Eighties high fantasy cinema wasn't just boobs and barbarians and mommy-issues. There were a number of films produced specifically with a young audience in mind, films like Legend, The Dark Crystal, and The Princess Bride. And why not? The success of Conan the Barbarian translated into the action-figure-shilling animated powerhouse He-Man, so clearly kids were digging on the swords and dragons stuff. Why not move into high fantasy cinema?
The high fantasy kids' movies have a lot in common - most were box-office flops that became cult classics and the colossi of a collective youth with the spread of VCR technology in the mid-'80s. How many of these films did you watch at parties and sleep-overs? How many did you own? How many do you own today? How many can you still quote?
Of all the youth-oriented high fantasy films of the '80s, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The Princess Bride ("never get involved in a land war in Asia!"). Labyrinth ("You have no power over me!") And, of course, The Neverending Story. I'll bet you can still hum the theme song, maybe even sing a few lines of it - "the neverending stoooooreeeee," that synth-heavy, reassuringly wholesome power ballad with its up-inflected lyrics and melodic waterfall of "ah ah ah"s. Was Artax the horse's muddy demise in the Swamps of Sadness your first real and meaningful movie death? Were you horrified by the wolfy-monster-thinger's unalloyed villainy; grossed out by the giant turtle's sneezes; charmed by the dog-like luck dragon and his itchy ears?
Frankly, as a kid growing up in the heyday of '80s high fantasy movies, The Neverending Story was at the top of my list.
Which is not to say it's a perfect movie, not by any means. For all the brilliant visuals and thoughtful commentary on the way we internalize and interact with what we read, there's still plenty of mediocre child-actor dramatics, lousy editing (film and script), and heavy-handed moralizing. Watching as a child, this stuff didn't bother me. As an adult, however, The Neverending Story is a little more troubling. Bastian isn't just that staple of kids' movies, an outcast and a weirdo; he's a bullied victim, a worryingly depressed kid with an uncommunicative father and some seriously legitimate concerns about his place in the world. He's able to find some closure and make peace with his mother's death through (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) the Books & Childlike Wonder & The Infinite Pleasure Of The Imagination; he (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) gets back at the bullies with his pet dragon (and that '80s movie staple, the "yeah!"/fist-pump) and the movie ends with the audience reassured that (KID'S MOVIE ALERT) everything's going to be okay from now on.
Right. The plot. Bastian is a lonely kid. His mother's dead, his father doesn't know how to relate to him, and he gets picked on by a bunch of elementary school heavies in backwards baseball caps. While hiding from his tormentors one morning, Bastian stumbles into a dusty old bookshop. The (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) curmudgeonly bookstore owner gives Bastian a hard time about how he probably doesn't even know what a book is, the pint-sized philistine, prompting our hero to note that he owns more than a hundred. The bookstore owner grumps a bit more, suggests that Bastian only reads "safe" books, indicates that the book he's reading is "unsafe" and then wanders off to answer a call. Bastian absconds with the book, causing the bookstore owner to (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) break into a smile. You see, he actually wanted Bastian to take the book! Heavens above.
Bastian gets to school late and decides to play hookey. He breaks into the school's attic (honestly, the coolest school attic in all of cinema) and settles in for a nice long read. The book, The Neverending Story, is about a wonderful magical land, Fantasia, being consumed by some horrible, apparently unstoppable force, the Nothing. Creatures from all corners of Fantasia are gathering at (mixed message alert!) the Ivory Tower of the Childlike Empress in the hope that she might somehow save them, but she is herself seriously ill. Her ambassador calls forth a young warrior named Atreyu and sends him off to save the world. Unfortunately, Atreyu can't bring weapons, ask anyone for help, or bring anyone along. So Atreyu on his horse heads off to find Morla the ancient one and ask for help. At least he leaves his bow and arrows behind, I guess.
Morla turns out to be an enormous, cranky, allergy-prone turtle who hangs out in the Swamp of Sadness - a mirey, snag-ridden place that immediately depresses all comers. But anyone who gives in to despair drowns in mud. You know this part - after endless trudging through hip-deep sludge, Atreyu's horse gives up and dies. It was a spectacularly traumatic scene when I was six, and it's still pretty affecting as an adult. It's also a surprisingly deft and poignant commentary on Bastian's own struggles with depression. And, while heavy-handed, not off-puttingly so. Anyway, Atreyu manages to get Morla to provide some advice but nearly gives in to the silty death-mud himself upon learning that his goal is ten thousand miles away. He is, at the very last minute, saved by a gigantic white dragon called Falkor.
It's worth mentioning that Atreyu is, in turn, being hunted by an enormous vulpine monster, Gmork, who basically freelances for the Nothing because he a) likes being scary and b) digs chaos. Also, Gmork obviously hasn't read the fine print on his contract - if the Nothing, which is the physical manifestation of (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) lack of imagination, succeeds in wiping out Fantasia, then Gmork'll pop out of existence too. But, better dead then red, eh? ....Or something.
