CHILDHOOD REVISITED – THE NEVERENDING STORY


Screw the journey. This is when Atrayu becomes a MAN.

Screw the journey. This is when Atreyu becomes a MAN.

The NeverEnding Story – (1984)

Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Alan Oppenheimer
Screenplay by: Wolfgang Petersen, Herman Weigel

It’s no secret that the drudgeries of work have instilled in us a sense of complacency and mundaneness that forces us to live paycheck to paycheck. The world around us applies an enormous amount of social pressures to consume the same products in their infinite variations to “keep up,” leaving us victims of our own greed. Those who claim to be immune to it have a lot of explaining to do as they pay fifty-plus bucks a month for their internet access to rant on message boards about the evils of corporate capitalism and the mind-numbing sense of commercialism it brings.

Office Space focuses solely on the white-collar insane boringness to a hilarious degree of scary accuracy that reflects Dilbert in many ways. Fight Club socialized the feeling into a raucous, violent form of escapism and revolution that spiraled way out of control. All the while, Petersen’s debut film, The NeverEnding Story, came and went with the typical 80s corporate gamut of sequels and TV-shows (and probably merchandise). And yet, this film is probably the most representative of the sense of losing one’s individuality and sense of the world and everything that it can offer, as well as everything one can bring to it. School and work, from childhood to the grave, seems poised to destroy our sense of creativity and freedom to explore our own minds, and this movie excellently shows this without nary a heavy-handed speech.

NOSTALGIC LENS: This is one of those films that I’ve watched in parts be hardly ever all the way through, so it’s difficult to remember what happened when. Because of which, I can’t say I enjoyed it too much. It seemed too weird to me; more like a random occurrence of events than a seamless story of creative proportions (a feeling now that I attribute to Pan’s Labyrinth. Seriously, that movie seems less of a genuine story than more of an excuse to showcase del Toro’s wacky imagination).

DOES IT HOLD UP: Petersen’s track record (Air Force One, Outbreak, Troy) beguiles the absolute sense of beauty and control that he brought to The NeverEnding Story. It’s a surprisingly clever and elaborate story of hopes and dreams, and while I sound corny saying that, I really mean it. Very few films can actually portray emotion and abstract feelings outside of the limitations of the actors and writing, but this movie does, and does very, very well.

Much of the credit has to go to cinematographer Jost Vacano, who frames each shot expertly and beautifully, capturing the large sense of both the real world and the imaginary world of Fantasia by relying on maintaining the focus on what’s absolutely important. I have to admit, a lot of the shots reminded me of something out of Kubrick, especially how the camera just lingers and lets the actors (or the mise-en-scene, aka the exact setting you see) tell the story. It’s so effective that it makes the on-the-nose dialogue work effectively, as the opening scene showcases between Bastian and his father at 2:20:

I spoke at length of childhood issues in my Jumanji review, and while the “kill ’em all” feeling in Jumanji is no where in this film, there is still a real “threat” (with the bullies) and an absolute sense of loneliness (no friends; hell, no teachers even bother to look for him) that defines Bastian. He lives in his own world, cut off after his mother’s death, of fantasies and dreams. His father tries to ground him into the realities of life, but being tossed in a trash can doesn’t exactly scream “realism is better!” When he steals a book from a strange bookkeeper/pedophile, he gets drawn into the trials and tribulations of our young hero, Atreyu, as he journeys to save Fantasia.

The world is a delight of whimsical characters; giant rock monsters and swamp turtles; bats and racing snails; three-headed and large-headed civilians, all seeking desperately to save Fantasia from the Nothing; an evil force seeking to destroy everything. Bastian follows Atreyu across deserts and through forests, oddly enough feeling every single thing the hero feels; his emotions are completely regulated to the characters of stories. But far be it from me to claim such emotions aren’t genuine; take a look at this absolutely gut-wrenching scene when Atreyu loses his horse Artax in the Swamp of Sadness:

I’ll admit that I teared up there. In fact, I teared up a lot during this movie (real tears, too, as opposed to those fake ones), a sentiment that caught me by surprise, especially with the slightly unrefined writing and choppy editing (a lot of the cuts needed to hold for one second longer before jumping to another angle). The writing, although awkward at times, worked especially well as a dramatization of how someone would write a children’s story; so the excess exposition is not so much of a burden than a broadcasted version of what your child’s reader might say (although, this doesn’t exactly excuse the father/Bastian exposition, but again, the well-shot execution makes up for it).

And while the fantasy-adventure sends Atreyu (and by proxy, Bastian) into some pretty exciting and exorbitant locales, the movie shifts into a whole ‘nother direction towards the end. At the real risk of a SPOILER, it becomes a giant meta-commentary of not only Bastian’s relation to Atreyu (where the reader becomes part of the story and actually effects it where the climax hits) but the audience itself, traveling along with Bastian and Atreyu during the entire trip. Through the Empress, the movie calls out the viewer’s real emotional connection to the characters, asking us to, in a way, not only accept the adventure before our eyes but to expand upon it; unlike Gmork, the servant of the darkness, who growls out the decimation of creative ingenuity to swallow up such ideas in the Nothing—the smoky force that turns innate daydreaming into soulless blankness. I doubt it’s any coincidence that “Gmork” sounds kinda like “Work.”

Perhaps the saddest moment is the end, when Bastian saves Fantasia by calling out a name for the Empress (FYI—it’s Moonchild, which is odd, since the film implies that Moonchild was the name of Bastian’s mother). A scene follows with propels Bastian to “re-imagine” Fantasia to his heart’s content; indeed, he restores Fantasia to his mind, riding Falkor and bringing back Artax, as well as harassing those bullies with the luck dragon. But remember—this is all in the realm of fantasy; no matter how satisfying this seems, it’s ultimately only wishful thinking. Bastian is still friendless, suffering, and sad, and perhaps in his reality he will, in time, over come that. But for now, we as an audience can’t help but let him have his moment.

Everything else… well, I suppose that’s another story.

IN A NUTSHELL: I commented audibly during this movie that this movie has HEART. More than any Pixar or early-Disney movie will ever hope to achieve. Part of the appeal is the fourth-wall line The NeverEnding Story carefully walks to bring the audience into the story and the “story of the story”. The creative world and wonderful characters only add to the sensation. I actually want to see the sequels to see what happens to Bastian; but in a way, I know that would ruin the full sense of what this film is trying to achieve. It’s choppy at parts, but wonderful none-the-less.

October 19th: VACATION
October 26th: The Care Bears Movie

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  1. #1 by Nessie on October 12, 2009 - 12:11 pm

    “I actually want to see the sequels to see what happens to Bastian…”

    No. You REALLY don’t. Trust me.
    Instead, head over to Amazon and get the wonderful and very strange novel that inspired “Neverending Story” by Michael Ende. It is excellent, and a little disconcerting (in a good way) to learn that the movie is as faithful as possible to the book – while ending right when Bastian’s story starts to get very interesting.

  2. #2 by Jon on October 12, 2009 - 12:23 pm

    Yes, agreed with Nessie–this is a case where the book (I hear) is as good as the movie.

    That written, I am still afraid of diving, so maybe I deserve a similar adventure of epic proportions.

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