Nostalgiaville: The Neverending Story

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July 20, 2011 by abbyo

It was hard for me to figure out where to put “The Neverending Story” on this blog. I couldn’t decide whether it should go under Nostalgiaville or Minding the Gap. Because, while I’m pretty sure I did actually watch this movie at some point in my childhood, I remember very little about it. Contrary to most other kids of my generation, I was never a huge fan of “The Neverending Story” growing up. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into it, kind of like the way I feel about Ben Folds or Elvis Costello—I knew it contained elements of things I liked, and that people I liked liked it. But for whatever reason, I just…didn’t. To tell the truth, I hadn’t even considered watching this movie for the blog until my friend Peter requested it. Because I wanted to be a good friend, I finally sat down and watched the thing to see if my mind had changed after all these years. Guess what, guys? It did! “The Neverending Story” is awesome!

Although I’m sure everyone knows the story by now, here’s what happens. Bastian, an adorable, brainy little kid who’s so engrossed in fantasy books that he’s about one step away from joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, is running away from bullies when he discovers a magic book. The book is about a place called Fantasia that’s being eaten up by a great cloud of “nothing.” A child warrior, Atreyu, is appointed to figure out what’s going on and defeat the nothing before it tears everything apart and also destroys the child empress. Along the way, Bastian comes to realize that he’s actually part of the story himself, and gets to live out every nerd child’s dream as he controls the fate of the characters and puts everything right.

To be fair, watching it now, I understand why I didn’t like “The Neverending Story” as a kid. There’s plenty about it that’s hard for little minds to take. For example, Atreyu losing his beloved horse, Artax, in the swamp, a scene which contains two of my least favorite childhood movie situations: animal death and quicksand. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of sadness in “The Neverending Story” (the scene where the Rockbiter talks about losing his friends almost made me cry). And there’s some pretty scary stuff there, too. But, aside from that, this movie is pretty much spot-on, gorgeous to look at and surprisingly profound. I think my initial ambivalence towards the movie was due to weird personal tics I had as a kid more than anything else, since there’s nothing about it today that remotely bugs me.

The first thing that’s striking about “The Neverending Story:” the set decoration. While parts of it do resemble repurposed set pieces from Zardoz, it does look really great. Falkor, the Rock Biter, the Southern Oracle and Morla are awesomely detailed puppets, even if their mouth movements don’t always match the words coming out. There’s some really ingenious work done with models and large-scale puppetry that’s surprisingly effective. I love, by the way, that the 80s were a big time for puppets and animatronics in movies, with “Dark Crystal,” “Neverending Story,” “Labyrinth” and “Return of the Jedi” all coming out in the same decade. It was a golden age.

Another reason to love this movie is its pro-reading message. The bookseller who gives Bastian the magical volume is an old sourpuss who resents kids playing flashy, noisy videogames and not spending enough time with books. We find out late in the move via a creepy customer named G’mork that Fantasia is dying basically because people don’t dream or exercise their imaginations anymore. The connection: If you don’t read, you don’t dream. If you don’t dream, you are, by extension, killing Atreyu, and if you allow yourself to explore your imagination, you get to ride Falkor through the streets of your city.

Okay, maybe not that exactly, but you get the idea. For little kids who love books, “The Neverending Story” is a fun reinforcement of that behavior. For kids who don’t, it’s a total guilt trip. As a former child nerd, that’s something I can identify with.

There are aspects of “Neverending Story” that don’t quite work—the simplicity of the plot, for one thing, and the shoehorned narration at the end for another. The music and green screen are really, really dated, properties that might keep the movie from being a real enduring classic, since kids these days are used to Pixar and the CGI-corrected “Star Wars” triology (blasphemy!). But for me, they made the movie a neat little artifact of its time, a little cheesy, but well-intentioned and perfectly in line with my childhood worldview of exciting new adventures contained in my favorite books. I wish I’d watched this movie more as a kid, because I think I really would have liked it if I’d given it a chance.

Random observations:

I kept thinking the little guy riding the racing snail looked familiar.

That’s because he’s also this guy:

That’s Deep Roy, Indian character actor and favorite of Tim Burton. Fun fact: he also did some work in “The Dark Crystal,” another children’s classic I was never much into. Go figure.

“The Neverending Story” is based on a novel by German author Michael Ende. It would seem, based on this, that his books had a strong influence on Cornelia Funke, whose book “Inkheart” contains a similar premise and theme.

Anyone else think the child empress was a little bit creepy? I’m always weirded out by children acting way older than their age.

I’ll leave you this week with a bit of dark-humored fun: Robot Chicken’s “Neverending Party”

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