Rated: 2.5 / 5
Confession: I have not read the book. And I know a lot of people are going to say, “The book is way better! The movie only has half of the whole (never ending) story!” Fans of the book have a disliking for it, and the author of the book hates the movie. But despite that, this film is considered an all-time (children’s) classic in fantasy adventure. The special effects, the imaginative world and inhabitants, the journey, the meta-narrative. A movie for the imagination.
Upon a rewatch, I found I still have the same opinion about this movie I did as a kid. “Eh.” A so-so movie. A decent movie, but not one I would consider fantastic. The reason has to do with the depth of the film when it comes to its themes and morals. In that they come across as shallow to me. They’re good themes, but knowing what they are and what the film represents and knowing what it’s leading up to, it doesn’t make the narrative all that interesting. The main thing this film has going for it as far as maintaining my attention goes is the music and the imagery. And they are great at several moments. Good enough to elevate the film to its position of fame.
The problem is that there’s already another film similar to it in these regards, but with more depth (in my personal opinion). The Dark Crystal. It has the music, it has the imagery, but it also has more depth. What kind of depth am I referring to? The lore of the world. Fantasia in The Neverending Story doesn’t have all that much going for it when it comes to the lore and what fills the world. Sure there’s some religious imagery that can be traced back to those who created The Neverending Story (I’m talking about the writer of the novel and the creators of the film, who must have been aware of what some of these things represented, such as the talisman, and the sphinxes, among other things). But this isn’t a world the offers much in terms of history. And there were plenty of missed opportunities to indulge in such histories, such as the first two lands Atreyu journeyed to in order to find a cure for the princess, which were completely glossed over. I mean, just making them only 2 minutes each would’ve been enough, even if it ended up equating to, “the cure is in another castle.” If you ever watch The Dark Crystal, that is a world filled to the brim with history, of events in the past that shaped the current state of the world, of certain species, of prophecies, even the creation of the world itself. Most of it is subtle and implied, but giving the film a close inspection, there is more than enough there to make fan clubs out of debating their meanings. The Neverending Story, by comparison, is more shallow. And it’s difficult to objectively fault the film when it’s intentionally designed to be that way for specific reasons that relate to the story itself.
Unlike The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story is a meta-narrative in the sense that virtually all that is within Fantasia is the product of a boy’s imagination. There isn’t much history to it precisely because he just started the story, because he’s young, because everything about him should be shallow with his youth. The whole point of this film is to inspire the imaginations of youth, and to act as a mental study of our reader protagonist. The horse dies because it’s sad, so did the kid’s mother (that’s the implication I was getting). There is a giant turtle who doesn’t care about anything. The boy is in a similar mindset. Atreyu represents what Bastian wants to be. Blah blah blah. I mean, in all fairness, this is one of the earliest films with this sort of metaphorical narrative I know of that pulled it off well. The problem I have with it is that all this imagination, this world, the inhabitants within it, the visuals, they don’t come off as having a life of their own as a result of this. It makes me feel cheated because I wanted to see more of this world. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see how deep its history goes and what wonders there are to explore in it. But there are none. Because it’s all stuff that’s just made up along the way for the sake of having this boy getting over his “my mommy died” bout of depression. As much as I hate to admit this, A Monster Calls (2016) was more interesting with how it tackled this subject matter. Because at least in that film, what the kid experienced in the fantasy world had a direct effect on how he tackled the issues in reality. Same thing with Where the Wild Thing Are (2009), except I’ll take The NeverEnding Story over Where the Wild Things Are in spite of that as far as entertainment goes. But a more personal favorite of mine when it comes to a film that pretty much does exactly what this film does except it does it better as far as execution of the allegories/metaphors goes, while being a kid film that acknowledges the importance of stories, how they can inspire, and the imagination (less so on the imagination part) is The Pagemaster (1994).
Edit: Oh wait, that’s right. Wizard of Oz sort of did this too.
Bastian getting over depression aside, there were a few aspects of the film that did pique my interest. One aspect is that Bastian is a bookworm, though likely as a result of closing himself off from everyone and staying within his books, stories that he can escape to. And the store clerk challenges Bastian on this.
“What’s that book about?”
“Oh, this is something special.”
“What is it?”
“Look, your books are safe. While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe…”
“But that’s what I like about ’em.”
“Ah, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen. Have you ever been Captain Nemo trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?”
“Aren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?”
“But it’s only a story.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read… are safe.”
