As a child I loved The NeverEnding Story. Yet, while I waited for the anniversary screening my powers of recall betrayed those memories. Namely, the specifics of the plot were vague. The more I tried to remember the more I was surprised to find that there was precious little about the story, aside from Falkor, Rockbiter, and the horse sinking in the muck, that I recalled.
Did the horse actually die? I thought. I think I read something about the hydraulic device which lowered it quit working. The poor beast drowned because they could not raise it out. Ugh. It would appear everything about The NeverEnding Story, even behind the scenes things about the film itself were lost in a fog. In my defense, it has been 30-something years since I’ve seen it.
As I watched the movie there was a further disconnect. There were cracks, not just because of the years, like special effects that were dated to my modern eyes, but cracks in the lenses through which I saw the movie. The NeverEnding Story wasn’t was wonderful as I remembered it, but unlike some other movies at least it was still standing.
I need to admit that I’ve not read the book so I cant say how the story unfolds there, but the movie’s progression from plot point to plot point leaves something to be desired. It lightly touches on the surface of a scene, giving the briefest of introductions, and moves hastily on. There are two possibilities for this: the limited time allowed to tell the story and the intended audience. Most likely, the answer is a mix of the two.
As for the runtime, the filmmakers had to squeeze The NeverEnding Story into a ninety minute format, which they did well considering it came in at 1:42. Again, as I stated, I’ve not read the book on which it is based, but nevertheless I understand that movies based on books are necessarily different and much is lost or rewritten to make the story fit the medium.
Still, I got the feeling that there were things that were rushed, things that were likely given more time in the book, in order to get to the parts of the story that worked best for film. So, we got a brief scene with Bastian and his father to get an idea of Bastian’s character. A quick run in with the bullies to get him into the bookstore. And with both of those established we understand why he goes into the attic to read rather than to class when he arrives at school.
Then in Fantasia, we are introduced to Teeny Weeny, Night Hob, and Rockbiter who feel like they should have more purpose than simply be fanciful denizens (eye candy) and exposition. Yet, that’s all they are. They get us to the Tower, and more importantly, to Atreyu and the hero’s quest. So Atreyu’s adventure is the heart of the story, but even it is a too quick, a convenient set of “this happened” and “then that” and then “the next thing what happened” scenes, which feel thrown together until we get to the end.
At the conclusion we all feel warm and fuzzy and the credits roll, but it feels a bit hollow.
On the other hand, the audience is obviously young adults/adolescents. While it would be patronizing to suggest that the plot has to be lowest-common-denominator to reach them, YA stories are more simplistic in order to be more accessible. It’s a difficult line to tread. To my adult eyes, the story often feels like the filmmakers decided to err on the side of lowest-common-denominator. It lost its impact in trying to make sure it beat the audience over the head with the obvious story elements.
There is a third consideration. It could also be that this is a German story, translated into a German film, made for a global audience. There are several difficult levels of translation there which stand to confound the film’s final expression, audience and time constraints aside.
Still, there is an earnestness to the film which makes it enduring despite these faults.
In all fairness, The NeverEnding Story did surprise me. The full implication of the big reveal was lost on me until this viewing. And the more I think about it, maybe they set the bar exactly where it needed to be set.
The reveal I’m speaking of is when Atreyu finally meets the Empress. She explains why what he’s been through does matter, was absolutely necessary in fact, despite her knowing from the beginning what needed to happen. It was Atreyu’s adventure that brought Bastian, the reader of The NeverEnding Story, along. Moreover, (breaking the fourth wall) there are others, the audience in the theater watching The NeverEnding Story, who are being brought along via Bastian’s story.
The second part, us as the ultimate audience, is the crux. It is at this point that the whole thing truly becomes the The NeverEnding Story, a meta reflection on itself like infinite reflection mirrors.
Whoa! Mind blown.
The screening I attended opened with a short, behind-the-scenes short documentary. In it they discussed how the author, Michael Ende, hated the ending of the film. He was so adamant in his disgust that he actively tried to get the movie shut down. What Ende hated was the movie had Bastian come out of Fantasia, bringing Falkor with him into the real world.
But is that what happened?
Remember, the Empress recognized Fantasia was in a book being read by Bastian. Bastian reading the book was itself a fiction, a movie, being watched by all of us. To punctuate this idea the narrator ends the film telling us Bastian had many more adventures, but that’s another story. Therefore, it would stand to reason, that Bastian never left Fantasia because there was no border between Fantasia and the movie. They were one and the same. All Bastian did was recreate Fantasia in the world he had inhabited.
So, maybe The NeverEnding Story is a bit fast and loose because it is geared for a young audience, and has a strict time constraint, but taken in whole it manages to reach even us old folks. By the end it manages to elevate those of us firmly on the ground, if only briefly, back into the clouds, into the infinite possibilities of dreams and imagination.