The NeverEnding Story (1984) (part 1 of 2)
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “The NeverEnding Story? Isn’t that a good movie? Isn’t that a movie that people actually liked? What’s it doing in the Agony Booth?” Personally, I’d call it an overrated movie (82% on Rotten Tomatoes? Really?), but that’s not the reason I’m writing this mini-recap.
The real reason is that I received a recap submission some time ago from Michael Novelli, AKA “Mendo Loves Lum”, whom you might recall as one of the contributors to the Battlefield Earth Mega Recap. He sent in a recap of the 1994 sequel The NeverEnding Story III: Escape from Fantasia.
While I thought it was a good recap, and worth posting, I had a feeling it wouldn’t make much sense to people not intimately familiar with the previous two NeverEnding Story movies. Unlike, say, the Howling series, which essentially told seven different unrelated werewolf stories, there are, at the very least, several characters and elements that appear in all three NeverEnding Story films. (Although, there’s a pretty loose continuity between the movies, but more on that later.)
So I decided to write two short Agonizer mini-recaps, one for 1984’s The NeverEnding Story, and
another for 1990’s The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter. Together, these two articles should get you completely caught up in time for Michael’s recap of the third film, to be posted in the next few weeks.
My reasons for writing these recaps are also a little selfish. Like a lot of people in my age group, I have fond memories of reading Michael Ende’s original novel when I was a kid. I especially loved the “hook” of the novel, which was its dueling narratives.
The story follows an introverted kid named Bastian Balthazar Bux (a name that could only ever exist in fantasy novels) as he sits down to read a book called The NeverEnding Story. At the same time, we follow along with The NeverEnding Story itself, which tells the tale of a young warrior named Atreyu trying to save the realm of Fantastica (changed to “Fantasia” in the movies) from being wiped out by an unknown force. Eventually, the two stories become intertwined, as Bastian begins to realize the actions he takes in the “real world” actually affect the story he’s reading. Let me tell you, this was mind-bending stuff to a preteen, and I loved every word of it.
I saw the film adaptation almost immediately after it came out in 1984. I enjoyed it, but I was somewhat disappointed that the movie only covered the first half of novel. I remember eagerly hoping there would be a sequel that would cover the rest of the book.
Unfortunately, by the time that sequel came around, six years later (an eternity in those days), I had outgrown the whole fantasy thing, and I no longer cared.
I know there are a lot of fantasy lovers who read this site, but frankly, the genre hasn’t appealed to me in a long time. To me, the fantasy genre has two major flaws. One, fantasy novels seem to be primarily aimed at adolescents, and therefore the whole genre is stuck in a permanently juvenile mindset. Most fantasy stories are all about the complete avoidance of real-world, adult problems, with The NeverEnding Story being the shining example.
And two, the fantasy genre has never been much more than a small set of tired clichés, almost all of which were ripped off from Tolkien. The clichés are sort of the defining trait of the fantasy genre, really.
I mean, it’s entirely possible that you could write a fantasy story without elves and wizards and dwarves. It’s entirely possible you could write a fantasy story without mystical medallions and sorcerer’s swords. And it’s entirely possible you could write a fantasy story not set in a magical land that looks exactly like England in the Middle Ages. But at that point, it would cease to be called fantasy.
And yes, before you write in, I realize there are exceptions to every rule. I’m sure there are fantasy novels where characters carry Uzis, or laser guns, and they live in a realm that looks like ancient Egypt, or feudal Japan, or downtown Detroit. But I definitely haven’t heard of any of them, and they sure don’t make those novels into movies.
When I watched The NeverEnding Story again recently, nearly 25 years later, the clichés were never more evident. Maybe I’m too cynical these days, but I found myself constantly questioning the film. Why does there always have to be a “chosen one”? Why is there always some insanely powerful trinket that can do pretty much anything the wearer wants? Why are fantasy lands always ruled by a single person? And why is that person always either a tyrant—with an army of dark-colored creatures that can’t talk—or completely benevolent, causing rainbows and unicorns to appear by his or her mere presence?
If you’re looking for answers to these questions, or at least a fresh take on the old fantasy clichés, this is not the movie for you. Most of the movie clearly wasn’t meant to be examined that closely, because a great deal of it doesn’t even make sense.
The NeverEnding Story was directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who first came to the attention of American audiences with his Oscar nomination for 1982’s Das Boot. Since then, he’s had a pretty uneven career directing big-budget blockbusters, some good (In the Line of Fire, Enemy Mine), and the rest mediocre (Outbreak, The Perfect Storm, Troy, and his latest, the Poseidon remake.)
The source novel was originally published in Germany, so it’s only fitting that the movie is a German production, and most of it was filmed in Germany. The production company behind the film was Neue Constantin, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because they also secured the rights to produce a Fantastic Four movie way back when. This led to both the current Fantastic Four film franchise, as well as an unreleased 1993 disaster, both well-documented on this site. Neue Constantin also produced all three Resident Evil movies, and while critical reaction to their films has been middling at best, the box office take has secured their place as one of Germany’s most successful movie companies ever.
Before I get to the actual recap, let me get one thing out of the way: This movie lasts 94 minutes. That’s right, it actually ends. That makes this the most blatant case of false advertising I’ve ever seen!
