THE INITIAL RELEASE (1984)
Die unendliche Geschichte was a best selling book crafted from the vivid imagination of a German novelist named Michael Ende. We would better know this novel by its english translation,The Neverending Story. Whilst the book was launched back in 1979 to critical acclaim and adoration, it didn’t hit the big screen until it caught the eye of German born film director, Wolfgang Peterson. The concept resonated with him on a spiritual level. It was the idea of a young boys exploration of a fantastical land beyond his own understanding that set his own imagination alight. He had his own image of what the lore should look and feel like as any typical fantasy fan would. The imagery and the effects in The Neverending Story were the works of teams of puppeteers, early blue screen work from visual artists and one painter who brought the creature concepts that Peterson wanted to the canvas. The fictional land itself was shot in a large complex in Bavaria, Germany.
It was four years after the books release that Wolfgang made his residence in the United States. His first feature on american soil was a suspense thriller called Das Boot. This early seed sprouted into an academy darling earning seven nominations for the German. In addition, It also garnered the interest of a quite popular director known as Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, who was fresh off the set of E.T, met with Peterson and established a firm friendship with him. Peterson provided advice as consultant on the location planning for Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List. In turn, Wolfgang asked the multi-time academy award winner if he would take a look at his German produced film The Neverending Story and perhaps give him advice on how to present it to western audiences. Warner Brothers pictures picked up the rights to it after Spielberg provided his input. The original version was trimmed down by seven minutes, nothing major was cut out as Spielberg reportedly loved it, but felt it needed a quickened pace. After the release, the film saw box office success and in this day in age is known as a true fantasy classic beloved by kids and nostalgic adults alike. The author Michael Ende reportedly detested the loose adaptation of his source material.
MY EXPERIENCE (1990 – 2014)
Sadly, I do not have the original book as a frame of reference on whether this is a good big screen adaptation or not. Thankfully though, I can tell you that it is still a good stand alone movie nonetheless. Where The Neverending Story hits its mark is in it two aspects; the first is its outstanding aesthetic blend of well done puppetry and early blue screen special effects. The second is its interesting thematic story elements discussing topics like escapism, inner confidence and preservation of the environment all in a neat little coming of age story about two young lads.
The plot of The Neverending Story follows Bastion and Atreyu. Bastion is a typical troubled boy of our world who finds himself the victim of torment daily by rather traditionally unsympathetic, underdeveloped bully characters. Escapism for Bastion is in the love of his books. His life in school is a struggle, so he finds immersing himself in the varied different worlds of literature to be better than his harsh reality. Bastions life takes a turn, when a mysterious and eccentric librarian incites a sense of wonder into him about a particular book in the library called The Neverending Story. After telling the young lad of this magic book, The eccentric fellow promptly denies letting Bastion take it out off the library due to it not being safe. Bastion fortunately makes the conscious decision to sneakily “borrow” this book from the library, because otherwise this would be a very short film.
Our second boy, named Atreyu, is a warrior of the land of Fantasia and the main character of Bastions book. Atreyu is bestowed a grand quest to save the world by the youthful empress of Fantasia.. His quest is to stop a dark force known as The Nothing. The only guide he has through the perilous journey is a magic medallion with untold powers. Both stories feel seemingly disconnected at first until the true power of the book starts to slowly reveal itself.
I won’t go into further detail on the plot as its really the kind of film that when a certain plot point is revealed it adds more questions to the pile; thus if I were to mention any more it will ruin the overall experience for curious first-timers. Here’s what i am going to tell you about — Lets talk about those juicy thematic elements that i spoke of earlier.
This tale woven here is of two seemingly polar opposites stories told from quite similar perspectives with underlying themes throughout both. This is a method of storytelling you may recognize from shows such as Lost or Once Upon A Time. Its two stories in two separate settings that are told at the same time. While these two shows are serviceable examples — none illustrate it better than The Neverending Story.
To start off with, Atreyu and Bastions journeys are both relate-able scenarios to the viewer that we have all been in at one stage or another. Bastion is a downtrodden character who is trying to find his courage against those pushing him down. Atreyu is a boy thrust into a role of massive responsibility and also trying to find his courage. They both have the exact same story arc and both are equitable to real life experiences. This film preaches a motto of “You can do anything that you put your mind to”. This harkens back to a theme I mentioned earlier; believing in yourself. Initially the film pushes the theme of escapism from reality as a quick relief from dealing with your everyday problems. Bastion doesn’t face his problems head on, He avoids them. There is a clear cut message here that there is not anything particularly wrong with escaping from reality for a while, as long as you are willing to feel comfortable in your own reality. Find happiness in pretending to be your favorite character from your fantasies and dreams, but remember that happiness in your own skin is much more important.
This is an exploration of overcoming your own self doubt and attaining the admirable traits of courage and pride. When I first saw this movie, I had a strong attachment to these themes and I didn’t understand why at the time. I identified with the loneliness, the sense of needing to be special and i was enthralled by the characters journey, because I wanted to vicariously live through them and overcome those obstacles myself. This is a plot that has layers to peel back. Despite its seemingly dark tone in the setting of a world on the brink of ruin, nobody could ever describe this as a depressing film, due to these underlying themes of hope and progression.
Director Wolfgang Peterson had a fully realized vision in mind when he was bringing this to the screen. It is noted that these themes were in the original book, but they were not explored as much as the movie. Additionally, The Nothing is effectively a metaphor for the destruction of our earth via dumping toxic wastes, cutting down forests and to a certain degree the use of nuclear weapons. This was present in the original book, but the message was intended to be different from Author Michael Ende.
On a visual note, the location of Bavaria in Germany has the perfect sinister look to balance off the quirkiness of the well crafted puppet characters. Peterson’s vision and Ende’s concept come to life with the charming looking man-made effects that directors nowadays should really consider going back to. Special effects are saturated in movies in this day and age so to see a stunning visual movie done primarily with puppet works and minimal blue screen is a delight. The look of iconic creatures such as Falcor and The Rock Biter can be accredited to these amazing craftsman as well as a painter named Ul De Rico, who designed the characters based on descriptions from Peterson.
Before I confess my undying love for this movie, I must gently point out small areas in which it does not succeed. While the pacing of the movie is brisk in terms of action, we are often brought back to Bastions character to explore scenes that typically don’t have much bearing on the overall plot. It feels like a cheap way of extending the run length which really wasn’t needed. Secondly and somewhat unfairly I must say that the dialogue on hand can be a bit heavy handed in a cheesy way. Exposition is plopped out through vacant eyes and in an over enthusiastic manner. I say this knowing that this may be unfair given that most 1980s films had a running problem of upping the cornball level to the nth degree.
This being said Neverending Story is without a doubt still the classic i remember. An epic fantasy adventure with clever narrative, wonderful scenic locations and breathtaking scenes. A particular shout out must be given to one fight scene against the wolf named Gmork. A highlight of the film to be sure. The author may not have liked this adaptation, but i feel it came from a heart of a true fan of the genre who got to live out his dream and bring the story he loved to life. This is a must watch. If you haven’t seen it, Watch it now. If you have seen it, Comment down below and give me your thoughts!