Falkor deposits Atreyu a hundred miles away from his goal, the Southern Oracle. (Why bring Atreyu 9,900 miles but not the entire 10,000?) A couple of gnomes tend to Atreyu's wounds and exposit a bit. Turns out, (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) only he who does not doubt himself can pass through the gate, enormous sphinxes with laser eye-beams(!), and proceed to the Southern Oracle. Atreyu apparently doesn't take this advice to heart and (mixed message alert!)
gets eye-beamed at, but runs fast enough that he misses being immolated. He then walks (a hundred miles?) through howling winds and snow to a second gate, which turns out to be (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) a magic mirror that reflects Bastian. Back in his attic hideaway, Bastian flips out and tosses the book aside all "there is no way I can actually be a part of this thing that I am reading!" but ultimately can't contain his curiosity and gets back at it.
Atreyu walks through the mirror (GEDDIT? HE'S AN AVATAR FOR BASTIAN!) and talks to the Oracle. The Oracle explains that the Nothing can only be defeated if the Childlike Empress is given a new name by a human child. (Bad editing alert: Bastian is hereon referred to interchangeably as "a human" and "an earthling." These are not actually synonyms.) Bastian muses to himself that his mother had a beautiful name, and returns to his book. Meanwhile, Atreyu is understandably a little upset that now, in addition to everything else, he has to bend the fabric of reality to save Fantasia. He then stumbles across Gmork who (KIDS' MOVIE ALERT) Explains Everything:
Atreyu: I can't get beyond the boundaries of Fantasia!
G'mork: Fantasia has no boundaries.
Atreyu: That's not true! You're lying.
G'mork: Foolish boy. Don't you know anything 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.
Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?
G'mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.
Atreyu: What is the Nothing?
G'mork: It's the emptiness that's left. It's like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.
Atreyu: But why?
G'mork: Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power!
You see? This is all a parable about how modern life will rot your brain, or kids these days with their video games and their teevees and their forgetting how to make stuff up! Where is the childlike wonder? (A message somewhat lessened by the method of its delivery, a movie-adaptation of a book, but whatever.)
Atreyu kills Gmork with a weapon (at least it's one he found, rather than one he brought along) and Falkor swoops in to rescue him as the Nothing closes in around them. They woosh off to the palace of the Childlike Empress but don't make it in time, and the palace winds up being the only part of Fantasia left standing. Atreyu admits he failed. The Empress explains that, actually, he succeeded - the human child has been there all along! The Nothing begins to break apart the palace, the Empress begs for her name, and Bastian finally, finally figures out that, yes, by reading the story he's become as important a part of it as any other character and shouts his mother's name out the window: Moonchild.
A brief aside: yes, "Moonchild." Wikipedia, IMDB, and the actor who played Atreyu all agree it was Moonchild. Moonchild.
Boom. Bastian is transported to the (now destroyed) Ivory Tower where he and the Empress talk about how to rebuild Fantasia... by wishing! And hoping! And dreaming! Bastian wishes and hopes and dreams and makes Fantasia better than ever (ideally he nixes the Swamp of Sadness) and gets to woosh around on Falkor and live happily ever after! The triumphant end!
Including themes that are resonant and meaningful to kids is, naturally, necessary to making a good kids' film. It's in this respect that The Neverending Story falls apart. The histrionic message that "the Nothing is the death of imagination!" would go entirely over the heads of younger audience members, but comes across as sclerotic moralizing for the rest of us. And if there's one thing no one wants out of a high fantasy movie, (or any other kind of movie, really), it's sclerotic moralizing.
That aside, however, there's a lot to recommend The Neverending Story. The movie was primarily filmed in Germany, and the visuals are stunning. Additionally, the special effects are really excellent, and the monsters are lovingly-rendered puppets. The opening sequence (the creepy weather patterns) is drop-dead gorgeous. And, love it or leave it, there's that earworm of a theme song. Most importantly, the movie really does try something interesting and ambitious by interrogating the nature of the book, and the power of the imagination.
Monsters: One luck dragon, one wolfy thinger, one cranky turtle, two gnomes, two laser eye-beam sphinxes, one rock-biter, one snail-riding dude in a tophat and his snail, one bat-riding elf-thing, and various monstrous rabble.
Mullets: No mullets, but Bastian has a brilliant bowl cut.
(New Category!) Murdering my Childhood by Inches: The Neverending Story is, of course, being remade.
Doesn't Anyone Think This Shit Though? There's a certain curmudgeonly "kids these days!" snippiness to the movie's preoccupation with the idea that people are too distracted by movies and television shows and video games to read books and make stuff up. This is an exhausted, and exhausting theme; people have been rather flintily harping on it for generations, but I have yet to see any evidence anywhere of this diminunition of imagination. Also, if we accept the idea that the medium is, at least in part, the message, a moral about how kids don't read enough anymore sits kind of awkwardly in a big-budget movie.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: There's only one female character in the entire movie (dead mother aside) and she... doesn't do anything.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: Although an improvement on many of the other M&M features we've reviewed so far, The Neverending Story is still weak in terms of themes and ideas. And editing. Also, acting. My major issue with it, however, is that it never really rises beyond being a kid's movie - a kid's movie by a bunch of cranky adults, waving their canes and demanding we get off their lawns and go read a book, begorrah. I hereby place it above Hawk the Slayer and below Willow.