I guess this is a weird reason to revisit a family fantasy classic that’s treasured around the world, but I felt like after spending so much time on WARRIORS OF VIRTUE I had an ethical duty to review another first-English-language-movie-by-an-internationally-acclaimed-director, THE NEVERENDING STORY. I saw it in the theater 39 years ago and I remembered it enough to know WARRIORS kinda ripped off its kid-picked-on-by-bullies-given-large-leatherbound-book-magically-connected-to-a-fantasy-world format. I did not remember that in this one the kid just reads about the fantasy world, he doesn’t go there. But there was another detail that did stick in my brain, one that I had to question because it seems so fucking crazy: could it possibly be true that there are no kung fu animals in this one at all? Believe it or not, that is true. What the fuck kind of lunatic wants a story without kung fu animals to never end!? It’s absurd! But somehow they make it work.
Watching it again, I laughed at how quickly it gets into it – not the fantasy world, but the theme song. Limahl and Beth Anderson crooning “The Neverending Stoooor-ryyy, ooo ooow ooh oooowoo ooh, the Neverending Stooor-ryyy…” over Giorgio Moroder synths and footage of clouds. One thing this opening sequence gets across very clearly is that if you want to see a movie called THE NEVERENDING STORY, you came to the right place.
The kid is named Bastian, played by Barret Oliver (Kid #2, UNCOMMON VALOR). We don’t see too much of his life, but we pick up on a few things. His mom died fairly recently. His dad (Gerald McRaney, MOTORCYCLE GANG) is emotionally distant and tells him to keep his head out of the clouds, which the credits already told us is the opposite of what you gotta do in a neverending story.
Bastian reads classic books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings (all three?) and is proud enough of his collection that when a snobbish bookstore owner gatekeeper elitist (Thomas Hill, FIREFOX) questions his book-reader cred he blurts out that he owns 186 of ‘em. Pretty specific number. Also he’s tormented by three bully kids (Drum Garrett [“Belch” in the IT mini-series], Darryl Cooksey [“Skeleton” on a Halloween episode of CHiPs] and Nicholas Gilbert) who steal his money, throw him into a dumpster (see also: Morris Day in PURPLE RAIN) and call him “weirdo” and “mama’s boy.” Which is inexcusably cruel if they know his mama is dead.
He hides from his tormentors in this bookstore that’s only hard covers without dust jackets, no customers, and an owner who tries to scare him away – or does he? He smiles after Bastian (who must think this is a library?) borrows the rare edition he told him his puny little reading-poseur mind could never fucking handle the intensity of. I think this guy is like the weird derelict in HELLRAISER that eats bugs and turns into a dragon skeleton at the end. He just goes around getting kids to read neverending stories.
Instead of going to class the next day, Bastian breaks into the school attic (home to dust, skeletons and rats) to read the book. So the main body of the movie is this fantasy story about a place called Fantasia that is being swallowed by The Nothing and the preteen Empress (Tami Stronach) is getting sick from it so she sends the great twelve year old warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway, TROLL, SUSHI GIRL) to find a cure. He goes on a journey that’s basically a straight line, but with the clever meta twist that he starts to hear Bastian’s over-dramatic reactions to what he’s reading. So at the end the only way for a happy ending is for Bastian to ignore his dad’s dumbass “keep your feet on the ground” bullshit (fuck you, Bastian’s dad), acknowledge the magicalness or whatever, and talk to the fictional characters.
It feels to me like very little happens in this movie, so luckily there’s alot of cool creatures and shit. Maybe less than similar movies like RETURN TO OZ (which came out the next year) or LABYRINTH (which came out the year after that), but a good amount nevertheless. I’m a sucker for an animatronic puppet, and this has some great ones. Nothing against the sleepy bat and the DOCTOR DOLITTLE style snail (accompanied by Deep Roy), but I think the MVPs are the Rock Biter (a huge rock monster) and Morla the Ancient One (a giant, sad turtle). Also there’s the famous Falkor, a long, four-legged flying “Luck Dragon” who has a few scales but is mostly fluffy like a dog. It’s noticeable that the difficulties of articulating a head that big and heavy lead to some rough lip synch and him mostly laying around like he’s tired, but it’s still amazing to see that thing in action.
