IF I'd seen The NeverEnding Story when it first came out then I would have been the perfect age. I was 8 years old for most of 1984, and the special effects and simplistic plotting here would have made the film an instant favourite. But I didn't see it back in 1984. Nor did I catch up with it in 1985, or any other year in the '80s. I forgot about it throughout most of the '90s. The longer I left it, the further away I was from that child who would have been the ideal audience member. I knew that this was a beloved fantasy film and I started to worry about how my adult mind might deal with viewing it at entirely the wrong age. And would I be able to stop thinking about bloody Limahl.
I wasn't that far into the film when I realised that I didn't have to worry. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Wiegel (and a helping hand from Robert Easton), gets everything moving along at a cracking pace once viewers have been introduced to the main characters. And things maintain great momentum right up until the end credits.
Barret Oliver plays a young boy named Bastian. His day starts off with a meaningful chat with his father before he heads outside and finds himself being chased by the usual bullies. Evading them, he hides in a bookshop, and that's where he gets his hands on a very special book. Once safely home again, Bastian starts to read the book, and in those pages he learns about a place called Fantasia, an Empress (Tami Stronach), and a brave young boy named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway). Fantasia is being devoured and destroyed by a force called the Nothing. It's up to Atreyu to save it. But it may also be up to Bastian, even if he has no idea about that when he starts reading the story.
Based on a book by Michael Ende (although it should be noted that Ende felt that the film was so different from his work that he unsuccessfully sued the production), The NeverEnding Story has everything you could possibly want from this type of thing. The young leads are likable enough, the creature design is wonderful (a large rock being named Rock Biter, a cute luck dragon named Falkor, and one or two others), and the lessons are wholesome and satisfying.
Having said that, Petersen isn't afraid to make things a little more interesting than a number of other films you could pick from this style and time. The appearance of the Nothing is the first sign of this, but there's also a dark sequence showing a beautiful horse in peril, and the entire second half starts to twist things and put everything in place to justify the title. A lot of movies aimed at children will promote strength, bravery, good morals, and a whole number of other assets. This film also does that, sort of, but it also tells every child that their imagination is a superpower; it's a way to right wrongs (even if only temporarily), it's an escape, it's the foundation of every major idea that ever helped to build and shape worlds.
That point elevates the whole film, as well as the strange mix of absolute fantasy and the unpatronising way in which it depicts loss and pain. The more I think about it right now, the more I am tempted to revisit it soon. It's a fascinating piece of work, highly recommended to both younger viewers and those who don't think they are already too old to check it out for the first time. You're never too old for that, as I was delighted to discover for myself.
Get it on Bluray here.
And Americans can get it here.