Wolfgang Peterson’s “The NeverEnding Story” (1984) is one of those campy, scary, wildly imaginative films that most kids growing up in the ’90s took fanatical pleasure in watching at sleepovers. And what’s better than a combo of weed and good old-fashioned nostalgia? (Hint: Nothing).
It begins with a kid named Bastian whose mother has died, and whose unsympathetic father instructs him to stop brooding and get on with his life. Bastian is a shrimp of a boy, one who gets stuffed into trashcans by his peers, so of course he reads books – and after stumbling into a dusty city bookstore, he steals a very special novel from the desk of the grumpy store owner. Surprise: It’s called “The NeverEnding Story.”
Bastian skips a math test to curl up with his plunder in the school’s attic (do most schools have attics?) The whole thing is a testament to the power of reading, to a book’s ability to drag a person away from their crappier, duller existence (though eventually Bastian is sucked straight into the book’s increasingly volatile world). The enemy in the story’s fantasy realm is a vague entity known as “The Nothing,” whose presence is sweeping over the fictional land of Fantasia. I always appreciated this metaphorical “emptiness” foe, perhaps the scariest prospect of all; the Nothing encapsulates the destruction of imagination, of childhood awe, and mourns a quickly modernizing society in which kids are less inclined to read “Treasure Island” and more apt to play video games.
Slowly, the novel manifests Bastian’s own hopes and fears. His fictional alter-ego is a child-warrior named Atreyu, a hero who is supposed to stop The Nothing – but who ultimately fails, leaving the fate of Fantasia in Bastian’s hands. He must decide whether or not to put stock in his own imagination, something his father has sternly warned him against.
This film is all kitsch, over-the-top acting and theme-parky sets; but without mounds of CGI, it also stands the test of time better than most computer-generated stories. The strange and inventive characters are all three-dimensional and stocky; a small man who rides a racing snail; a gigantic man made up entirely of rocks; a flying pink dragon with a loyal, dog-like temperament; and a cynical wolf with flashing green eyes who scared the shit out of me as a kid. The sets may be artificial, but they are also more absurdly convincing than any digital effect would have been. There is a tangible, solid world to work with in place of transparent, flimsy shapes and colors moving about on the screen, untethered. It holds up.
Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff Writer