The NeverEnding Story: A Look Back
Before I was ever exposed to the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Dark Crystals or, from my rather fuzzy recollection, a lot of Disney animation, my first foray into anything "fantasy" related was the German film, The NeverEnding Story. Of course I didn't know it was German at the time which might explain the odd spelling of NeverEnding with a capital "E," all I knew is it was about a kid, an adventure and a horse dies in a swamp that made me cry.
A horse in a kid's movie is killed off? Yes. In the first half-hour no less.
As it turns out, The NeverEnding Story was a dark and strange fantasy film that didn't attempt to pander to children by making everything "safe" (in other words, bright and cheery). In fact, it was a pretty unsafe film across the board: death, despair, a slight hint of nihilism and over-the-top imagination that can be frightening in its design all could have easily just been a bunch of stuff thrown together and never quite coming working or finding a heart because it wants to "wow" us with wonder.
Well, it did "wow" us as kids, and it "wows" us still as adults because the film and its darkness is able to balance the love, charm and imagination of childhood (you know, the good things you remember) with a darker tone that doesn't insult you making for a strangely re-watchable and entertaining film. Kids can take a bit of maturity and darkness in their entertainment, as it turns out. Not everything has to be full of bright colors and musical and full of dancing sidekicks. A lot of the most memorable children's films I remember as a child dealt with more mature themes, and The NeverEnding Story is certainly one of those.
What's more, is that it was all live-action. Sure, by this time The Dark Crystal was already out and even Tron, both live-action films in wonderful fantasy worlds that didn't exist, but the utterly ambition and scope of The NeverEnding Story really sets it apart. In fact, it was so ambitious that it wasn't even able to complete itself, having stay for the underwhelming Part Two that wasn't nearly as good in its attempt to finish off the book.
Fantasia was so fully-realized, it's almost sad to see that so much of it really wasn't elaborated on. There's a ton going on to entice you. "What's that?" you'll exclaim. "Oh wow, look at that!" "That is so cool."
It's the same wonder that Bastian himself was probably going through - Bastian being the "reader" of the story and, as it turns out, its real hero. We end up completely relating to him because we wonder if we might find ourselves sucked into such a world like he was. To be the savior and find our own worth. The entire point of the story was Bastian's search for himself. He's a loner, has no friends and is picked on. But this special book gave him a purpose and it was beyond merely reading it. When seeing the film as kids, I'm betting many like myself were hoping we would somehow be more than just "viewers of the movie" and be turned to as the fourth wall is broken.
But that never happened, but the idea that it could is one of those things that, I think, made kids of my generation love the film so much. It planted that seed and to this day, who wouldn't want to be reading or watching something and it suddenly turned to them and said "Hey...wanna ride a Luck Dragon?" That tiny sensation is what a lot of fans of the film carry with them. It's something us 80s kids share that today's kids may not understand. Now they just want to do what they see on screen but don't have the notion that, at any minute, they could be asked to.
Plus a lot of them probably don't even know what a Luck Dragon is. That's sad. Falcor rocked. As did a lot of things about the film, actually, so let's journey down memory lane and look at one of the most beloved children's films where horses die in cinema history.
A Brief History of The NeverEnding Story
-The book "The NeverEnding Story" was first published in Germany in 1979 and written by German author Michael Ende.
-Wolfgang Peterson was tabbed to direct the film, though not the first choice, once the German production company acquired the rights to the film. The production was the biggest budget German production at the time, costing 24 Million dollars, and having its share of problems.
1) Shooting during the hottest recorded summer in German history, hot enough that sets were melting and cast and crew dehydrated.
2) Author Michael Ende was continually disappointed by how the film was going, he both tried to prevent the film from being released under the name "The NeverEnding Story" and sued the production company, losing both accounts, but eventually managed to have his name removed from the film.
3) In relation to that, the film could not be a comprehensive adaptation of the book. Adapted by Peterson and co-writer Herman Weigel, the film only covers half of the book and actually ends at the mid-way point. In the book, this was a cliffhanger, in the film, it's just the end.
4) Last but not least, Noah Hathaway (who played the lead Atreyu), as if demands of horse-riding and stunts weren't enough, he was trampled by his horse, nearly drowned during a stunt and nearly lost an eye during a fight scene that caused the scene to be altered to not put him in danger again. After a few misses and small coordinator work, Noah now owns and operates a motorcycle shop.
-Two child actors were cast in the lead roles, Barrett Oliver as Bastian Bux and Noah Hathaway as Atreyu. Despite the film a German production (and many cast/crew speaking only German), producers cast English-speaking, American leads.
