Released in 1984 as the most expensive non-US production in history at the time, The Neverending Story – a movie that despite it’s title, only manages to be an hour and thirty four minutes long which is hardly the definition of “neverending” – landed in cinemas in a burst of imagination and a mercilessly catchy pop song to be one of the most warmly regarded fantasy movies of the era. Based on the novel of the same name by German author Michael Ende (or at least the first half of it) and featuring the english language debut of Das Boot director Wolfgang Peterson, the film featured a fiercely outlandish world populated by such characters as a massive stone colossus who eats rocks (how’s that work then?), various bizarre looking creatures and a top hat wearing Deep Roy riding a super fast snail to create a universe quite unlike any other with a underlying (if impressively unsubtle) message that imagination is important and we need kids to dream.
However, while it’s still referenced today (Stranger Things’ third season included a whole sequence based around Limahl’s unkillable, synthy theme song) I’ve never really been one of the movie’s supporters despite the huge, dizzying waves of nostalgia people seem to get from it.
Bastian, a bowl-haired, timid child, is the very definition of a troubled 80’s kid who has managed to rack up the three main ingredients that go into making this cinematic trope – dead mother, stern father, bullied as fuck – and is struggling to recover from this soul crushing jackpot.
After fleeing his most recent bout of bullying, Bastian finds himself in an old book shop chatting to it’s grizzled owner (it was the 80’s, miserable loner kids were always casually chatting to strange old men back then) and discovers a mysterious book which draws his interest so he does the natural thing imaginable: he steals the thing like a total deuche, skip classes and hole up in his school’s suprisingly dilapidated attic (schools have those, right?) without even remotely letting his father know where he is.
As he settles down to read the entire thing in one sitting he is drawn into the story which concerns the fantasy world of… er… Fantasia.
Fantasia is in a bit of a bad situation as messengers and emissaries from all corners of the land race to speak with the Childlike Empress, their diminutive (and a little creepy if I’m being honest) ruler to bring word of the destruction of their various kingdoms by something called “The Nothing”. Upon finding that the Empress is sick, the call goes out to Atreyu, a VERY young warrior, to head out and somehow find a cure for the ailing ruler before The Nothing reduces Fantasia to… well, nothing.
As Atreyu’s quest introduces him to various creatures along the way such as Morla, the depressed giant tortoise who turns out to be allergic to youth and may be the least helpful fantasy guru in all of cinema, the night-terror inducing agent of The Nothing, Gmork (who despite a sizable, villainous, build up proves to be as much of a threat as an asthma suffering platypus) and the two stone sphinx statues who guard an oracle who both sport a set of questionably full-figured boobies for a kids film, Bastian starts feels uncommonly connected to the events transpiring on the written page in front of him. Is there somehow a way for him to actually affect what is happening within the story? Do the characters actually exist in their own reality somewhere? And can this clueless muppet (who STILL hasn’t told his grieving father where he is) hold the key to saving Fantasia when the secrets behind The Nothing are revealed?
80’s fantasy movies have somewhat of a reputation for having limited resources when it comes to realizing their respecting universes, be it dodgy puppetry, crayon-thick matte lines or silly outfits but to give The Neverending Story it’s due, it holds up better than most with it’s various, oddly shaped lifeforms (a fair few of them being actually quite large) all being memorably impressive.
However, all pale in insignificance next to the movie’s secret weapon Falkor The Luck Dragon; quite possibly the only truly legitimate iconic thing about the movie. A memorizing, snow white mound of supremely huggable joy whose fuzzy, white puppy face, giant intelligent eyes and warm booming voice makes you instantly fall in love with the gangly lizard-dog. He certainly deserves a far better reward that having some punk kid sitting on your back, screaming “YEAH!” directly into his ear while he’s forced to dive bomb though a grimy American alley in order to put the shits up some screaming bullies as he’s forced to do in the final moments of the movie. Petty revenge Bastian, yeah? Bit of a dick move for a hero if you ask me…
Speaking of questionable moments, this wouldn’t be an 80’s fantasy movie if it didn’t contain at least one scene that took the emotions of any kiddies in the audience and brutalised them underfoot like a complete fucking savage and the notorious scene set in the Swamp Of Sadness is famous for getting thousands of bottom lips quivering despite occuring only 30 minutes into the film.
But despite these memorable aspects, the film doesn’t really hang together as a story and most scenes involve Atreyu staring blankly at the various large (admittedly impressive) animatronic heads as they blink a lot and clumsily attempt to lip synch. Soon the movie starts to sag under the weight of it’s deeply episodic nature and the fact that this movie contains barely half the original story means that the payoff is clumsy and glaringly abrupt.
What I’m trying to say is that if you take away the sheer bulk of childhood nostalgia and the the palsy inducing ear-worm of a title theme (curse you, Limahl!), The Neverending Story is episodic, oddly static and actually quite dull despite having oodles of imagination to spare thanks to it’s pantheon of rubbery creatures. Like many other films of it’s kind, every character that isn’t a fantastical creature is a wince inducing whiner. In fact the whole climax is three children shrieking in shrill voices at each other across the divide between the real world and the realm Fantasia that resonate in the eardrum as kindly as a castrated Gilbert Gottfried screaming for medical assistance. No warm childhood memories are worth that…
But then maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s only fitting that a movie so messy is kept alive by the devotion of nostalgia when it’s very plot involves something not curiously simular and it’s sweet that a director who made his career tormenting claustrophobic Germans in a wartime submarine could get to make a project that admirably attempts to be so uplifting. So even though I’ve never personally got on with this movie, I’d never dream of bashing anyone who does (although I’m STILL gonna only give it two stars) so let’s all have a round on them.
Everybody now! “NEVERENDING STOREEEEEEEE AH AH AAAHH, AH AH AAAHH, AH AH AAAHH!”