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A superb fantasy that never receives the credit it is due, Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story is that rare children's film that transcends its own fantasy to give its viewers an insight on the role of fantasy in our lives. A German production carefully designed to avoid a specific nationality or time period, the film begins as a "reading is good for you" lesson but soon ratchets up several levels in interest. Like the inquiring Sondheim play Into the Woods, The NeverEnding Story appears at first to be a generic folk story, before developing into an entertaining analysis of its own genre.
Saddened by the death of his mother, young Bastian (Barret Oliver) is harassed by three bullies. He hides in an old store, where the proprietor interests him in an ancient book with a strange symbol on the cover. Bastian eventually installs himself in the attic of his school to read it. The book is concerned with a land called Fantasia, populated by strange creatures and ruled by an unseen child-empress. But Fantasia is being slowly disintegrated by The Nothing, a shapeless energy storm. At the Ivory Tower, Cairon the major domo (Moses Gunn) announces that the Empress is dying and that only a warrior named Atreyu can save her, and Fantasia too. Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who proves to be an adolescent, strikes out on his horse Artax to go beyond the boundaries of Fantasia to save the day, although he doesn't know how this will come about.
Atreyu is helped and hindered by several creatures on his quest, such as a giant turtle and a married pair of old gnomes who watch over a mystical place called The Oracle. Atreyu loses Artax to a deadly swamp but finds a new friend in Falkor (voice Alan Oppenheimer), a flying, furry dragon dog who can transport him to those outer reaches of Fantasia presently menaced by The Nothing. But more to the point for the young reader Bastian, the story keeps referring to "a young boy" being the only one who can save Fantasia. The bookseller said that the story was very special, and Bastian slowly begins to realize that it seems to be about him, personally.
The NeverEnding Story begins in a rather generic place, with an insecure kid beset by rather unimpressive bullies; the film's ideal age bracket seems to be for tots between five and ten years. But the story then turns intriguingly dark, with the mission growing more hopeless. Atreyu's beloved horse is lost, and a host of other characters are said to be destroyed by The Nothing -- a racing snail, a gnome called the Night Hob (Tilo Prückner) and a little fellow called Teeny Weeny (Deep Roy). Only an enormous rock man called The Rockbiter (voice Alan Oppenheimer) seems to survive.
Fantasia has beautiful landscapes (augmented by great matte paintings by Jim Danforth, among others) that grow creepy as Atreyu reaches the limits of Fantasia. The eerie Oracle is guarded by twin statues that shoot death rays from their eyes, as demonstrated when a knight on horseback is killed. Lost on a far off beach, Atreyu realizes that his mission is a failure. As The Nothing closes in (it's represented by a giant dust storm that vacuums up Fantasia, rocks, earth and trees alike) Atreyu confronts G'mork (voice Alan Oppenheimer) a demonic wolf that loves chaos and cannot wait for The Nothing to wipe out this fantastic world.
The fight with G'mork brings the reader Bastian face to face with the story's riddle. Atreyu's mission was to go beyond the boundaries of Fantasia to contact a young boy. Bastian is that young boy, and his interest and concern is the only thing that can save the Empress and all the rest of Fantasia. Just as Atreyu sees episodes of his own adventure in old paintings on the walls of ruins, Bastian realizes that the magic book's fantasy is real and that he has a personal stake in it. When we identify with stories and and invest our imagination in them, our world becomes richer.
That's a great lesson, and The NeverEnding Story communicates it brilliantly to kids and adults in a couple of startling scenes. Atreyu is shown a mirror that will reflect "his true self" ... and sees in the reflection Bastian reading in the dark school attic. G'mork is just another inhabitant of Fantasia, but it identifies with evil and loves The Nothing's power to destroy. The beast declares that he's an agent of The Nothing and wants to hasten its victory because he likes the power it gives him. (spoiler) Fantasia is dying because the children that could keep its fantasy alive are not reading it: The Nothing is simply the absence of human interest. G'mork revels in the thought that people without fantasies or hope are easy to control by powerful forces like himself. As The Nothing closes in, Atreyu and G'mork prepare for combat.
The NeverEnding Story has a beautiful "look" that emulates simplified storybook illustrations. Landscapes, characters and monsters are cleanly designed and the special effects (by experts both German and imported) don't clog the screen with extra garbage, as do so many CGI-infested fantasies. The result is rather dreamlike. Some of the human creatures have a very Germanic feel, especially an ancient scientist-troll who watches over the Oracle. He looks like a senior citizen version of Nosferatu, minus vampiric tendencies.
The amusing monsters are animated principally with full-scale animatronics, as was the fashion in the years after E.T. - The Extraterrestrial. Falkor has an amiable puppy-dog face and The Rockbiter is a gigantic Golem made of granite. A good script, some fairly funny dialogue exchanges and excellent voices bring them to life. The Nothing is quite a disturbing concept for small kids. Some scenes of its typhoon-like destruction are filmed flat and allowed to stretch out, distorting further the whirlwind's power. The combination of dark conspiracy and existential destruction represented by The Nothing makes The NeverEnding Story seem a Kiss Me Deadly for children -- in an uncertain world, the threat of annihilation is always present.
At the conclusion Bastian 'meets' the Empress, who turns out to be an impossibly beautiful child (played by an 11 year-old Iranian dancer, Tami Stronach). She has an otherworldly voice, apparently dubbed by an adult. The force of imagination derived from reading has the power to regenerate Fantasia from a single grain of sand, leaving The NeverEnding Story and every young audience member in a state of exultation. 1
Warners' Blu-ray of The NeverEnding Story finally allows Jost Vacano's expressive cinematography and that of the film's effects experts to be properly presented on home video. The detail adds depth and richness to images that before seemed blurry and indistinct, and nails down the colors of glows. Falkor's shiny, fur-lined scales now gleam with detail. We can pick out the tiny, worm-like form of his body flying into wide shots of the storm clouds of The Nothing. Giorgio Moroder's score is one of the best of the early 1980's synth concoctions, and although the title tune is on the gloppy side my kids loved it. The soundtrack has been remixed in 5.1, allowing us to clearly hear Falkor's victorious shout "Gotcha!" above the roaring storm.
The disc comes plain wrap, without even a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray rates:
1. How dark is too dark, when it comes to entertainment for little kids? I saw The NeverEnding Story on a giant screen in Los Angeles when new, accompanied by my five year-old daughter. It was the perfect setup, as she was just advanced enough to understand everything that was happening and not be unduly frightened by G'mork, and the other scenes of jeopardy. I saw a couple of parents leaving with smaller children and wondered just how grim this show was going to get. But when the G'mork monster explained the rationale behind The Nothing a giant sigh of relief rose from the adults in the audience. Nowadays, unless your child is so sheltered that Disney's Big Bad Wolf induces nightmares (as mine were at age 3) it shouldn't be a problem. The NeverEnding Story is much more substantial than the kind of c___ that passes for "enchanting children's fantasy" these days.
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