-One of the film's most defining traits is its music, composed by Klaus Doldinger. The famous theme song was composed by Giorgio Moroder with lyrics by Keith Forsey, and performed by Limahl (lead singer of Kajagoogoo) and Beth Anderson.
- The film was released in 1984 in the US to mostly positive reviews, however it only had modest success in theaters. Much of its success and popularity stems from its success on home video, an element that was taking off in the mid to late 1980s. It gained a few nominations, but its biggest was a Best Actor Win at the Saturn Awards for Noah Hathaway.
Top Ten Memorable NeverEnding Story Moments
With a world full of amazing artistic design and wonderful set pieces, it's a bit hard to just cram ten moments. But these were ten really strong ones for me. I most came to this conclusion re-watching the full film after many, many years (try at least 15) and all those moments churning up old childhood memories. "Yeah, that part was amazing!" or "Oh wow, that used to give me nightmares!" Here's those ten, and they could be your ten too, I'm betting.
Starting off with the basics, I don't know if The NeverEnding Story would have worked if Atreyu wasn't a damn good lead hero for us to get behind. You see, we were "living" this adventure through him, just as Bastian was. Bastian was us on screen, but we were routing and following Atreyu through all the strange places he would go and even the stranger creatures he would meet. So this first "moment" is just the time we spend with a really solid child hero.
To make that work, you need to have a damn good child actor, and Noah Hathaway (who's difficulties shooting the film I previously noted, so I'm giving him even more props) really gave it his all here. For a kid, Atreyu was the single perfect hero for them. He was the right age, he was boyish enough for the guys to relate to and attractive enough for the girls to love as well. A great blend and a damn good hero for a kids' movie.
9: The Rock-Biter
We're first introduced to The Rock Biter right off the bat as he literally steamrolls through thick woods to a glen inhabited by other creatures of Fantasia. He's running along, destroying everything, all the creatures begin to run and disperse in fright and then...he stops, towering over them all and looking very frightening. "Excuse me," he says. "Would it be alright if I joined you this evening?"
Yeah, The NeverEnding Story loves to play on perceptions and here's this stone giant that's one of the nicest fellas you could meet. We also get a sense of a bit of whimsy and humor to this world as well and this first leap into it. A fun way to give us some exposition and backstory to the world and plot, if I do say so. "Limestone...with a dash of Quartz...very tasty."
8: The Ivory Tower....IN SPAAAACE!!
All seems lost towards the end of the film. Fantasia is broken and Atreyu finds himself seemingly flying aimlessly atop Falcor. Then, perched atop a floating bit of rubble in a vast space, is one of the best images from the film: the Ivory Tower.
Perhaps its how it's set against the backdrop of space on top of that little rock that makes the image of this so fantastic. It's also great as this tiny little beacon of hope against the darkness...and maybe all isn't as lost as we think it is.
7: Bastian's Dad is an Asshole
You know, I could have put the Ancient One on here - the giant Turtle that constantly sneezes Atreyu off a tree. Or Engywook, the old gnome obsessed with science. Classic stuff. But the more I sat and thought about it, the more I started thinking about catalysts and what exactly is Bastian's point to want to read, steal books and so forth. Well, I think it boils down to this: His dad is an asshole.
If there's anything to remember from the "real world" story going on, it's that Basian's life sucks. His mother is dead. He gets picked on by bullies and isn't doing so hot in school. So what does his dad do? Tell him to stop having an imagination. Oh, thanks, Dad. I'm ten so let me just flip that switch real quick.
6: "Say my Name!"
Well that could be taken in so many different contexts now, but I remember wondering exactly what Bastian yells out. Turns out it's "Moonchild!" only spoken very indescribably. It sounds morel like "Moo nnkeeee cooooo dddeeeeeeddd!" Well, if you know it's "Moonchild" beforehand, you can hear that. I didn't know what the hell he said until the internet was invented by Al Gore.
But really, it's the whole scene where we the audience, along with Bastian, realize 100% he's a part of the story as well -this attribute probably one of the films most definable and memorable traits. His connection was revealed earlier, but here he finally embraces it. It's a great, unique little twist that nobody really saw coming and you realize that Bastian has been a part of the whole thing the entire time. In a way, so were we.
Also, thank you Robot Chicken for utterly ruining this now (and being hilarious while doing so).
5: The Soundtrack
Not really a "moment" but you have to admit, the music in The NeverEnding Story, composed by Klaus Doldinger, was amazing in both scope and how it felt so in-tune with the world of Fantasia.
