincent Canby wrote, of the movie's approach: "When the movie is not sounding like ''The Pre-Teen- Ager's Guide to Existentialism,'' it's simply a series of resolutely unexciting encounters between Atreyu and the creatures that alternately help and hinder his mission."

Perhaps that's true, but what about when the movie does sound like a Pre-Teen Ager's Guide to Existentialism?  For me, that's where this movie's worth ultimately resides; in the idea of real life foibles and crises made manifest in fantasy terrain.  I don't think the movie's great strength --  the brawny central conceit -- should be discounted quite so readily.

Having a luck dragon with you is the only way to go on a quest...

Falcor, the Luck Dragon...looks suspiciously like a puppy.

The other factor that distinguishes The NeverEnding Story today is the film's pre-CGI visualization of Fantasia. 

In fact, this movie, -- much like The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is a wonderful testament to the things practical effects can achieve given an adequate budget and a sense of unrestrained imagination.  Here, an entire world is built from the ground up; and it's a world of leviathan Rock Biters, racing snails, Sadness Swamps, weird "elf-tech," and much more. 

Using prosthetics, gorgeous sets, miniatures, and mattes -- and no digital backgrounds or monsters whatsoever -- the makers of this film support the storyline with their droll, highly-detailed creations.  Some of these creations are really, really weird, mind you. 

For instance, the Rock Biter is an amazing, idiosyncratic and wholly individual thing. He's crazy-looking, and yet he's got real personality and character.  I can't say he looks "real"; more like something you'd imagine from Alice in Wonderland.  And yet he has weight and presence, and when he is sad, you feel his pain.  In the movie, the Rock Biter contemplates giving himself to the Nothing, essentially committing suicide, and the pathos is authentic.  A bad special effect could not have accomplished that feeling.

Today, some of the flying effects don't hold up; certainly that is true.  The ending of the movie also feels sudden, and a little too convenient.

Also, I can't honestly say there's a scene here of as much emotional maturity as what we got during the "Widow of the Web" interlude in Krull

But nonetheless, The NeverEnding Story still has...something.  It may not be what we desire of a fantasy as "serious"  grown-ups, but trenchantly it does recall such youthful stories as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

I agree with him that The NeverEnding Story remains sweet and charming.  And the film's sense of sophistication arises from the central conceit of turning human emotions -- depression, self-hatred, apathy -- into the trials of a heroic, fantasy quest.  

But I know what he means.  

There's the sense after watching the film that, somehow, The NeverEnding Story isn't merely child-like, it's actually childish. 

I'll leave it up to each individual viewer to decide if that's the film's ultimate weakness, or true strength.


  1. Anonymous7:45 PM

    I love this film! How can you not get choked up when Artex sinks into the Swamp of Sadness? Gets me everytime.
    Great post!
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  2. Trick or Treat Pete:

    Thank you for the wonderful comment! I totally agree with you about the demise of Artex. Grown-up or a kid -- losing you pet horse to the "Swamp of Sadness" is guaranteed kleenex territory!

    All my best,

  3. I'm surprised there haven't been more comments for this post. This film opened my eyes to the possibilities of the fantasy genre. As you noted in your post, the championing of imagination is what I most took out of this film as a child. For me, this film not only stands as a landmark of creative development for me personally, but also as a constant reference to memories from my childhood.

    Thanks once again for the great trip down memory lane.

  4. Hello, Henry,

    Thank you for adding your welcome thoughts to this post about "The NeverEnding Story."

    You just never know which reviews will strike a chord with many readers, and which won't, I guess.

    But I'm 100% on board with your perspective: "the championing of imagination" is the clear and positive takeaway from this beautifully-made fantasy film.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review. And I appreciated your comment very much.


  5. Anonymous10:29 PM

    I think the film is perfect and has no weaknesses. I honestly can't say that about many films. So what if certain special FX haven't aged well, neither have the Indiana Jones films, which have some hideous blue screening in them - worse than this! 'The Neveredning Story' hoewever, is a classic, up there with 'The Wizard Of Oz'. It's wonderful hand drawn matte paintings and sets are so awe inspiring it's difficult to top them. And the one thing it does have {that most modern kid's films lack} is heart, and even more importantly it has a story, something sorely lacking in today's 'sophisticated' movies. A lot of today's I have spoken to love the movie and think it stands out among the rest. Just my two cents.

  6. Anonymous8:49 PM

    Nice review of my favorite movie as a kid.

    This caught my eye though:

    Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

    Well, I dunno about you John but I've seen enough self-congratulatory, celebrity voiced disney/pixar/whatever numbers that seem to mistake lazy pop culture reference dropping every two seconds as witty & significant, thanks.

    This rather facile observation comes in the wake of Shrek & a million other hip, ironic, totally self aware kids flicks & that's certainly a different flavor of film but it sure doesnt qualify as superior; 'Sophisticated' to us jaded moderns auidences, maybe.

    Unfortunately what our new crop of kid flicks have in hip coolness & MTV cutting they totally lack in a geniune sense of wonder, which is where the 'Never Ending Story' totally bests the smug crap of now. I find them utterly cynical

    End of rant

  7. Anonymous8:52 PM

    *And if there's one thing that kills a kid's film, its cynicism of any stripe.

  8. Anonymous: I agree with you about cynicism and the so-called "sophistication" of today's childrens films. I can do without it; they are all begin to look and sound exactly alike.

    Meanwhile, The Never Ending Story remains magical!



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