Like many others around my age, The NeverEnding Story was a staple of my childhood, but although I know that I loved it, I retained only the slightest recollection of what it was about or what it was like (besides the presence of a fuzzy talking dragon). Rewatching it with adult eyes was a fun and strange experience riddled with deja vu, but one that only partially recreated the magic I had associated with the film for nearly two decades. Like many mainstream children’s films, The NeverEnding Story is silly, overwrought, and melodramatic, its plotting at once garbled and overly demonstrative. But it’s also, at times, a wise and sensitive portrayal of the peculiar darknesses of childhood, as well as an early masterclass in metafictional cinematic narrative.
Uptown Theatre Midnight
Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Producers: Bernd Eichinger, Dieter Geissler, Bernd Shaefers
Writers: Wolfgang Peterson, Herman Weigel, Michael Ende (novel), Robert Easton
Cinematographer: Jost Vacano
Editor: Jane Seitz
Music: Klaus Doldinger
Cast: Barret Oliver, Gerald McRaney
Countries: West Germany/USA
Premiere: April 6, 1984 – West Germany
US Theatrical Release: July 20, 1984
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The 1984 film was directed by Wolfgang Peterson, three years after his breakout success Das Boot, but before he made his name with taut action blockbusters like Air Force One and big-budget follies like Troy. Armed with a huge budget for its era, it’s a fantastical, visually inventive film, albeit rendered using special effects that may look a little weak to modern eyes, even to someone (like me) who vastly prefers old-school practical effects to today’s more polished CGI. It also barrels through its story with frantic Hollywood-style pacing, which left me a little dazed and perplexed this time around. But beyond the spectacle and the schmaltz lies a handful of smart, potent ideas and twists.
The NeverEnding Story centers around Bastian, a shy, bookish kid harangued by bullies at school and pressured by his father to overcome his constant daydreaming and ground himself in the real world. Chased down an alley by his tormenters, he stumbles into a bookstore whose mysterious owner gives him a book called (what else?) The NeverEnding Story. From here on out, the film uses Bastian’s experience largely as a framing story for the quest of Atreyu, a young warrior striving to save the magical realm of Fantasia from the rapidly-encroaching Nothing, a dark cloud of despair that swallows and annihilates everything in its path.
The crucial struggle of The NeverEnding Story’s moral universe is the effort to salvage the power of imagination in a world that perpetually strives to suppress it. Bastian’s inclinations toward fantasy stem from the two prominent miseries he’s squeezed between: his sadness surrounding his mother’s death and his father’s undue pressure to overcome that sadness. Atreyu’s story, ultimately, offers Bastian not just an outlet from these problems but redemption for his creative self.
The film offers several hints that Bastian’s story and Atreyu’s are more closely intertwined than either is aware. But this revelation is wisely delayed, and, in the particular way that it unfolds, strives to implicate the viewers as readers, characters, and authors too. It’s a strange and clever maneuver for a 1980s mainstream children’s film, but one that pays off, actualizing the film’s valorization of the imagination.
Not every film about childhood is a film for children, and not every children’s film has something to say about childhood. The NeverEnding Story tries for both, straddling this line in both clumsy and deft ways throughout its 90-minute runtime (which feels quite a bit longer than that). In its final scenes, it excels in both arenas, earning its place in the kid’s film canon. For those of us who are older, it’s hardly essential viewing, but it certainly makes for a good midnight movie.