The NeverEnding Story Review
“If you come any closer, I will rip you to shreds.”
“Who are you?”
“I am G'mork. And you, whoever you are, can have the honour of being my last victim.”
Made during a time when fantasy was undergoing a major resurgence off the back of the Star Wars phenomenon, what with Jim Henson's wild fables of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Ridley Scott's menacing near-classic Legend and Rob Reiner's perennial cult favourite The Princess Bride doing the otherworldly rounds, this West German/American co-production, directed by Wolfgang (Troy) Petersen and adapted from Robert Ende's novel by him alongside Herman Weigel, was popular enough to spawn sequels, spin-offs and an TV show. But this first forage into the wonderland of Fantasia - just like the aforementioned movies and so unlike the majority of modern fantasy-films - benefited from not be too well known by most people and, therefore, more effectively stimulating without any preconceptions. Whilst Ende was dissatisfied with the end product, Petersen showed a genuine flair for concocting a realm not governed by the usual laws of physics, even going on to fashion the Robinson Crusoe-rehash, Enemy Mine, with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jnr (sparring together in Jaws 3 not being enough for these two), a couple of years later, wherein the authentically alien setting was the probably the most memorable thing about it. Actually, looking back on The Neverending Story, Petersen seems a really odd choice for such an unashamedly childish fantasy. With the ultra-grungy and macho submarine drama Das Boot under his belt and a penchant for other “men-under-pressure” tales such The Perfect Storm and In The Line Of Fire, not to mention Troy, this seems like a niggling slice of whimsy that he just had to get out of his system.
Nevertheless, he did a grand job of dream-weaving.
“Never give up and good luck will find you.”
The story, itself, is gloriously simple. Disillusioned and bullied, young Bastian (Barret Oliver) is struggling to cope with the death of his mother and the pat reassurances from his unconvincing father, played by TV-familiar Gerald McRaney, that things will get better if he just learns to confront his problems head-on aren't exactly doing the trick. Thus, it transpires that, whilst hiding in a bookstore from a trio of harassing tearaways, Bastian makes an acquaintance that will forever change his life and his fortunes. When the store-owner cryptically alludes to the power of the book that he was reading when the boy burst in and intones mysteriously that it is too dangerous for the likes of Bastian, both we and he know full-well that when that distracting phone rings, the lad will pilfer the said tome and hotfoot it to a hidden sanctuary in the school attic to peruse such irresistible and forbidden fruit. Of course, as is the nature of such things, the book turns out to be a doorway into another world, the mystical and dangerous land of Fantasia, its prose elegantly transporting Bastian almost literally alongside his seeming alter-ego, the youthful but heroic Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) as he undergoes an epic journey across the realm to seek out the Southern Oracle and, in so doing, save an ailing Empress (Tami Stronach) and a once peaceful kingdom from succumbing to an all-powerful and ever-devouring force known only as the Nothing. It is not hard to see the moral behind all this, but the questing charm of the tale is certainly timeless and loses none of its momentum with the curious juxtaposing of one adventurer acting it all out and one reader symbolically going along for the ride.
“Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!”
