Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Written by: Wolfgang Petersen & Herman Weigel
(based on the novel THE NEVERENDING STORY by Michael Ende)
Starring: Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Patricia Hayes, Sydney Bromley, Gerald McRaney, Moses Gunn, Alan Oppenheimer & Thomas Hill
The 1980’s was a great decade for children’s entertainment. Though I am a 90’s kid, I grew up on a steady diet of 80’s kid’s films. These movies featured practical effects, took risks that strayed from conventional family-friendly fare, and featured nightmare fuel for the youngest viewers. Though I have fond memories of THE BLACK CAULDRON and THE DARK CRYSTAL, there are a handful of notable 80’s films that I still haven’t seen to this day. THE NEVERENDING STORY was one of those films. Having just watched for the first time (in a movie theater, no less), I was taken on a wonderful fantasy-adventure ride that plays remarkably well over 30 years after its original release. THE NEVERENDING STORY is special effects loaded spectacle with heart.
Bastian Bathazar Bux (Barret Oliver) is a preteen going through a rough patch in life. He’s still getting over his mother’s death, is currently flunking his math class, and finds himself the constant target of bullies. One day, whilst hiding from a trio of punks, Bastian takes refuge in a mysterious book store. Here, he encounters the strange store owner and a cryptic book that he’s warned against reading. Defying authority and playing by his own rules, Bastian takes the leather-bound tome and begins reading it in the spooky school attic. In this “Neverending Story,” Bastian reads about heroic Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a childlike empress (Tami Stronach), a myriad of magical creatures and an all-consuming threat called “The Nothing.” Soon enough, Bastian finds himself connected to the book in ways that he never expected.
While Bastian reading “The Neverending Story” plays out in subtle atmospheric ways, nearly every scene of the magical kingdom of Fantasia and Atreyu’s adventure has some sort of special effect (or combination of effects) on the screen. For a film that was made ahead of widespread computer imagery, NEVERENDING STORY pulled off a number of impressive feats that still look amazing today. The film was one of the first big productions to use blue screen technology. There were massive puppets constructed and these could only be animated one piece at a time. Extensive make-up work was done on the humans that did show up. An elaborate set was built inside of a tent with seemingly miles of mud added to give the effect of a swamp environment. Every single one of these details helps sell the illusion of this magical world.
There are only a handful of non-puppet performers, which means that many creatures and monsters make their way into the fast-paced 93-minute story. My favorite of these is easily Falkor, a dog-like luck dragon. There’s a reason that Falkor was prominently featured in the film’s marketing and remains an instantly recognizable image, he’s adorable (I seriously want to pet him), easy-going and instantly lovable. While he only appears for a few brief minutes of screen time, the aptly named Rock Biter makes a memorable impression and delivers one of the film’s more tragic scenes. A giant turtle, Morla, also looks great, while the fearsome wolf-like Gmork supplies a few suspenseful moments.
Like many other 80’s kid’s films, THE NEVERENDING STORY seems more willing to take risks and goes into darker territory than most modern children’s entertainment. There’s a tragic scene early on in which our storybook hero encounters a devastating loss and the plot progressively becomes darker as it goes along. Even with its undeniably sad moments and many scary threats that Atreyu encounters, NEVERENDING STORY never loses its sense of wonder and beauty. The fairy tale atmosphere is strong in this film, complete with the grim details that have been Disneyfied out of most current kid’s movies.
Speaking of which, novelist Michael Ende fought to shut down this film’s production, because he felt that it strayed too far from his source material. He accused the filmmaking team of trying to make “a Disney film,” which they admitted was their basic intention. Ende’s outrage was mainly caused by one scene in particular (that was not in the original book): the ending. While I love the moral behind THE NEVERENDING STORY, its final minutes feel a tad rushed and a bit corny. They’re cheesy and enduring in a sort of “wacky 80’s kid’s movie” way, but they noticeably shift away from the mature, magical tone of everything that came before those final two minutes.
In spite of its title, THE NEVERENDING STORY eventually had to come to an end, so it makes sense that the fault would intrinsically come in that conclusion. Though I had watched Jim Henson dark-fantasies as a kid (e.g. LABYRINTH and THE DARK CRYSTAL), I never got around to seeing THE NEVERENDING STORY. Now, I feel like a piece of my childhood was missing because of its absence. This 80’s fantasy-adventure wows in its spectacle, has a compelling plot rife with magical creatures and constant danger, and packs in a message that still holds true. THE NEVERENDING STORY is an appropriately fantastic viewing experience.