The Neverending Story (1984)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Neverending Story” is a clever, original, entertaining fantasy-adventure that uses familiar elements and creates inventive new turns for them. As a result, it’s an engaging adventure all the way through.

The most notable of these inventive twists is the lack of a standard villain. Instead of a high-ruling, magic, boring, evil wizard looking to destroy the fantasy world, we have something more complex. In the fantasy land called Fantasia, set in “The Neverending Story,” there’s an abstract entity known as the Nothing. It obliterates everything it touches so that there’s absolutely nothing left. It’s growing more powerful and about to destroy all of Fantasia. Now that’s a threat.

“The Neverending Story” begins in the real modern world as a bright, imaginative young boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is picked on by the school bullies who chase him into a bookstore. He’s interested in the book that the librarian is reading. The librarian tells him that the books Bastian reads are safe because they’re only stories. He mystically implies that this book—the Neverending Story—has a lot more to offer, and so Bastian takes it in curiosity. He skips school and follows the world of Fantasia, as the Nothing is a worldwide menace.

Sent to seek out a way to stop the Nothing is a child warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who ventures off into the weird lands of Fantasia. Along the way, he encounters many strange, helpful creatures, runs into some heavy obstacles, and as the story continues and Atreyu is finding answers, Bastian, still reading the book, is starting to believe that these new twists and turns in the story are because of his own imagination filling in most of the story. And it seems like the people of Fantasia actually know of Bastian. Impossible, right? That’s exactly what Bastian believes. But things get stranger and clearer until it seems as if the one that can save Fantasia is indeed Bastian.

That concept is actually probably the most intriguing part of the movie—the idea that a child’s faith can control fate and save lives (and possibly along with a whole new world). And it’s also interesting that while the cowardly Bastian is reading a book in which a boy his age is the exact opposite of him, it helps that when Atreyu does lose confidence, Bastian is the one who has to gain it back. “Be confident,” Bastian says, now very much caught up in the story. He’s really telling himself that so that later he’ll have the courage to follow his dreams. That was a clever touch.

The creatures that Atreyu encounters are all appealing and memorable. In particular, Atreyu’s Yoda-like figure on this adventure is an insightful, optimistic, humble “Luckdragon” called Falkor, who looks like a dog but can also fly, with Atreyu on his back. There are other weird creatures in this movie (you can see a lot in the gathering in one of the early scenes—it reminded me of the bar scene in “Star Wars”), and my absolute favorite is a hundred-story-high, gentle stone creature known as a Rockbiter (guess what he eats).

The sets are very impressive. Fantasia sort of resembles Wonderland and features the same kind of strange characters as such, like the scientific gnome and the man riding a racing snail. The art direction is quite imaginative. And the special effects are quite impressive here, considering most of them were probably models, puppets, and animatronics. They’re all pretty convincing and they actually manage to take what could have been a silly creature like the Rockbiter and make him into a sympathetic character.

I also really enjoyed the story and how creative it was along the way. Aside from Bastian possibly becoming the real hero and the whole concept of the Nothing itself, there are entertaining obstacles for Atreyu to overcome. I’ve already mentioned this scene briefly in an above paragraph, but it’s the most tense—it’s a scene in which Atreyu must be brave enough to make his way through a magic gate to the other side; otherwise, he’ll be zapped and destroyed. And then there’s a wolf creature that’s bent on destroying Atreyu before he succeeds on his quest—he gives a speech about lack of human imagination that is surprisingly complicatedly effective for a children’s movie. And that sets up the whole final act.

This isn’t really an actors’ movie, though the two young leads—Barret Oliver and Noah Hathaway—are adequate enough. But the voice acting of the Rockbiter, Falkor, and G’Mork (the wolf) deserve praise, and strangely enough, they were all done by one voice actor—Alan Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer has a talent for voice acting and has many distinct voices, all of which give new personality to each character.

The ultimate weapon throughout “The Neverending Story” is imagination. Stories don’t create themselves. It takes a special creative mind to keep them going. Although, you could argue that this might not be the best message for kids, since the movie opens with Bastian’s father telling him to grow up and face reality, and then he ultimately decides to use imagination to save a fantasy world. But the best way to accept this development is to look at “The Neverending Story” strictly as a fairy tale. Who really grows up in a fairy tale? And for that matter, it’s not like we all forget our imaginations in the real world, no matter how old we get. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any filmmakers to create something as fresh and inspired as “The Neverending Story.”

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