From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: The NeverEnding Story

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, Conan the BarbarianTank Girl, and here at FantasyThe Company of Wolves and Legend. This month we re-watch what may be the single most iconic kid’s fantasy movie for people of about our age. . . you know, the one that’s an answer to a. . .

Film: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Wolfgang Petersen, years before he ruined the Iliad, thereby giving Classics professors everywhere something to get angry about when their students write essays about how awesome it was when Hector killed Menelaus. Also, it seems Mr. Petersen is perhaps attached to a movie version of A Spell For Chameleon, a fact that I am including just for the hilarity of making jokes about going from directing iconic children’s films to. . . you know what? I always get in trouble for my jokes, so never mind. Moving on quickly, The NeverEnding Story plot mostly comes from the Michael Ende novel of the same name. Ende hated the film so much he asked them to change the name of the film and all the characters, which the studio refused to do, so he sued, lost, and had his name removed from the project, a series of slights that the movie gods punished him for with not one but two NeverEnding Story sequels. Acting by an ensemble who, by and large, did very little else (hey, it’s that Oompa Loompa from the new Willy Wonka as the Snail Jockey! It’s Major Dad as Jerkface Dad! It’s Bumpy Jonas from Shaft!). A special raspberry in the direction of Barret Oliver as Bastian, who admittedly didn’t have much to work with, but still. As acknowledged on the DVD case (really!) the real stars of the show are the special effects, which are frequently impressive even thirty years down the road.

Quote: “They look like good, strong hands, don’t they?”

Alternate quote: “Bastian, say my name!

First viewing by Molly: Really, really young.

First viewing by Jesse: Larval stage.

Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Very high. I remember drawing an epic picture of me riding a luck dragon when I was in the third grade, and I remember being soooo excited about going to a birthday party where we saw The NeverEnding Story II (1990) in the theatre, only to decide that it was really crappy [Jesse says: me too! Seeing the sequel in the theater on your birthday, or a friend’s, and then trying to justify it to yourself as maybe being kind of cool is one of those spookily specific rites of passage for those of our particular generation and inclination]. I haven’t ever re-watched it so who knows if Current Me would agree. But yeah, I was infused with this film from a young age, and fondly recall many a lunchtime where I would make milk shoot out of the nose of whomever I was sitting with by taking a bite out of my sandwich, putting it away, and saying “No, not too much. We still have a long way to go.” Later, as an older kid, I read the book and was impressed by how much better/darker it was than the film, so re-viewings have been tinged with some regret that they didn’t, you know, make Artax a talking horse, because if there’s anything worse than the scene in the film where Artax dies, it’s the scene in the book, because Artax is all like “Go, Bastian. I’m just too sad to go on. Leave me to die.” Germans really know how to write ‘em. You know, for kids.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Enormous. I was at the perfect age to appreciate this movie when I first saw it, maybe five or six, and it was one of the movies we owned on betamax so I watched it until the reel broke. I wanted a horse named Artax. I had a rottweiler named Falkor. I developed a pathological fear of lupine monsters that persists to this day—a big wolf is one thing, but a big talking wolf that wants to eat your kid ass? Fuck. That. Noise. The thing is that children, or at least children like I the child I was, love being scared—almost as much as they love the idea of flying around on a giant furry mud puppy.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I’d seen it semi-recently, I think in 2003. There was an awesome independent movie theatre down the street from where I lived my senior year of college, and they did summer matinees for kids. Your ticket price also bought two slices of pizza and a coke. My husband and I went and were impressed by how well most of it held up, so I was pretty excited to watch it for FoHA.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Excited. This one was, as I mentioned, a Pretty Big Deal for young Jesse, and is just soaked in that weird, awesome darkness that they somehow got away with in 80s kids films. Not to be all Billy Badass, but even as a young’un I loved the stories with some bite to them—way more of a childhood fan of Time Bandits than Milo and Otis—and I knew that as dated as it was likely to be, the edge to the film would likely be intact. I’m almost thirty years old and I still get the heebie jeebies just thinking about the scene where we first see Gmork; lightning flashing, eyes all glowing green, rainwater dripping from roots, and he just rolls out of there like it’s totally cool for your sole purpose in life to be the eating of little kids and their ponies.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I must first call shenanigans on Jesse’s crackpot aspersions regarding Milo and Otis—that movie is way fucked up. Let’s review—in Time Bandits, is there any point where an actual, real kitten is attacked by actual, vicious seagulls and then tossed off a cliff into the ocean? What about an actual, real kitten getting pinched on the lip by a malicious crab? I certainly don’t recall anything like that. So in terms of fucked up shit to show children, I think real animals being injured for cinematic enjoyment. . . anyhow. Guess that’s why I’m the vegan and Jesse’s the Terry Gilliam apologist [Jesse says: hey now, I never made excuses for Parnasus, and you know it!].

