The NeverEnding Story Review
The Never-Ending story was an American / German co-production of a very popular German novel by Michael Ende. It spawned many sequels, and even a TV series, which (as is often the case with endless sequels) dragged the franchise into the mire. But the original film deserves to go down as a fantasy classic, capable of being enjoyed as much by children as adults. Be warned, though, that this is a fantasy film that is mainly for children, but is not afraid to scare them as well as excite them. Those children brought up on modern fantasy fare may not be prepared for the dark places where The Never Ending Story will take them, but it does so in a sensitive way. The director knows how far to push the scare-factor and always knows just when to stop.
The film tells the story of Fantasia - a mysterious kingdom that exists within the pages of a book. Said book is found by young Bastian (Barret Oliver) after taking shelter in a bookshop whilst on the run from a group of bullies. Deciding not to risk attending class, he instead finds a deserted attic room and settles down to read the book. As he reads, the tale of Fantasia unfurls in front of our eyes. Fantasia is gradually being destroyed by The Nothing - which is literally tearing the kingdom apart, leaving chunks floating in space. The Kingdom of Fantasia is ruled by a child-like empress (Tami Stronach), and she calls in a hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) to carry out the task of finding out how to beat The Nothing. This is a task that he takes on willingly - although plenty of things go wrong along the way. As events progress, it becomes clearer and clearer that Bastian is somehow connected to the story, although it is only right at the end that the exact relationship between Bastian, Atreyu, and the Child-like Empress is made clear. Unfortunately, at this point it appears that the connection has been made too late......
It was an absolute pleasure to revisit the land of Fantasia after so many years. Although this film has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, for some reason it had never found its way into my collection on DVD. The Blu-ray will hopefully give many people the opportunity to either revisit this land, or find it for the first time even.
The story is beautifully paced, although modern children may find the film a little languorous compared with what they are used to from recent kiddie flicks. The Director (Wolfgang Petersen) shows great awareness of when to slow events down and when to put in an action piece. There are plenty of dark moments in the film, but these are always tempered with a humorous moment to liven up proceedings. The film does go to some dark areas, notably in an upsetting death, but it is good for children to experience the dark side of life through film, and never does the film go over the top in this area.
The acting throughout the film is top notch from everyone involved. Hathaway in particular is superb in his role - essaying despair (perhaps the most difficult emotion for a child to portray), and tears perfectly - as well as joy at the appropriate moments too. It is never difficult to buy the fact that this child is undergoing such a difficult quest - and it is to his credit that this is the case. Barret Oliver as Bastian may have less to do, but again he acquits himself extremely well. The scenes where he realises exactly what his role is in the unfolding events is quite upsetting, and you really see and feel the internal conflict inside him.
The special effects are certainly creaky by today's standards - but they don't show their age as much as they might have done. It is true that some of the puppetry is a little obvious, as is some of the back projection, but the charm of the creations brought to life on screen go a long way to negate this. The characters are universally excellent, charming when necessary, scary when required, and they always react well with the scenery and the human characters. One creation in particular, the luck dragon Falkore, is an amazing creation - one of the largest puppets ever created. As he is lying curled up with Atreyu walking around him, it really is a sight to behold.
The director, Wolfgang Petersen, had been well known in his native Germany for various TV series, and had only just broken out with the epic Das Boot when he started work on The Neverending Story. He has subsequently gone on to make a name for himself in Hollywood with blockbusters such as Air Force One. It is no surprise, therefore, to report just how well The Neverending Story is directed. I have already mentioned his sensitivity to pacing, ensuring that children's interest is not allowed to wane - but it is also noticeable how bravely he moves his camera. He produces some fantastic angles, and some truly unsettling images - in particular when Atreyu is trying to cross between the two statues. The destruction of a brave knight is an example of how well Peterson knows how to push things for a child's sensibility. It is shocking but not graphic - designed to give a child a shock without traumatising them.
But perhaps the cleverest part of the film is the way it manages to appeal to all generations. The main characters may be children, and the fantasy may be designed to appeal to children - but this is a film that can be enjoyed by adults just as well. It may deal with a fantasy world, but the dilemmas that Bastian faces (an emotionally distant father, and the death of his mother) are very real and resonate with all viewers.
I can think of very few true family fantasy films - films that can be put in the family Blu-ray player without at least one member of the family groaning. But The Never-ending Story certainly fulfils this requirement and as such is thoroughly recommended. The author of the book may have disowned this adaptation - but it is a mystery to me as to why. The film is currently slated to be remade, but you really owe it to yourself to make yourself familiar with the original. I truly cannot see how this can be bettered by a big budget glossy Hollywood remake.