Beneath the opening credits is another brutal reminder of 1984: The movie’s cheesy theme song of the same name, performed by Limahl, the lead singer of Kajagoogoo. I’m guessing by this song that Limahl struck out on his own because Kajagoogoo’s music was a little too macho for him. The song is so overdramatic, syrupy, and pretentious, that it didn’t surprise me in the least to find comical statements like this one made in all sincerity on Wikipedia:
My god! It’s pure genius! And here I thought it was just the single gayest song ever recorded.
Okay, onto the actual movie. The film opens in the kitchen of a suburban home. We quickly learn that Bastian is a lonely boy being raised by his single dad ever since his mom died. Dad is played by Gerald McRaney, best known from Simon & Simon and Major Dad. Major Dad gives Bastian an expository lecture over breakfast, about how they have to get on with their lives. The import of his speech is somewhat undercut by how he’s mixing an odd smoothie the whole time, which contains orange juice and a raw egg. (Did this recipe get reused in Stone Cold?)
Also in this scene, Dad mentions that Bastian’s math teacher called, to complain that Bastian was drawing unicorns in his math book. Unicorns? Seriously, what heterosexual boy likes unicorns?
Bastian heads to school, but on the way there, he’s terrorized by pudgy white kids, who do all sorts of vicious things to him, like toss him in a dumpster.
While trying to escape from them, Bastian ducks into a corner bookstore run by a creepy old dude named Mr. Koreander (no relation to any member of the New Teen Titans). Although, the place doesn’t really look that much like a bookstore. It looks more like Koreander has OCD, and refuses to throw away any book he’s ever owned.
Koreander starts griping about how kids today don’t read, and so a defiant Bastian reels off a list of the classic authors he loves. I guess that makes Bastian special, because Koreander reveals a huge book to him called The NeverEnding Story. Koreander then uses really obvious reverse psychology on Bastian to get him to steal the book. He’s all, “oh, this is a special book! This is not the book for you! You couldn’t handle this book!”
So, Bastian shoplifts the NeverEnding Story. He grabs the book and runs out of there, and Koreander looks smug and satisfied, probably because he gets to disappear from the rest of the movie.
Bastian gets to school, but once there, he decides to completely ditch classes to read the book. Shoplifting and truancy, all in the same day? I’m guessing by tomorrow he’ll be selling drugs in the cafeteria.
Bastian heads on up to the school’s attic and starts reading. It’s the creepiest attic you’ll ever see, complete with cobwebs, and rats, and skeletons, and lots of stuffed and mounted dead animals which will jump out at Bastian whenever the movie gets boring. Bastian takes a good hard look at The NeverEnding Story, which is a huge leather-bound book with a snake logo on front. This symbol is called the “Auryn”, and believe me, you’ll be hearing that name plenty of times over the course of the next few recaps.
The story Bastian reads is a pretty straightforward fantasy tale, taking place in the magical realm of Fantasia. As the name implies, Fantasia is just a generic fantasy land with all the various races and creatures you would expect to find in Generic Fantasy Land. In the first scene, several characters meet up in the forest, including Rock Biter (a giant stone creature who feeds on rocks, which seems sort of cannibalistic to me), and Teeny Weeny (a little guy, as the name would suggest, played by future Oompa Loompa Deep Roy). Other assorted random fantasy archetypes show up, who aren’t really worth mentioning, since most of them vanish after this scene.
They discuss how Fantasia is being slowly destroyed by a force called “the Nothing”. As we’ll see later, the Nothing wipes out the land and leaves behind billowing smoke. The guys are all going to see the Childlike Empress, who lives in a place that’s actually called the “Ivory Tower”. So, is the Childlike Empress part of the academic intellectual elite? They all agree that the Empress will know what to do about the Nothing.
They journey to the Ivory Tower, which is a stereotypical fairy palace that glows like it’s radioactive. Once there, they and a host of other krazy fantasy creatures are greeted by Cairon. Cairon is sort of like the Childlike Empress’ press secretary, and he’s played by Moses Gunn, last seen on this site in a far less dignified role.
Cairon informs the crowd that the Empress is sick, and some way or another this is related to the Nothing. Hey, who needs rational explanations in Generic Fantasy Land?
It turns out that their only hope against the Nothing is this movie’s “chosen one” character, an effeminate warrior-hunter kid named Atreyu. And for a warrior-hunter, he sure has pretty hair. In my opinion, he bears more than a passing resemblance to a preteen Alyssa Milano. We even find out in the dialogue that Atreyu hunts purple buffalo, which must be way more fabulous than normal buffalo.
Atreyu is summoned to the Ivory Tower, where Cairon gives him a big medallion called the Auryn. It’s in the shape of two intertwined serpents, each biting the other’s tail. It’s the same design as the logo on the front of the NeverEnding Story, which we’re reminded of when Bastian fondles the cover.
So, in order to stop the Nothing, Atreyu is sent to see Morla, the “Ancient One”. Because there’s always an “Ancient One” in Generic Fantasy Land. He takes off on his horse (yes, it’s white, how did you know?) and encounters various travails along the way. Like when he travels through the Swamps of Sadness, where the only way to get through is not to give into the sadness. Atreyu is fine, but alas, the same cannot be said for his horse, who gets depressed and drowns. And of course, in the “real world”, we see Bastian actually shedding tears over this fictional horse.