But enough of that...you know what song I mean.
Lead singer of British pop stars Kajagoogoo, Limahl (anyone missing the 80s yet with all these names?) sang a top ten hit composed and written by Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey. To this day, the song gets a smile from me when I do hear it, which is more often than not considering it's on my ipod.
No, I'm serious. It's on my ipod...and I go jogging listening to it.
4: The Death of Artax
A dark moment, especially for a children's film and especially to have it happen in the first 30 minutes, but The NeverEnding Story is overall a pretty dark fantasy to begin with which is probably why it's still so beloved by a lot of people. It doesn't pander and insult the intelligence of its audience, and throwing in the very slow and sad death of Artax in the swamp is something that probably hit a nerve for every kid watching it. Artax was a character, he had a personality and a purpose and was Atreyu's (and vicariously our's) best and only friend through this world.
Of course he's resurrected in the end...but still.
I bet a whole slew of childhood nightmares just entered your head, and I'm willing to bet Gmork, whether directly or indirectly, at least inspired a few of them. While the "Nothing" is the main threat, Gmork is the villain we see throughout the entire film. Flashes here and growls there, it all comes to a head towards the end of Atreyu's journey as he comes across the ruins of an old temple that seems to prophesize all that has happened and will happen.
One image he sees is a painting of Gmork, his eyes glowing through the shadows. Then a growl overcomes the silence and he looks over, and there's Gmork staring him down - slight bits of blood over his teeth and muzzle, his voice a strange combination of anger yet calmness. Next to Falcor, who doesn't remember and maybe still get a little lump in the throat when they see him (and he STILL looks frightening on screen to this day.
2: The Sphinx's Gaze
Oh man, if you weren't already scared by Gmork and depressed by Artax's death by the time the Sphinx's came around, you were in for a treat for one of, if not the, most intense moments of the film as the gate must be passed through, but only those of confidence and worth may do so - they can not doubt themselves.
The way this scene is handled is absolutely perfect. We see a "hero" attempt to pass between them first and the knight is fried to a crisp. Atreyu, assured he can do it, takes it on. He didn't come all this way for nothing. He walks along, slowly, and all seems fine. Then he sees the body of the hero before him charred, his confidence begins to slip, the eyes open....
Ahhhhh.....ruuuunnn!. You know you were screaming at that screen like Bastian screaming at his book. The NeverEnding Story knew how to push the right buttons and get us involved, didn't it?
1: Yeaahhh!!!!! (I mean Falcor)
Not just Falcor here, folks. He already is number one for being a pretty damn classic and legendary creature of cinema. More specifically, Bastian riding Falcor at the end. After all everyone has gone through, to see Bastian enter the world of Fantasia and take the reigns, literally, to stake his claim as a hero is a joyous occasion for any kid watching it. This regular kid just went on (and still is on) an adventure of a lifetime.
This whole moment, especially as he flies around Fantasia now brought back from The Nothing, gives us an amazing sense of reflection and validation for the adventure we just went on.
The NeverEnding Story isn't without its share of problems. As I mentioned, it only covers half of the book and leaves an "open" ending that it will finish the story...someday. That's lazy writing to explain why Basian's mother plotline or the issues he has with his dad or at school are never resolved. It pretty much wants to focus entirely on Fantasia, and that's well and good, but why set up all those real-life problems that Bastian should overcome then? Just have him find a book and go on an adventure. There's also the deus-ex-machina overuse of Atreyu screaming "Falcor!" who promptly comes and saves him...again and again. But we all loved Falcor so as kids we found that pretty cool, I bet.
The NeverEnding Story is beloved by an entire generation of people. It was a product of its time, just as Legend, Tron, Labryinth and The Dark Crystal were as well. Nowadays kids don't really gave this - it's been replaced with the superhero/comic book fantasy films that today's youth probably takes for granted. Films like The NeverEnding Story were a rarity and when they did come out, people flocked because seeing this wonders on screen were such a treat. It also took hard, difficult work to make it happen. Now filmmakers can make an entire special-effects riddled film for minuscule budgets and in their apartments.
It's no wonder those films we grew up with stick with us. They felt magical because they felt purposeful and not half-assed. To make a film like this happen in 1984 was an effort, and now with so many films like this all the time, looking back at it makes us appreciate those efforts that much more. There's more meaning to it. You can see the hands that created it. Films today can really lack that quality...I like to call it real magic.
They also lack Luck Dragons. Movies today need more Luck Dragons too.