Recommended viewing situation:
At night, in the attic of an empty or abandoned building, preferably one with lots of dust, skeletons and bad Victorian taxidermy. Squashed sandwich snack is optional.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen.
Writers: Screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen and Herman Weigel, based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Michael Ende.
Cinematographer: Jost Vacano.
Awards: Winner of the Saturn Award for best performance by a young actor Noah Hathaway, 1985, winner of the Bavarian Film Award for Best Production, 1985, the German Film Award for Best Production design, 1985, and two other awards.
The Neverending Story (1984) was a staple of my cinematic diet growing up. It has all the elements of great children’s cinema; adventure, danger, heroism, fantastical creatures in an imaginative universe, and theme music that will get stuck in your head until you feel like sticking a blunt instrument into one of your ears and mashing it about a bit until your brain dribbles out. But watching it as an adult, even while it fills me with nostalgic yearning, is an entirely different, and much more rewarding, experience.
The film opens with the young protagonist, Bastian Balthazar Bux (‘helluva’ name) waking up after another nightmare caused by the recent death of his mother. He picks up an open book that he’s obviously fallen asleep reading, so we know Bastian is a bibliophile, and probably a bit of a fantasist. When Bastian attempts to talk to his father about his dream, his father responds in typically pragmatic fashion, with such advice as “I understand son, but we have to get on with things, right?” and that time-honoured parental rebuke; “you’re old enough to get your head down out of the clouds and start keeping both feet on the ground”. This battle between realism and idealism is one that appears frequently in films with a child protagonist, from masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to Disney abominations like Peter Pan (1953) and Mary Poppins (1964). And yet, the film is not really about this at all, but something rather more impressive.
The key moment of the film is when Bastian hides from some school bullies in an antique bookshop. Inside, he encounters the seemingly not-very-child-friendly bookseller, Mr. Coreander, reading a book that has piqued Bastian’s curiosity. Mr. Coreander refuses to let Bastian read the book, telling Bastian “your books are safe. You get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe, and afterwards you get to be a little boy again”. He asks Bastian if he was afraid when he was Captain Nemo, trapped in his submarine, being attacked by the giant squid. “But,” replies Bastian, “It’s just a story!”. And this is precisely the point. Stories are not ‘just stories’, they are experiences. Whether it’s a film, a book, or any kind of narrative, we come out the other end a little bit different to how we went in.
This notion is worked into a meta-narrative (and I love a good meta-narrative) involving simultaneous plots and narrative framing. With Bastian, the viewer follows the child warrior Atreyu as he embarks upon a quest to save Fantasia from the Nothing, which is slowly and violently devouring everything they know and love. He discovers that Fantasia is nothing more than the culmination of all the fantasies and imaginative activity of human-kind, and that the only thing capable of saving everything is a human boy. Thus, Bastian is forced to actively intervene in the narrative of Fantasia, becoming a part of the very book he is reading, and creating a real dialogue between the worlds of reality and fantasy. Subsequently, Falcor the luck dragon is able to break out of the boundary of Fantasia and into the human world, enabling Bastian to overcome his fears, and turn the tables on the school bullies who have been plaguing him.
The Neverending Story is a coming of age tale that shows us how closely linked imaginative engagement with narrative is to our daily lives, and how important it is for our own personal growth. Bastian’s actions remind us that by reading, by watching good cinema, by engaging with narrative keeps those stories alive, because without us they would die. Falcor’s presence in reality reminds us that all stories affect us, change us, change the way we see the world, and this story does not try to soften any blows, just because children are watching. If you don’t believe me, just wait till you get to the swamp of sadness.