– Summary –
Director :Wolfgang Peterson
Cast : Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Alan Oppenheimer, Thomas Hill, Deep Roy, Tilo Pruckner, Moses Gunn, Sydney Bromley, Patricia Hayes, Gerald McRaney.
Censorship Rating : G
Length : 90 minutes
Synopsis: A young boy reads a strange book, propelling him on the adventure of a lifetime, into Fantasia, a world under attack from a mysterious force, the Nothing. Funny furry Dragons abound.
Review : Dazzling, superb family entertainment, that still stands up even by today’s standards. Themes are well grounded, effects are still good enough to pass muster, and acting (especially from the child cast members) is superb.
Dazzling, lavish cinematic version of Michael Ende’s original German novel, The Neverending Story has stood the test of time to become a true children’s classic, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who dazzled audiences with his stunning debut in Das Boot (debut for Western audiences, that is) and would go on to become an A-list Hollywood director with films like Air Force One, In The Line Of Fire and the remake of Poseiden, The Neverending Story takes the first half of Endes novel and refines it, shapes it, and breathes life into characters we’d only imagined in our brightest dreams.
Bastian Bux (Barret Oliver), a young boy who is chased into a book store by a group of bullies, steals a strange book entitled “The Neverending Story”, before returning the school’s attic to read it. Bastian, who is not exactly on speaking terms with his father due to the recent death of his mother, finds solace in the imaginary world contained within books, and even tells the book store owner of all the different one’s he’s read. But Bastian soon finds out that “The Neverending Story” is unlike any book he’s ever read. As he reads, he becomes emotionally entangled with the world of Fantasia, and the hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who is charged by the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) with saving the kingdom from the spread of the Nothing, a mysterious force chewing up the borders of the land, and gradually encroaching on the magnificent citadel at the very heart of the world. Atreyu must find the one who can save Fantasia, and through a series of adventures and a long journey, Atreyu eventually gives up his quest as a failure, upon the hearth of the Ivory Tower, in the chamber of the Empress, who tearfully implores the One, who is reading the book, to save them.
To say The Neverending Story had a profound impact upon me as a child is an understatement. My love of books and films was, I think, crystallised by this one film. In this film, and in the original book, Bastian is a boy who is unsure of himself, depressed and unaware that his life, his very existence is all important; and he must overcome his inherent shyness to save a world. The theme of heroism, of standing up for what you believe in, in doing the right thing, is balanced by the presence of Evil, in the shape of a wolf-like creature known as G’mork. G’mork’s task is to hunt down Atreyu and kill him, before he can find the One, and save Fantasia. The stand-off between Atreyu and G’mork is one of the film’s pivotal moments, and yet isn’t, if you can understand that there’s a more dynamic, more cataclysmic climax to come. The film, and the book too, hold a special place within my mind as a work of utter, unadulterated fantasy: at the time I first saw it, it was nothing more than an unpretentious escapist film for children…. however, as time wore on and I became older, I found that the film held a certain…. magic that is hard to fathom and explain. The Neverending Story ismagic, a true cinematic masterpiece from a director best known for war films and later, action fare: here, Petersen touches on issues of abandonment, of retribution, of asserting oneself and ultimately, of standing up and being heard.
It’s hard to explain why The Neverending Story contains such magic, and even today holds up under scrutiny. Perhaps it’s the unexplained nuances, the refusal by Peterson to explain everything in the movie creates a sense of mysterious fantasy. We get a sense of a larger world outside, something bigger than what the screen can encapsulate. The effects may not stand up against modern CGI, but remain dazzling for their technical ingenuity regardless, and draw you into the film in a way that’s really real. Too often these days, effects are merely there as a show-piece, not really helping to tell the story, instead managing to make audiences wonder just how much money was spent. Here, the effects actually tell the story, or help it along at least. Falkor, the Luck Dragon, is a wonder of modern puppetry, which only adds to the realism of the film as a whole. The opening Fantasia sequence, with the Rockbiter, is simply staggering in it’s magnificence. There’s something to be said for live action effects, such as Falkor and even Morla, the Ancient One, in the Swamp Of Despair. By being able to interact with them, Atreyu’s fate, and the genuine tension within the story, give off so much more power than if they’d been acting to a ball on a stick and a bunch of green screen.
The cast are impossibly good: even as far as child-actor standards go. For so long I had a major thing for Tami Stronach (as I guess did most of the pre-pubescent boys my age!) that I ached whenever I saw her, and in retrospect, her performance, while limited by time on screen, is utterly powerful and captivating, exuding a naturalness in front of the camera that simply cannot be faked. Noah Hathaway, as Atreyu, is superbly brave and stoic, although he oftentimes seems a little wooden in his delivery, I think his emoting on screen is first class. And Barret Oliver, who had appeared in Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie, and would go on to star in D.A.R.Y.L. and the Cocoon films, is wonderful as well.
Directorially, Peterson doesn’t put a foot wrong, with his magnificent combination of effects and live action, of dramatic weight and light hearted comedy, all coming together to create a wonderful fantasy film that can be enjoyed, and appreciated, by people of all ages. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what cinema should be for. Throw in the wonderful score by Klaus Doldinger (which I have tried to find in a store somewhere, but cannot!) and the most iconic theme song ever written (at least, until Titanic came along) and you have something close to cinematic perfection. Peterson has a great command of the film frame, and makes exceptional use of the widescreen aspect of the film, so much so that any cropped screening on TV will loose much of it’s impact. His framing, his use of lighting and shadow, the dazzling visual palette which is at his command, all make for a truly eye-popping experience. I only wish I’d seen this film on the big screen, but alas, in our small country town where I grew up, we never could.
The film is slightly modified from the novel, in that Ende’s original name for the world Bastian’s reads about is Fantastica, father than Fantasia, and upon reflection, I’d agree that “Fantasia” is a far superior name, regardless of textual accuracy. The film also only tackles the first half of the book, with the sequels touching on parts of the second half of the original text in later years. If you get a chance, I can thoroughly recommend getting a copy of Endes novel, and having a read. The comparison between book and film is quite interesting, with some startling similarities.
Honestly, I’d like to hear somebody try and criticise this film. I think it’s almost risen above the point where people can find major fault with the film, it’s so beloved by all. While the tarnish applied to this film by it’s increasingly benign sequels has worn away over time, perhaps you should seriously think about grabbing a copy of this magnificent film on DVD and giving it a spin with the kids next to you. You won’t be disappointed.