The Neverending Story (1984)
Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Petersen and Herman Weigel.
The Neverending Story was on one night when I was at a party in college. Not the best situation for experiencing a film, but there were in the room a few fans of the film who watched it attentively. I let it kind of drop into and out of my awareness as I conversed with others. The only other experience I’ve had with it was at a bar in Honolulu, when one of my former students set up a projector to show the film without sound on the wall next to the stage, while he and his excellent band played.
I know people who adore this film. My frosh year of college, I was with some online friends at the ice skating rink, and eavesdropped on two geeky girls as they explained to someone why the story is “neverending,” but I didn’t pay very close attention to the details, as I was trying to decide which of the girls to put moves on. I put moves on neither, but I was drawn to their obvious fondness for the movie.
When friends invited me last month to see it at the movie theater, I was totally game, thinking it was about time I filled this hole in my cultural awareness. And I can totally see why so many people are in love with it. My own response was slightly cooler, but I was seeing it as a man in his mid-forties, and I just had too much else to compare it to.
Bastian is a young boy who loves to read. He’s dealing with daily bullying by schoolmates and the recent loss of a family member, so his life is both lonely and sad. He is encouraged by grownups in his life to “wake up” and get his head out of his fantasies. Real life expects him to be there for his math tests, for fleeing down alleys from boys who would take his lunch money, and for confronting the reality of life after grief.
As he runs from the boys, he discovers a book. “A dangerous book,” warns the bookseller who advises against his reading it. They are exactly the words to inspire his borrowing it without permission, and then his hiding in a school attic to read it.
The story within the story is of a land called Fantasia, where a kingdom is being devoured by an evil called the Nothing. A young warrior named Atreyu is called upon by the Childlike Empress to save them all, and as Bastian reads the story, he doesn’t just get into the story; he gets INTO the story.
The setup is pretty great, but the details are mildly disappointing. In presenting this world’s creatures and perils, the filmmakers don’t spend enough time developing its characters. We don’t know anything about Atreyu or the Empress to be sufficiently invested, and the film asks for emotional responses it never earns, except at the very end.
The film is scored with a techno-infused symphonic sound that’s a really good idea; however, the way it’s used, in wide, sweeping shots over open landscapes, is kind of cheesy. The well-known theme song performed by Limahl is enjoyable.
The film is saved not only by its cool premise, but by a strange connection between three characters who share almost no screen time. It’s difficult to figure out how this is accomplished, although I suspect sympathy for Bastian plays the biggest part. We sympathize with him, and he sympathizes with the characters in the book he reads. This works somehow, and it’s probably why so many people are in love with this movie. I’m not in love with it, but I could definitely love someone who is.