They may be patently obvious to our more CG-saturated eyes - indeed they were pretty obvious back in 1984 as well - but the matte-painted vistas of mountains, cloudy pinnacles, shimmering, star-dotted horizons and odd, alien plains look peculiarly entrancing, reminiscent of such older classics as Korda's The Thief Of Baghdad, a plethora of Ray Harryhausen outings or the amazing backdrops produced by Albert Whitlock who, after missing out on this movie, would get to work on its immediate sequel. Floating, almost-liquid clouds tumble and stretch, splashing across skies in a rare colourful opulence that reminds somewhat of Laurentiis' extravagant Flash Gordon from four years before. But that distinctive European visual aesthetic shines through even here, enforcing the fact that this imagery is definitely not American, even if genre-regular Jim Danforth was at the helm of the masterly paint-work. Take, for example, the static scenery that abounds in the original Star Wars trilogy - pre CG-augmentation, obviously - and compare it to this. If you can draw a distinction between two spheres of visual make-believe, then it is apparent just by looking at the backgrounds that Neverending Story is fantastical whereas Star Wars is science fiction even without the more overt use of spacecraft and hardware to tell them apart. Some of the imagery has a raw and hungry feel to it. The roiling marshes have a rank depth and despair to them, perfectly capturing their ominous moniker of the Swamps Of Sorrow. Forlorn trees stick out of this grim wasteland like spindly grave-markers and a great tracking shot of Atreyu struggling through the bog whilst something treacherous and evil pursues him is strikingly tense. The folding tendrils of the billowing storm clouds - the harbingers of the Great Nothing consuming Fantasia - are eerily wonderful creations of almost organic threat. The flying figures of the spaniel-eyed dragon, Falkor, and Atreyu may look rather crudely superimposed against them, but this does little to allay the menace of such demonic atmospherics. A vision of a world torn asunder and reduced to floating husks of randomly foliated rocks is vivid and inspiring and the miasmic comic-books of French fantasy artist Druillett are also brought to mind with various unlikely settings. In fact, one of the best elements of the film is the use of stage-sets, like the same year's The Company Of Wolves and 1986's Legend would go on to do and then much later on, The Brothers Grimm, nothing creates the illusion of a place dislocated from reality so much as a fabrication that has been made to look as realistic as possible in the first place. Universal Studios knew they were onto something back in the thirties with such things and, no matter how convincingly intricate and three-dimensional effects whiz-kids can produce their environments via the ease of CG today, I'll take hand-stitched grass and painstakingly moulded fibre-glass tree trunks anytime.
“The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They're called books. They require a little effort on your part, and make no bee-bee-bee-bee-beeps. On your way please.”
Makeup and animatronic effects are gloriously old school, too. The immense, pearl-backed, dog-headed Luck Dragon, Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, who provides a couple of other character tones, as well) is a fine creature of sparkling purity who more than makes up for the grim, werewolf-like G'Mork, the foul beast that is pursuing Atreyu. Even if G'Mork is wisely kept in shadows for much of his screentime, he is quite clearly not the best in show, but there is definitely some agreeable malevolence exuding from his fang-filled and twitchy snout, and those terrible eyes gleam with a shiversome jade ferocity. Kudos must also go to the great Rock-Biter, a stone-built behemoth who likes nothing more than to munch on crusty limestone and other fractured sediments. A bizarre sight, though, must be the enormous turtle that slides inexorably out of the mist and practically into our faces to engage our hero in some very Treebeard-esque indifference regarding the fate of the world around him. But, personally, I love the early sequence set on the pristine steps of the Ivory Tower, where a wispy-whiskered Moses Gunn addresses what amounts to a Jedi Council-cum-Dr. Who convention of bizzaro giant heads, elongated visages or triple-faced entities. Sheer invention abounds elsewhere - the influence of Terry Gilliam can be found in the cosy cave of diminutive odd-couple Urgle, the witch (a pointy-eared, mule-toothed Patricia Hays) and Engywook, the pseudo-scientist (Sydney Bromley doing an impersonation of a Harry Potter goblin). Engywook's accoutrements and contraptions - “To the winch, wench!” - are delightfully left-field and it is a bit of a shame that we don't get to spend more time with them.
