The NeverEnding Story is a massive part of my childhood and of anyone who was alive during the eighties and nineties. It’s entirely possible for someone to grow up in those two decades and despise the film. But the idea stands like a statistical phenomenon rather than actual probability.
The film stands as a cipher for a child’s imagination. Full of fantastical creatures, leaps of narrative logic, and visuals underpinned with a score that threatens to overpower every scene. If you saw Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story at the right time in your life you more than likely saw something that has stuck with you well into your adulthood.
If nothing else the titular theme song by Limahl still slaps.
As a child, it was an unassailable masterpiece. Yet, as an adult, I must admit it is pure nonsense with a lot of great special effects and vivid imaginative brushstrokes. In a way, Petersen has made a movie that would be right at home in the legacy of Jean Cocteau, Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger, or Ingmar Bergman.
Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barret Oliver), our hero and whose eyes we see in the magical world of Fantasia is a kid dealing with the loss of his mother and the disconnect between him and his father. Apart from having one of the greatest names of modern cinema, seriously you could tell me Stan Lee came up with it and I wouldn’t bat an eye, he is also nothing special. Most stories like this have the boy be special in some way, and really the only thing about Bastian that sticks out is that he reads a lot.
The old man in the bookstore he meets as he tries to escape a trio of bullies, yells at him to go away. “The video arcade is down the street. We just sell small rectangular objects. They’re called books and require a little effort and make no beep-beeps.” This scene, the scene before it, and the scene before that slyly hint at the movie is from Bastian’s point of view.
Bastian’s father played by Gerald McRaney isn’t a father so much but a reluctant authority figure advising Bastian to let go of childhood things. He’s as Bastian sees him not as a three-dimensional character. Even the bullies, who seem to exist for no other reason to shove Bastian into the dumpster don’t behave as bullies do but rather how we remember them. The old man acting like a stereotypical old man believes all kids to be exactly alike and denigrating the newest fad as inferior to the one he enjoys.
Quite frankly the way The NeverEnding Story so effortlessly and adroitly sets up its world is impressive by any standard no matter the time of viewing. We are no less than a little over twelve minutes in and we already have a firm grasp of Bastian as a character and we are thrust into the world of Fantasia. At around the twenty-three-minute mark, we meet the hero of Bastian’s stolen book, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway).
Petersen is brutally efficient giving us just enough bare-bones narrative material so we can understand the characters before heedlessly plunging us into Fantasia. He wastes little time setting up rules and worldbuilding. It’s Fantasia there are no rules and the world is built as we go along.
The NeverEnding Story understands children in a way so few films do. The horror and sadness of the film haunt many of us who saw the film as children. As a child seeing Artax, Atreyu’s horse drowning in the Swamp of Sadness, damn near traumatized me. I wept for the loss. But as an adult I find myself wondering what a horse has to be all that sad about. But a child doesn’t think that. They are much too busy being empathetic to both Atreyu and the loss of life. Not only that but it is easy for a child to imagine the inner life of a horse, much more so than say, an adult.
Petersen understands how a child’s imagination is unbound by such laborious things as “lore” and “mythology”. The creatures that inhabit Fantasia make no sense because they are created from the mind of a child. Petersen and his co-writer Herman Weigel understand the whole point of fantasy is just that-fantasy.
Adapted from a book of the same name by Michael Ende, Petersen and Weigel really only concern themselves with a small portion of Ende’s story. A wise decision. The rest of the book becomes another story entirely and would require a much more structured approach.
The production design of the creatures and the places Atreyu’s quest takes him is a mixture of abstract and the finely detailed. The Rockbiter, the Nothing, or Morla, the Ancient One, all seem vividly drawn characters while also seeming as if untethered to anything in particular. The Nothing, in particular, haunted me as a child and made me uneasy at 40 re-watching it.
I mentioned Bergman earlier and many of you may have scoffed at that. But Bergman has a concise clarity when it comes to his visual metaphors. They can be easily understood without the benefit of years of film school. Petersen does the same for The Nothing. Rolling black clouds that swirl unformed and unending is a terrifying thought no matter your age.
Jost Vacano’s camera has a way of framing things head-on allowing us to decide what is and what isn’t fantastical. It’s not that he lights or frames the creatures coldly, far from it. He merely allows the creature to exist. Giving the actors under the makeup room and time to create a character through movement and costuming.
Even the way The Nothing is talked about is digestible for children without feeling as if they cut it down to bite-sized portions. Characters try and describe the oncoming void by using their own words in a way a child could understand. It’s quite possible The NeverEnding Story is responsible for giving an entire generation their first taste of existential dread.
“The lake was gone.” “You mean dried up?” “No, that would leave a hole. That would be something. No, this was nothing.” Admittedly vague, yes, but it’s enough to set a child’s mind reeling with the possibilities of vast nothingness and darkness.
So much of The NeverEnding Story walks the strange line of unsettling and hypnotic. I can remember being both terrified and entranced at the same time by the visuals and story. Atreyu sitting on the sunken tree as he argued with Morla, a giant turtle the size of a mountain deeply unsettled me if only because Morla’s size seemed so unbelievable. Worse was his lack of anything but ambivalence as to the fate of Fantasia itself.
At the same time, I would be lying if I didn’t feel as if I was lifted out of my seat as Atreyu or Bastian rode Falkor the Luck Dragon (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer). Such a simple creation yet also indelible and unforgettable. A slender white-furred and scaly dragon with the head of a Labrador. His tongue hanging out to one side as he gave our heroes, and we in the audience, hope, and confidence in our abilities to overcome.
More than anything I remember the failure of Atreyu and his final battle with Gmork, the servant of The Nothing. A massive wolf whose body we never see fully. Petersen and Vacano wisely only give us shots of either his face or random parts of his body to help keep his size vague. We only see his full body after Atreyu has slain him but by then the terror he represents had already gripped me. Clearly an animatronic creation, what stunned me about Gmork this time around was the light in his eyes.
Watch the scene in which Gmork and Atreyu finally meet and look at Gmork’s eyes. They shine in a way puppet’s eyes normally do not. It’s an eerie and disconcerting touch that amplifies the aura of menacing horror.
The NeverEnding Story is like a magic trick in which it never occurs to us, as children, how much Petersen and his team are skipping in order to get to the next scene. Characters are introduced but are so uniquely drawn through costume, personality, and dialogue, that even though they exist for less than a scene we remember them. As adults, we see this but do not care because we remember our childlike love of the movie.
I mention this because I think we tend to ascribe adult perceptions of childhood to movies meant for children. Whether I like them or not the Cars franchise is deeply beloved by kids. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time was panned by critics and audiences for being, of all things, too nonsensical. Yet, if you were to put her A Wrinkle in Time next to The NeverEnding Story I think you would see the only real difference is how old you were when you first saw them.
What’s more, The NeverEnding Story isn’t even really about imagination, though it is full of it. Gmork tells Atreyu what Fantasia is made of, “Every part, every creature of it is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.” Petersen ties imagination directly in with hope.
It makes sense if you think about it. After all, say you live in a country run by an amoral fascist whose depths of ignorance and cruelty seem to have no bounds. You would need to hope for something better. But in order to do that, we would need to imagine a world better than what we have. We would need to imagine a plan, a way to overcome it.
Petersen and Weigel make the sly case that without hope we cannot save ourselves. Imagination and hope intertwined are fundamental to our very survival as a civilization and as a species. If we lose hope then we lose our ability to imagine an alternative or a way to achieve it.