By the way, most of these creatures are voiced by Alan Oppenheimer (“Unctuous Man in Arcade,” UP TIGHT!).
Like most ‘80s family fantasies, THE NEVERENDING STORY has some legendary kindertrauma aspects. One is the evil wolf Gmork, who chases Atreyu. He’s not an actual wolf, but an animatronic beast who can speak. I don’t think we ever see his whole body (they just built the front half to poke out of a dark cave) but man is he cool. He looks like the wolf that would eat Chuck E. Cheese.
I specifically remember being scared of that wolf as a kid. A scene that I don’t remember bothering me but that other people talk about is when Atreyu’s horse Artax sinks into The Swamp of Sadness. It’s clearly a real horse in the scene, and he’s slowly sinking into real mud as Atreyu screams and cries and yanks on his rein, to no avail. Then the poor kid has to leave alone, on foot. It’s easy to understand why young people were traumatized by that, but I think it’s way deeper as an adult because it’s such a perfect metaphor – this sadness we know as depression, and this horse’s complete, exhausted surrender to it. No matter how much Atreyu encourages (“You have to care, for me, you’re my friend, and I love you!”) or scolds him (“Stupid horse! You gotta move or you’ll die!”) he doesn’t know how to beat the sadness. He just stands there and lets it swallow him up.
(It’s disturbing to watch the making-of and learn that they had to just keep sinking the horse over and over until he stopped being terrified by it. In the take they use, though, it seems like great horse acting. WAR HORSE can’t hold a candle to it.)
Sadness is really the villain of this thing. When Atreyu meets Rockbiter he’s staring at his hands lamenting, “They look like big, good, strong hands. Don’t they? I always thought that’s what they were.” But he couldn’t hold his friends tight enough. “The Nothing pulled them right out of my hands. I failed.”
And there’s a place called The Desert of Shattered Hopes. Jesus. Seems like depression is built into this joint, but Gmork still does his bid to encourage it. He brags that Fantasia is dying “Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So The Nothing grows stronger.” And he says that The Nothing is “the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it… because people who have no hopes are easy to control.”
So I guess Bastian shouldn’t let his mourning take away his hope. But are we to take it that his sadness over the loss of his mother is killing all these poor creatures? It’s okay if it is. When he finally helps, it brings them back, reverses everything, like when Nancy killed Freddy, minus the killer convertible and the arm pulling mom through the window.
Unsurprisingly this is based on a book (by Michael Ende, MOMO). The book was German, as was the film, but I suppose making it for English-speaking countries justified what was at the time the biggest budget ever for a movie made in West Germany. It cost almost as much as the year’s highest grossing film, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and way more than #2, BEVERLY HILLS COP.
Director Wolfgang Petersen, who is credited for the screenplay along with Herman Weigel (CHRISTIANE F.), was coming off of DAS BOOT. This launched him into a Hollywood career that included ENEMY MINE, IN THE LINE OF FIRE and AIR FORCE ONE, among others. He didn’t go back to filming in German until 2016’s VIER GEGEN DIE BANK.
With the aforementioned FX hotshottery it’s obviously an impressive production. In addition to all the cool puppets and huge indoor swamp set they have a whole outdoors built on a gimble so they can rotate it to look like Atreyu is blowing in a windstorm, hanging off a tree like the “Earth Song” video. That stuff is amazing, but I also like the natural way he shoots the real world scenes, contrasting the soundstage look of Fantasia. Shout out to cinematographer Jost Vacano (52 PICKUP, ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, SHOWGIRLS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, HOLLOW MAN).