Moving on! The NeverEnding Story really does hold up, and not just for the nostalgia factor—modern movie-makers may think that CGI is more realistic than puppetry, but Atreyu snoozing on Falkor looks way more genuine than anything in, say, the new Narnia films, or Harry Potter, or god forbid, that The Golden Compass pile of dirt they pretended was a movie [Jesse says: fun look-how-smart-Hollywood-is fact to ruin your day: Tom Stoppard apparently wrote the initial script for The Golden Compass before someday in charge thought they knew better and junked it. Thanks, guy!]. In fact, as I wrote that, I realized that when I read The Golden Compass, the mental image conjured by the scene where Lyra rides on Iorek for the first time is seriously informed by my memories of Atreyu with his fingers buried in Falkor’s fur as they search for the boundaries of Fantasia. Awesomesauce.

It’s hard to re-watch The NeverEnding Story after reading the book, given the decision to cut the crazier darker stuff and fill it with kid-friendlier high jinks, but the movie is really, really good and a balm for the nerves of any nerdy kid who’s ever gotten bullied for being a weirdo/received a Stern Talking-To for drawing unicorns in math class. That first scene in Fantasia is still completely captivating—you know, the one where the Rockbiter rolls up on the Nighthob and the Snail Rider in the forest, and it’s an orgy of special effects and cool makeup and a discussion of the Nothing that’s way scarier than the lame-ass time-lapse clouds they use to represent the Nothing later on in the film. The scene in the Ivory Tower with all the huddled, worried masses of Fantasia is pretty neat, as well. For this I forgive the film for an opening song perhaps even more nonsensical than the song from Legend, which is saying something (make believe I’m everywhere/given in the lines/written on the pages/is the answer to a never ending storyyyyyyy aaahhhaaaahhhaahhh) and that abysmal final scene where Bastian rides Falkor and scares the bullies. I should say that when I was a kid I thought that scene was the jam, but again, after reading the book and knowing what actually happens to Bastian. . . anyways. It’s the answer to a never ending story!

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Hey, not bad! Usually when we get to this section the gloves come off and we set to kicking the proverbials of whatever we watched but this time around I’m happy to report the subject did all right. It’s still a kid’s movie, of course, and so a certain amount of slack is being cut in regards to the cheesier elements, but it has certainly aged more gracefully than most of the films we’ve screened here.

Like most 80s movies, it has its flaws—the Bastian framing device comes on strong due to seeing Deadwood’s George Hearst lecture his son about being a man but the set-up quickly becomes obnoxious, and that kid is just the worst. Granted, as we said above he doesn’t have much to work with dialogue-wise, and sure, non-discerning child viewers will still love it, but his continual popping up in the film to remind the audience of what they just saw/are about to see is as jarring as it is stinky. So, no points for child actor framing device, which would have been a difficult premise for anyone to land but Wolfie P drives it straight into the ground.

Otherwise, yeah, pretty cool—the animatronics are a little rustier than I remembered, and the imperfect lip-movement-to-voiceover sound synching brings to mind that creepy mechanical jug band at Chuck E Cheese, but a lot of the effects hold up and are consistently fun, if sometimes less than convincing. The matte painting backgrounds and soundstages are all part of the charm, and hey, the plot’s pretty decent, too. All around, a perfectly acceptable fantasy kids movies from the golden age of swatches.

High Points: Gmork. The pre-CGI awesomeness. Deep Roy riding a snail. The scene where Artax drowns, for sheer kid-traumatizing power:

The scene where Atreyu battles Gmork in the creepy room full of frescoes. The soundtrack, other than the theme song.

Low Points: Bastian telling us what we already know, constantly. Most of all that part where he shouts “BUT THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” so intensely. The gag-inducing scene where Jerkface Dad cracks a raw egg into his breakfast smoothie. The “everything’s fine!” voiceover ending.

Final Verdict: Still holds up and probably still maintains the power to distress small children, which is pretty much our barometer of awesome, I guess?

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herbivore Magazine, and her short story “In Sheep’s Clothing” is in Running with the Pack. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two bad cats. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.