The title of Wolfgang Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story can be misleading. At just over one hour and forty minutes long, the film does in fact have a very finite end. It is also the name of a book within the story as well as the name of the original novel written by Michael Ende. But despite these confusions, The NeverEnding Story is a tale of pure transportation which also manages to say something about the nature of fantasy and how it impacts on our lives.
The NeverEnding Story film follows Bastian, a quiet boy who lives alone with his father. One morning, his father tells him that burying his head in childish books is no way to deal with the grief of losing his mother and that it is time to, ˜Get his head out of the clouds.’ On his way to school, Bastian is accosted by three bullies and takes refuge in Mr Korriander’s bookshop where he comes across a strange book called ˜The Neverending Story.’ Bastian soon becomes engrossed, even playing truant in the school’s attic where he follows the adventures of Atreyu, a boy-warrior, in the mythical land of Fantasia.
In the palace of the Child-like Empress, Atreyu is given a mission to travel across Fantasia to find a human child, as a human is the only being who can give the Empress a new name and thus save her from a malicious presence called the Nothing which is destroying their world. Along the way Atreyu learns that Fantasia is the world of human fantasies and therefore has no boundaries; the Nothing has manifested because mankind has begun to lose its hopes and forget its dreams. Despairing of ever getting beyond the boundaries of Fantasia, Atreyu all but gives up, until the child-like Empress reveals that a human child has been following him all along¦
Atreyu’s quest is brought to life with such colour and innovation that Fantasia is its own believable world. The imagery of the ivory tower and the Auryn necklace has become almost as iconic as the ruby slippers and the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. But The Neverending Story doesn’t just rely on the ˜will he/ won’t he succeed?’ tension of the hero (Atreyu’s) quest to keep the pace, (as Willow or Legend rely solely on their heroes); it has something to say about the nature of imagination itself and that is why it stands up as one of, if not the best fantasy film of all time.
This isn’t just another framing story about a kid reading a story, (where the kid comments on the characters and critiques how they ˜should’ and ˜shouldn’t’ be behaving- as the grandson character does in The Princess Bride); Bastion actually has some say in how the story turns out. In the film’s final act, not only does Bastion ignore his father’s request to, ˜Keep his feet on the ground,’ but his hopes and dreams actually give him the power to recreate the whole of Fantasia- the world of human fantasy. Some fantasy films, (The Wizard of Oz and Labyrinth to name a few,) leave us with the message, ˜Dreaming is the realm of childhood and sooner or later you need to grow up.’ But The Neverending Story is the film for anyone who has ever been told to, ˜Get their head out of the clouds’; a film which celebrates individuality and the power of books and dreaming.
˜But these are all the achievements of the novel’s author, Michael Ende and has nothing to do with the film,’ you might be thinking. But there have been enough terrible re-imaginings and sequels to show us just how good the original film really is. The reason it stands out is because director Peterson and his team take the themes which make the book such a triumph and fly with them, literally. The scenes where Bastion and Atreyu ride luckdragon Falkor through the skies embody the spirit of adventure. The Neverending Story takes the business of fantasy seriously encourages its child actors to give mature performances; when the Child-like Empress cries out to Bastion ˜Why don’t you do what you dream, Bastion?’ as the ivory tower crumbles around her, there is a sense of real wonder and peril.
Peterson’s greatest achievement with this film is his ability to nail the visual elements all the while managing to allow the core message to breathe through every glowing sphinx, every ancient giant turtle and every enormous thunderstorm; the ˜Neverending Story’ is always changing because our lives, hopes, dreams and experiences are always changing.
The best way to appreciate just how good Wolfgang Peterson’s version really is, is to watch The Neverending Story III. Actually forget that, it’s not even worth it for the hilarious appearance of a teenage Jack Black playing one of the school bullies aka the ˜Nasties,’ – one the most unthreatening names for a group of baddies in all of film history. Stick to the original, which has more magic and excitement in the credits than most other films can muster up in two hours.