Neverending Story, The (West German/USA, 1984)

October 20, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Neverending Story, The Poster

It’s said that one of the reasons George Lucas deferred making the Star Wars prequels from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s is because the special effects technology he needed wasn’t available. I was reminded of this while watching Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. Although the sloppiness of the effects work is only one reason why this film has aged poorly, it’s the most noticeable one. By 1984 standards, the visual chicanery would have been considered “uneven.” Although none of the effects work is top-notch, some can be considered workmanlike. Other instances, however, are downright cringeworthy. The passage of time hasn’t been kind to The Neverending Story’s attempts at worldbuilding through image-oriented spectacle.

Although it might seem unfair to compare the rendering of Falkor the Luckdragon with Peter Jackson’s Smaug, it’s not unreasonable to bring Vermithrax Pejorative into the conversation. The Dragonslayer monster reached screens three years prior to The Neverending Story and puts to shame even the most impressive shots of Falkor. It’s like that for the entire movie. It’s difficult to take any motion picture seriously when one’s first impression is of something made on the cheap.

Berating The Neverending Story for its poor visuals may seem unreasonable, especially considering how much time has elapsed between its release and the writing of this review, but there are other problems to consider, not the least of which are the juvenile writing and godawful acting by child performer Noah Hathaway, who looks like he was cast because he would look good on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine. Author Michael Ende was so aghast by the production that he refused to allow his name to be used during the opening credits and sued to have the title changed (he lost). Influential New York Times film critic Vincent Canby eviscerated the film, calling it “The Pre-Teen-Ager's Guide to Existentialism” and referring to the effects as “supremely tacky, like the things one might find in a down-at-the-heel fun house.” His most damning condemnation is for Falkor, whom he claims resembles “an impractical bathmat.” Canby’s opinion sounds cruel but it’s an indicator that the movie, which has become entombed in an impenetrable cocoon of nostalgia, wasn’t universally beloved during its 1984 theatrical run.

The Neverending Story is structured as a story-within-a-story with a distinct purpose for being presented that way. The “outer” (or framing) tale tells of a young, bookish child, Bastian (Barret Oliver), who takes refuge from a group of bullies inside bookstore owned and operated by the gruff Carl Conrad Coreander (Thomas Hill). When Bastian first enters the establishment, the bookseller is reading something called The Neverending Story. Bastian shows interest but Coreander remarks that the book may be too intense for the young boy. While the bookseller’s back is turned, Bastian “borrows” the tome and takes it to school, where he reads it in the attic.

The story that Bastian reads tells of the mystical world of Fantasia, which is under attack by a force with the ominous name of “The Nothing.” A form of entropy that eats away at everything it touches, it is fueled by adult cynicism and apathy. In order to save Fantasia and its Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach), the young hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) must embark upon a dangerous quest to discover how The Nothing can be stopped. To do this, he must pass through the Swamps of Sadness and Sea of Possibilities while being pursued by the malevolent wolf-like Gmork. He finds creatures willing to help him, like Rock Biter the Stone Giant and Falkor the Luckdragon. When he eventually reaches the Southern Oracle, the pronouncement he is given is perplexing to say the least and can only be resolved by transforming Bastian from a passive reader to an active participant.

For co-writer/director Wolfgang Petersen, this was as odd a follow-up to his internationally acclaimed Das Boot as one could possibly imagine. One can only assume this was something of a pet project and, as is often the case with pet projects, things went horribly wrong. Petersen would right his career and move on to Hollywood success helming such commercially successful fare as Air Force One and The Perfect Storm. The sequel to The Neverending Story, which featured almost no one involved in the first film, was not deemed a success when it was released in 1990. 1994’s third chapter essentially went straight-to-video.

For the most part, acting isn’t a major component of The Neverending Story. Most of the film’s creatures are fantastical in nature, with Alan Oppenheimer doing quadrupole voicework duty as Rock Biter, Falkor, Gmork, and the narrator. Barret Oliver is okay as Bastian, although he doesn’t have a lot of screen time (and most of what he has features him reacting to scenes in the book he’s reading). Noah Hathaway, who is perhaps best remembered for his role a few years earlier as Boxy (Apollo’s stepson) in the TV series Battlestar Galactica, didn’t enjoy much acting success after The Neverending Story. It’s not surprising since his “performance” consists of baring his chest and shouting his lines. Although young girls in the ‘80s may have swooned, it’s hard to watch Hathaway today and not break into uncontrollable laughter.

Aspects of the recursive premise have promise and elevate the narrative, at least at its most basic, above the level of a traditional fantasy fable. The problem is more one of execution in that the movie never seems geared toward an adult or mature audience. To be fair, The Neverending Story works as a children’s film and many of those who saw it as youngsters back in the 1980s retain a passionate love for it. (For them, this review will be seen as nothing short of a desecration.) Today, it’s likely that only very young kids will enjoy The Neverending Story. The special effects, passable in 1984, will be an impediment to enjoying this as anything other than a campy, unintentionally comedic offering.

Neverending Story, The (West German/USA, 1984)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 1984-07-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1