The performances are fine without being either too showy or too saccharine. Noah Hathaway's proud little warrior is clearly the template that Tom Cruise's Jack in Legend was modelled almost exactly on, and he comes across well as a sort of relocated Sioux Indian brave. He has a presence all right, though a couple too many times he indulges in blatant wide-eyed exclamations that lack control or subtlety. Barret Oliver - who looks like a miniaturised version of The Human League's Phil Oakey - on the other hand, has what would appear, outwardly, to be the easier, more laid-back role - he merely gets to read the book by candle-light once the lights have gone out but, noticeably younger than his heroic other-dimensional companion, he gets away with the goggle-eyed reactions to each new trial and tribulation. Other notables would be the almost ageless Deep Roy as a fanciful Romany-type called, you guesses it, Teeny-Weeny, who rides a gloriously daft racing snail, and his travelling partner, Night Hob (Tilo Prückner) who opts to hang-glide beneath a rather large (well, man-sized judging by the costume) bat instead. Although hardly pivotal to the plot, these quirky little denizens are colourfully weird and lend a texture to the movie that you can't help wishing we had been given more time to luxuriate in. As it is, Fantasia possibly seems a tad under-populated, although we do get to witness a rather conventional knight getting toasted by a couple of disapproving Sphinxes, which certainly adds some spice to the proceedings.
But, on the downside, the film suffers from some occasionally clumsy editing. A couple of scenes peter-out in rather shabby fashion - the music dying away a crucial second before the scene-change - or even some vague continuity issues taking place back with Bastian as he reads the book. Big moments sometimes lack clarity or importance, though it could be argued that, to a child, such things meld into one continuous flow anyway. Petersen, for the most part, directs with enough sensitivity to have us care about what is happening, and there is a refreshing sense of true danger and jeopardy to our young wards. One particular loss, of Atreya's horse, Artax, in the Swamps of Sadness, is acutely overwrought and horribly reminiscent of something similar in the original Black Beauty - only with a much less happy outcome. And, even more sadly, it is true that one of the horses used to portray Artax actually did die when a faulty platform that would lower it into the marsh malfunctioned ... life tragically imitating art. There is also - by today's standards at any rate - a puzzling sense of anti-climax to the quest, almost as though Petersen and Weigel had run out of ideas. The bubble of disbelief-suspension is pricked and even if this is hardly ruinous to what has gone before, it does leave a grown-up mind with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. The original author was a little more disturbed by this, however - enough, in fact, to demand that his name be removed from the opening credits. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, all the key plot strands are perfectly knitted and neatly tied-off, essentially paving the way for the further adventures that would follow.
“One grain of sand. It is all that remains of my vast empire.”
And then there is the score. Wow ... I love this score from Klaus Doldinger and Georgio Moroder. Petersen had worked with Doldinger before on Das Boot - an even more impressive piece of moody synths than the heavy brooding swirl and glisten found here. The tonal soundscape is layered on much more thickly than, say, Jerry Goldsmith's electronica for Scott's awesome, if flawed, Legend, but the result is one of ethereal spirit and insidious drama, ominous with portent and yet buoyed by the humming optimism of a bank of keyboards. The famous - or infamous - title song of “The Neverending Story”, from ex-Kajagoogoo hair-pylon front-man Limahl - is a severe guilty pleasure of mine. No excuses, no shame - it's 80's electro-ballad gold and hits all the right fairytale notes with splendid swooshes and a fabulous fade-in, fade-out beat. Lush.
“Weren't you afraid you couldn't escape?”
“But it's only a story.”
“That's what I'm talking about. The ones you read are safe.”
The essence of the story, this neverending one, is pure and earnest. It is woven together from the hopes and dreams of children - of innocence when it all comes down to it - and the vital belief in such things that children need to have. As a parent now, I can't help but see the cynical twist in all of this and feel some sort of resentment towards a real world that loves nothing more than to trounce such engaging ideals beneath taxes, street-crime and a dreary, soul-eating rat-race - the very “Nothing” that kids can so easily defeat in fiction. But, for the scant two hours that I can spend in the company of my kids in this make-believe plight of wonder conquering all, I am blissfully aware that such a charming message can affect them, even if only temporarily.
Excellent, imaginative fun for dreamers of all ages - though possibly more of a cosy trip down memory lane for those New Romantics out there.
Please note that this disc hails from Holland and is multi-region. It defaults to Dutch subtitles that you will have to switch off from the pop-up.