“And that one isn’t?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
This is one of the few genius moments in the film that elevate it to the heights I was hoping for, albeit briefly and temporarily. The idea that not just Bastian, but many of us retreat from reality into books. But that can also be extended to films and video games (in fact, the film mentions video games in this very scene, and later on utilizes the film itself to basically make a statement that we retreat into films as well for the same reason). We want to escape from reality by temporarily living in a fantasy world, as someone else. Like how we could play as Geralt in The Witcher. Or as Samus in the Metroid games (preferably the good ones). A lesbian in Blue is the Warmest Color. A dog in Fluke. Or to a more interesting extent, the alter-ego of your choice in any decent “create your own character” RPG or even T-RPG like Dungeons & Dragons or something. With the latter, that’s basically what Atreyu is to Bastion. Except with us, when we’re done with our game, movie, or tabletop RPG session, we’re done with that and back to our regular life unchanged from those few hours of escapism. Despite the amount of time we spend in our lives in those things, how often can we say they changed us? That we will be a different person afterwards than who we were before that experience? Granted, there will be some instances where some people will say a film has changed their life (and I’ll admit, that’s happened to me on a few occasions), but those are usually the exception to the rule. Most of the time, we escape into a world of fantasy through whichever method just to temporarily inhabit a fictional life, rather than a life that acts as an extension of our own.
How interesting would it be where we go to a fantasy world where things can happen that affect not just that world, but the world we live in as well? Or in a more realistic sense, experience a story that changes us, inspires us, and causes us to want to do things we wouldn’t have done prior to the experience? Books that aren’t considered safe. The sort of books that would be burned in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China, Equilibrium, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, SJW Britain and NPC America?
The main lesson the film carries regarding books and stories is the imagination they inspire. The sort of imagination every kid should have. The type of fantasy that is limitless without boundaries (the boundaries only really being the limits of the imagination). The freedom to do so, without sadness, depression, nihilism chaining them down. The consequences of doing so are brought up in another one of those brief instances the film temporarily elevates itself to greatness.
“But why is Fantasia dying then?”
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”
“What is the Nothing?”
“It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.”
“Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control… has the power!”
Sadness, not having a care in the world, the loss of hope, giving in to nihilism, the sort of things that can ultimately kill the imagination. And those without imagination or creativity are doomed to be mindless followers to those who deem themselves to be puppet masters. Closest I could get in terms of allegory for this concept is those 3 bullies that chased and dumped Bastian in the garbage. So I guess anyone who could be considered a bully in general who wishes to exploit you in one fashion or another. Plus it’s implied Bastian doesn’t have the will to fight back against them because of how his depression has eased him closer to a state of hopelessness. Personally, I don’t see this as the strongest method for getting the theme across in terms of who the puppet masters could be. Would’ve been nice if there was some sort of equivalent in Fantasia, which makes it a missed opportunity for having something that could add backstory and lore to the world of Fantasia.
The only other instance where the film became elevated (only slightly this time) was when the Empress implies that Bastian can make any number of wishes he wants, and the more wishes he makes the better, because Fantasia can be recreated by, and therefore is fueled by, the imagination of a child who makes wishes that he wishes to come true. The idea being a child should always have wishes, and let his imagination run wild with them, so he can be creative, so he can have hopes and dreams. And the epilogue came off weak with how it decided to carry this out. It was fine until he decided to fly to, um, whatever city he was living in, and have the dragon chase down the bullies. It’s not that interesting, and it seems so shallow compared to the film’s ambitions. It would’ve been better if there were bullies (aka puppet masters) in Fantasia that Bastian wished to have others confront and defeat, like Atreyu or someone. Plus it’s cheap. Bastian should’ve confronted those bullies himself. I mean, even Godzilla’s Revenge (aka All Monster’s Attack, 1969) got that right, and that movie sucks!
The brief moments that elevate the film to greatness on a thematic level are overshadowed by the overly shallow nature of Fantasia. For a film that wants Bastian to not play things safe and fight back against bullies (let alone get over depression and have hopes and dreams for the future), it really pulled its punches on that character arc. This is one of those movies I really wanted to love, even back in the day. But even back then I knew there was something about it that wasn’t fully satisfying. Today, now I know what that is. But it will always have the music and visuals going for it.
That being said, the main thing that appealed to me was the whole “using your imagination to create and give life to a world” element. Yes, it’s meant to inspire people to be imaginative, but there’s something else there too. I knew there had to have been others before me who had this sort of belief, though it’s primarily self-contained within this film (though I heard the author of the original book has some connections with this sort of belief system). That imaginations are powerful, that they can actually create real worlds. It kind of goes back to my belief in the afterlife, but also how everything is a thought in time, a thought created for the purpose of learning from it, and to have life experiences from it. I won’t get too into it here, as this is just a movie review. But I will say this. Don’t underestimate the power of the imagination, and the power tales of fantasy created from such imaginations can have on people. It is my belief that fantasy tales are the best when it comes to bringing out the creative side in us all, stretches the imagination to its limits, and brings out themes/morals in the most abstract and timeless manner possible.