Monday, March 11, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The NeverEnding Story" (1984)

When "The NeverEnding Story" came out in 1984, I pretty much loathed it to its core.

I thought of the movie as being to the fantasy genre what Ewoks were to Star Wars: egregious cutesy-fu claptrap ginned up to mollify small children. Sword-and-sorcery movies had a brief heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s, taking their spirit from the blood-and-guts "low" fantasy of Conan creator Robert E. Howard. (As opposed to the "high" fantasy of Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin, featuring kings and world-ending stories.)

These movies had barbarians and dark sorcerers and nekkid ladies and magical items and all the other stuff that rubbed the erogenous zones of my fecund pubescent brain.

Then here came this kiddie fantasy with a cloying pop song theme, a dragon that looked more like an amiable poodle than a reptilian titan, and starring a boy with not a wisp of hair below his earlobes as the purported greatest warrior in the land. It was even rated PG, for God's sake, not even taking advantage of the new PG-13 label that the MPAA had made available just three months earlier.


I haven't seen it since it came out, banishing it from my brain. I was not even aware that there was a sequel in 1990 and a third film four years after that.

But I've encountered a few pop culture references to it from time to time, and learned that many other Gen X kids have an abiding relationship with the movie. So I thought I'd give it another chance in the company of my boys, who at ages 5 and 8 would seem to be the prime intended audience for the film.

I learned several things right away I hadn't expected:
  • It's better than I remembered. Once you accept that it's a children's movie, a lot of my earlier grievances wash away. It's the same way people of my generation eventually had to accept that the Star Wars movies (at least the George Lucas ones) were primarily aimed at kids.
  • I was astonished to learn it was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, his first English-language film. It still seems an odd choice for a filmmaker known for tense realism ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire").
  •  It really is a simple, gentle story about using your imagination to wander into new worlds to explore, and encourages reading as a way to do so.
In the red column, the theme song by Brit pop star Limahl is still just as horrid as I recall. ("Ah-haha-aha-hahaaaaaa...") The special effects, which weren't very special even for 1984, have aged terribly -- a mix of miniature puppets shot to look bigger and crude lasers and other lighting effects that had already been surpassed by "Star Wars" seven years earlier.

Although the film was primarily intended for an American audience, it was a West German production and reflects the generally less sophisticated filmmaking infrastructure they had in the early 1980s.

The film largely relies on two child actors: Barrett Oliver plays Bastian Balthazar Bux, a nerdy outcast in modern times, and Noah Hathaway is Atreyu, the aforementioned mightiest warrior of Fantasia. The story posits Bastian as reading a story about Atreyu, and they come to be aware of each other's existence as the tale progresses. The screenplay, by Petersen and Herman Weigel, is based upon the book (with no capital "E") by Michael Ende.

Bastian is bullied at school and looked down upon by his stern father (Gerald McRaney), a widower flailing at being a single parent. Bastian runs into a mysterious bookshop while running from the bullies (I'm guessing the setting is Chicago or some other Midwestern metropolis) and encounters an old man reading the titular book. He warns Bastian that some books are different because the reader actually experiences what is being read. Bastian "borrows" the book, hides himself in the school attic and tears through the whole thing.

There he discovers the world of Fantasia (Fantastica in the novel), whose very existence is being threatened by The Nothing -- depicted as a primordial swirl of dark energy that is gobbling up the land piece by piece. The Empress (Tami Stronach), the ancient monarch (but appearing as a small child) who normally protects the realm has been stricken by sickness, so Atreyu is recruited to battle The Nothing. For his quest he is given the amulet called an Auryn, adorned with serpents devouring each other, which as near as I can figure demonstrates no actual powers during the course of the entire movie.

I won't bother to go through all of Atreyu's quest, but it's divided up into episodic encounters with various fantastical creatures. Some fall pretty flat, like the giant turtle known as Morla the Ancient One, who directs him to the Southern Oracle for answers. The way to the oracle is through several magical gates, including one with twin statue guardians who zap intruders with laser beams out of their eyes if they lack confidence.

In the end, the boy warrior survives this test by simply diving fast through the portal. The guardians still make laser-eyes at him, so I guess speed is really more important than resolve.

Along the way he picks up Falkor as his ally. Dubbing himself a luckdragon, he has fluffy white fur and a long tail, and is voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, who also vocally played several other supporting character, including the giant stone-eating Rock Biter and Gmork, the dark wolf hunter who serves The Nothing.

Falkor gives Atreyu rides and saves his bacon on several occasions. His legs are set so far back on his body that for the flying scenes he at first appears to be a limbless serpent. He apparently can even fly through the void of space, as demonstrated after Fantasia is reduced to just a few floating fragments.

Other cute/scary fantastical supporting creatures appear throughout, though most hang around just long enough to show off their creature makeup/effects. Among them are the Nighthob (Tilo Pr├╝ckner ), a goblin-like creature that rides a giant bat; Teeny Weeny (Deep Roy), a hobbit-ish figure who rides a "racing snail;" and Engywook (Sydney Bromley), a wizened gnome scientist who has lived for decades at the first gate to the Southern Oracle with his shrewish wife, studying the way forward without every attempting it.

I've noticed it's a bulwark of children's stories to have characters who seem to have no purpose in existence outside of waiting around for the protagonist to show up so they can lend assistance (or opposition, in the case of the Gmork).

I'm still not prepared to call "The NeverEnding Story" a good movie. It's a relic of its time and intentions: to make a kiddie-friendly fantasy movie as cuddly counterpoint to Conan & Co.

But the first rule of criticism is to critique the movie they made, not the one you wanted. I didn't understand that at age 14, but I do now.

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