I wonder if people who already loved the book were pissed at the movie? Like Ralph Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS, which enraged people at the time, it stops halfway through the book. (The second half, where Bastian gets to Fantasia and turns into an asshole, was later the basis of THE NEVERENDING STORY II, but with a different director and cast.) And it sounds to me like the meta gimmick is a little cooler in the book’s version. As Bastian reads the book he gets to a part about him starting to read the book, which means it will keep looping forever unless he agrees to intervene. (So that explains the title, too.)
I want to mention that the bullies in this thing are intriguing. One of them has a Confederate flag patch on his jean jacket, so fuck that kid. But they also have Rolling Stones patches. And that doesn’t make them cool, but isn’t it kind of a weird band for these little kids to be into in 1984? I guess maybe they’re copying their older brothers. Or young uncles? Their brothers are probly into Van Halen, Def Leppard and Ratt and shit. Or Scorpions if they’re German.
But the weirder thing is that in the last scene one of the bullies is wearing a t-shirt of the cult comic strip Zippy the Pinhead. I’m not saying it’s impossible that a mean little asshole is into such things, but it’s not what you expect, right? Maybe these kids are more interesting than we realize. Maybe they’re going through their own shit, and dealing with it in a worse way than Bastian. I don’t know.
On the making-of the producers talk about their difficulty in coming up with an ending. Late in the game somebody decided to depart from the book and have everything wrap up with Bastian riding Falkor in the real world, chasing the bullies into a dumpster. It’s so fuckin stupid, yet it feels like kind of the only natural way to tie everything together. Unfortunately original author Ende hated it so much he sued to stop the release of the already finished movie! According to a 1983 Cinefantastique article, Ende had it in his contract that the script he wrote and revised with Petersen could not be changed without his consent, so when it was rewritten with Weigel he had his name taken off of it. In a statement he said, “The script no longer captures the substance of my novel… From the beginning I had the gravest doubts, and I agreed only hesitatingly because the filmmakers talked with angel’s tongues and declared they wanted to make a movie that, to my mind, I could fully approve of.”
He lost the lawsuit, which is why I was able to see the movie.
Sometimes I have a problem with this kind of fantasy story where reality seems like stream-of-consciousness gibberish – this is the Whatsit, and you need to go through Such and Such over to Whatever Mountain to use the magic doodad on the evil whoever the fuck, those are the rules, I just made them up as they were coming out of my mouth. This one seems like it should feel extra weightless since it’s all portrayed, at least initially, as just a fictional story that the protagonist is reading while locked in a room hiding from his troubles. But somehow there’s enough magic in the filmmaking – plus that relatable layer of depression – to make it work.
Undoubtedly it’s lacking in kung fu kangaroos, so I can see why Ende wasn’t won over. But I liked it anyway.
Tomorrow: I think it’s time to take a flash-forward to 2002 and examine the Ronny-Yu-less WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2: THE RETURN TO TAO.
April 19th, 2023 at 9:49 am
I don’t wanna bore you with another rant about the state of the German movie industry, but it’s really depressing how we kinda stopped making movies like this. We really tried! Look at this movie! It really put its money on screen! But although it was a huge success all over the world, it’s like German studios thought “Eh, maybe it’s not really worth the hassle” and they succumbed to the swamp of sadness. Oh well.
That said: I once rode the real Falkor (Or Fuchur, how his original German name). We had this nearby amusement park. The BAVARIA FILM PARK, that tried to be kinda like Universal Studios, and displayed a bunch of movie props. The highlights were the original submarine model from DAS BOOT and of course a bunch of NEVERENDING STORY stuff. They even put an original matte painting at one spot, so that you could take photos “in Fantasia” of your friends and family. Then later it became WARNER BROS MOVIE WORLD, but although they added all kinds of WB property (Including a POLICE ACADEMY stuntshow and a Gremlins ride) they kept all the Petersen Stuff around (Why wouldn’t they?). Currently it’s running as MOVIE PARK GERMANY under Paramount’s management, which means lots of Nickelodeon stuff, but also a from what I heard really cool STAR TREK rollercoaster. Haven’t been there in forever though, so I don’t know if the NEVERENDING STORY stuff is still there.