Sing along with that fantastically cheesy theme song. Go on, you know you want to. “Die Unendliche Geschichte”, written by Michael Ende (1929-1995) was a huge international bestseller and the movie adaptation had the biggest budget in German film history. It is still the most financially successful German film of all time. Those of us who adored it as children have been known to regress into wide-eyed moppets every time it screens on TV. Which makes an objective review difficult, but not impossible. The film isn’t perfect - after all, The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz filed a lawsuit against it for false advertising…
Bastian (Barret Oliver) is a troubled little boy mourning his dead mother and raised by a stern, but well meaning father (Gerald McRaney). Escaping three school bullies (Drum Garrett, Darryl Cooksey, Nicholas Gilbert), he hides in a second-hand bookstore owned by Mr. Koreander (Thomas Hill), where a mysterious book captivates the avid reader’s wild imagination. Mr. Koreander warns the book is too much for little Bastian, but deliberately turns his back and lets the boy run away with it. Hiding in the school’s attic, Bastian begins to read about a magical land called Fantasia, a wondrous kingdom ruled by the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) and populated by colourful creatures like the Rock Biter, Teeny Weeny (Deep Roy, future Oompa Loompa in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the Racing Snail, Night Hob (Tilo Prückner) and his “stupid bat”. Something terrible is happening to Fantasia, as parts are consumed by an omniscient force known only as “the Nothing”. The Childlike Empress summons her strongest warrior, who to everyone’s surprise turns out to be young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), entrusts him with a protective signet and sends him beyond the bounds of Fantasia to find a human child who will stop “the Nothing”. Atreyu’s epic journey sees him pursued by a wolf-like agent of darkness, pass a gateway guarded by two stone Sphinxes, consult the giant turtle sage Cairon (voiced by Moses Gunn), befriend bickering gnomes Engywook and Urgl (Sydney Bromley and Patricia Hayes) and best of all, lovable “luck dragon” Falkor (voiced by Allan Oppenheimer). As Bastion reads of the boy hero’s amazing adventures, he slowly begins to realize whom Atreyu and the Childlike Empress are actually seeking.
Following his gritty submarine drama, Das Boot (1981), this was a surprising English language debut for Wolfgang Peterson. Mounted on an impressively grand scale, in some ways The Never Ending Story is a culmination of all those German fairytale movies made from the Fifties down to the Seventies. Gorgeous sets, optical effects and imaginative creature designs (fluffy, white furred Falkor became the most popular monster, although Cairon remains the most impressive puppet) conjure a world of colourful whimsy. This fairytale beauty beguiles all the more nowadays with the genre bogged down in sub-Tolkien, Celtic fantasy and hard-edged visuals straight out of Saving Private Ryan. Peterson’s film straddles the line between adventure and the trickier sub-genre of lyrical, wish-fulfilment fantasy, where emotionally damaged children weave elaborate fantasy worlds to nurture and sustain them. Its gentle nature might bore action fans. There is spectacle on offer, but derived mostly from what Atreyu sees and endures instead of fierce fantasy battles. Peterson’s directorial skill endows the set-pieces with tension (Atreyu sneaking past the Sphinx), emotion (his horse being sucked into the swamp) and excitement (Falkor’s flight to escape “the Nothing”) complemented by Jost Vacano’s delicate photography. Klaus Doldinger’s score is suitably stirring, sweeping us through those grandiose vistas, although Giorgio Moroder’s synth-twiddling additions are symptomatic of the times.
As youngsters, for whom this film’s poster was as iconic as Star Wars, we empathised unquestioningly with shy, bookish Bastian’s plight. Who didn’t dream of flying on Falkor’s back, chasing bullies and soaring onto greater adventures? Yet viewed today, you have to wonder whether withdrawing wholly into fantasy will help Bastian cope with everyday problems. Sooner or later, he’ll have to come back down to earth. His theft of the book also feels like a misstep. Okay, so Mr. Koreander meant for him to take it, but what kind of a message does that send? If someone doesn’t give you what you want, just steal it?
These criticisms aside, the film features an endearing, well written story that captures the imagination. Venerable cult film critic Tim Lucas once wrote viewers were emotionally excluded from this movie’s fantasy world, but Bastian struggle coping with the loss of his mother does move and the central concept of a book that comes alive remains spine-tingling. The moment the Childlike Empresses calls Bastian by name still makes hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Barret Oliver is a sympathetic lead, but the most winning performances come from former Battlestar Galactica actor Noah Hathaway (plucky, yet vulnerable as Atreyu) and angelic Tami Stronach, in her only film role. Many a young boy lost his heart to the Iranian born actress, who is impressively emotive in the closing moments where its just the Childlike Empress and Bastian, alone in the dark, clutching a burning ember. Magical stuff.
Some fans felt disappointed the film neglected to include Bastian’s own adventures in Fantasia (which brings us back to Lionel Hutz…). Yet in retrospect it makes sense to end things with the conclusion of his narrative arc, as anything else would seem like postscript. Nevertheless, George Miller’s The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990) adapted the latter half of Michael Ende’s novel. Heavily delayed, because the young actors (who all sustained injuries during production) fell out with producers, it features the late Jonathan Brandis (Seaquest D.S.V. (1993), Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999)) as Bastian. Very much the lesser film, but not without interest. That’s more than can be said for The Never Ending Story III (1994) which comes from the director of Rambo III (1988)! Peter MacDonald’s crass concoction stirs rock and roll, karate and a pre-stardom Jack Black into the mix and is best avoided. Unhappy with all three movies, Michael Ende co-scripted Tales from the Never Ending Story (2001), a television series that has its fans around Europe.
Best stick with the original. The most commonly screened version of The Never Ending Story, the so-called “international version” runs 94 minutes, but the original German cut clocks in at 102 minutes. Having never seen the uncut version one hopes this will be sourced for any future DVD release (but with the classic poster, please).