The Neverending Story

May 10, 2012

In the first scenes of The Neverending Story, a boy (Barret Oliver) tells his father of his nightmares since his mother died. Dad settles down for a heart-to-heart over breakfast. “Now, son,” he says, “we’ve got to keep our feet on the ground. Get your head out of the clouds.” The kid nods.

But secretly, he knows better. One way to deal with the world is to escape into fantasy. It may not be a permanent antidote, but it sure helps along the way. That’s what The Neverending Story is about—the redemptive qualities of fiction and fancy.

The boy heads off to school, but he’s terrorized by bullies and hides in a dusty old bookstore. There, he lays hands on a strange volume called The Neverending Story. Curling up in a school attic, armed with only jelly sandwich, he proceeds to enter the world of the book.

And so does the movie audience. We’re dropped quite abruptly into a landscape of giants and demons and a great shining city on a mountain. There are people with four faces. And a turtle as big as a domed stadium.

The hero of this story is a lad (Noah Hathaway) who must go on a quest to save his planet (called Fantasia—not accidentally the title of a Walt Disney movie). He must travel on brave adventures alone to discover a way to save the planet’s dying empress—and to stop the onslaught of a great devouring force known as The Nothing.

Every once in a while, we cut back to our reader, who, spellbound, is becoming drawn into the story—perhaps in more ways than one.

To tell more would ruin some surprises. This is a wonderful movie, and the best way to see it is just to hop on and go along for the ride. That’s part of its point: to immerse yourself in a fantasy to the point where you forget you’re a spectator—you’re riding on the back of that dragon, too.

The Neverending Story, based on a book that became something of a national mania in Germany a couple of years ago, is the latest film of Wolfgang Peterson, the German filmmaker who directed Das Boot to a passel of Oscar nominations. It’s a German production—although the actors speak English—and is apparently the most expensive movie ever made outside the United States or Soviet Union.

The money people were right to trust Peterson with all that power. The special effects are good and the production design doesn’t look skimpy. But the most important thing is that the smooth technical work—rather than being an end in itself—frees Peterson to concentrate on the sense of heroism and self-worth that are at the heart of the movie.

The book reader learns about the importance of self-regard, and about the ways in which he might fill the gap—The Nothing—left by the loss of his mother. If the book’s truisms are not much more than pop psychology, they are nevertheless given vibrant cinematic life, especially by the young actors. Oliver and Hathaway act like growing boys, not like actors. And Tami Stronach is a striking little empress.

The only bad thing is, at 94 minutes, this neverending story is not long enough. Hathaway’s quest might have been fraught with a bit more hardship—to make its ultimate success seem even more meaningful. But if this movie turns out to be as popular as it should be, we may never see the end of it.

First published in the Herald, July 19, 1984

I liked it then, and I have no idea whether I’d like it now. It did, in fact, make a bundle.