Monday, August 20, 2007

The NeverEnding Story (Petersen, 1984)

Although it contains many familiar plot elements, there is probably not another film that feels quite the same as The NeverEnding Story. There is a brave hero who has been sent on a great quest, a trusty steed, a journey filled with all manner of odd creatures who provide clues, a giant, a wolf, a dragon and a child monarch. However, it is not merely the plot that involves the viewer - although it certainly has its share of satisfying developments. Rather, it is the delightful way in which we are lured into the story - not just of a young hunter tasked with the responsibility of finding a cure for the Childlike Empress, but also of an ordinary boy who is discovering the extraordinary power of his own imagination.

You may remember the fantasy scenes more vividly from your childhood than you do the ‘reality’ scenes; however, the way the character of Bastian, the reader, is established is vital to the film’s success and as worthy of praise as anything else we see. First there is the simple and not overly emotional talk from Dad, in which we learn indirectly that Bastian’s Mom is no longer around. Bastian’s father is not painted as a caricature, nor is his advice all that unreasonable. He is loving, although he may not entirely grasp his son’s needs. Then, there is Bastian’s encounter with the bullies in which he is chased down an alleyway and forced to escape into a garbage dumpster. Here we see the daily reality that Bastian’s father is asking him to face. The bullies do not inflict physical pain upon Bastian. It is enough for us to experience his indignity.

Eluding the bullies’ second pursuit, Bastian ducks into an old bookstore run by a crotchety man who takes Bastian for the sort of kid who would rather spend his time at the video arcade. Bastian defends himself as a reader of worthwhile literature. Maybe so, but the shop owner assures him that all that he has experienced is kid-stuff compared to The Neverending Story. Luring Bastian in with quiet intensity, he eventually induces Bastian to ‘borrow’ the book while simultaneously piquing the viewer’s curiosity as well.

Skipping class and hiding himself away in an unused room at his school, Bastian’s decision to read and plunge himself into Fantasia, the setting for The Neverending Story, is positioned as an act of rebellion. This mysterious book and the wonders it must contain are too thrilling to be diluted. The math test will have to wait. His father will have to wait. Bastian isolates himself and plunges into a different world. The geography of Fantasia, with its swirling clouds, murky swamps, shimmering seas and gaping canyons is pleasantly disorienting. We are never quite sure how the various topographies interconnect. It is difficult to grasp how far Atreyu, the hunter, has traveled. When the wolf dispatched to end Atreyu’s mission pursues him, we are not sure how close or far away he is. Making matters worse is the ever-looming presence of The Nothing, a seemingly unstoppable force that rips up everything in its path. This fictional universe is elusive, intangible, ever-shifting and, most importantly, exhilarating.

As events unfold, it becomes clear that Bastian’s role as reader is more vital than he could possibly have imagined. Once Atreyu finally meets the ailing Childlike Empress (played by Tami Stronach, who is breathtaking in the only screen performance of her career), he arrives believing that his quest has been a failure. What follows is a deeply satisfying coup de theater that not only elevates the role of Bastian, the reader, but by logical extension, the viewer as well.

Michael Ende, the man who wrote the work upon which Wolfgang Petersen’s film is based, was deeply dissatisfied with the adaptation, going so far as to sue to have the name changed. It’s a shame - because one of the strongest feelings the film inspires in the viewer is the desire to lock oneself away with Mr. Ende’s book.



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