The Neverending Story |
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
(Warner Bros., 1984)
It must be admitted: The Neverending Story is meant to be a book. Michael Ende's story is, after all, based on the idea that a book can be the gateway to new worlds. His text play between plain boring Earth and the patchwork dreamworld Fantasia is an immersive experience, and no movie could ever have the time to wander about the lands of Fantasia the way Ende does. But in 1984, Wolfgang Petersen was willing to give it a try, and the result is a moving fantasy movie that still holds the power to create wonder, joy and deep, lasting jealousy.
A movie based on the interaction of children is always hard to cast, but the three young leads of The Neverending Story all deliver convincing performances without the childlike stiffness that can wreck even the best script. Barrett Oliver is convincingly shy and unconfident as Bastian, and he brings a sweetness to his portrayal of the character that's lacking in the original conception. Noah Hathaway may not have the appropriate skin tone for Atreyu, but he carries the strength and startling maturity of the boy hunter through the strange landscapes and real struggles of his quest to save the world. And Tami Stronach, given the challenging role of the Childlike Empress, manages to convey in gesture and behavior a character as inhuman and immortal as the bizarre special effects made creatures of her empire.
The special effects in the movie are impressive. Spoiled now by computer graphics and billion-dollar effects budgets, it's always a surprise to see how well the puppets and matte paintings of Fantasia hold up. There's never a feeling of artifice from any of the creatures, or a sense of flatness in the alluring backgrounds. The giant, lumbering Rock Biter feels solid to the eye; Falkor the luckdragon is a wonder of air and magic, and realizing he was only a set device was a much greater blow to my childhood innocence than the whole Santa thing.
The Neverending Story isn't absolutely true to its source material, but it captures the spirit and overall story of the book's first half. And it does what the story is supposed to; for a while, it takes you into a different world.