Looking back at The Neverending Story

Friendly dragons, enchanted books, and a theme song by Limahl? It can only be The Neverending Story. Louisa takes a fond look back at a fantasy classic...

Of the many messages people tried to impart to kids in the 80s, one was put across in such an extraordinary way that it couldn’t fail to make an impact. More important than learning not to suffocate in abandoned fridges or avoid climbing electricity pylons to collect some kid’s kite, was the lesson of 1984’s The Neverending Story. That message? Do what you dream.

It’s a bit suspect as advice goes. Taken literally, doing what you dream not only seems ill-advised, but would require incredible financial resources. People are bound to feel uncomfortable about all those naked public transport journeys, too. The whole thing just seems impractical.

The message is much easier to swallow, though, when not taken literally. Doing what you dream in the sense of following your heart and reaching for the stars is much more useful advice, if a bit trite.

It’s time to stop daydreaming

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The boy who taught us this lesson in the 80s – by learning it himself via a series of messed-up events involving some bullies, a creepy bookshop owner and the ultimate bunk off school – was named Bastian.

When we first meet Bastian in The Neverending Story, he’s sad and misunderstood. His mum has died, and his dad specialises in combining emotionally sterile pep talks with raw egg-based breakfast drinks. In short, the kid’s got problems. Luckily, they’re nothing that can’t be helped by a bit of book thieving and self-administered fiction therapy in the school attic.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Like Sarah in Labyrinth and Dorothy in Return To Oz, Bastian is a dreamer. He’s a loveable dork who likes unicorns more than Maths (who doesn’t?), and talks to his peanut butter sandwiches. As a nine year-old, I quite fancied him. As a twenty nine year-old, I mostly want to make him a proper packed lunch and scream “Give that child a hug, you emotionless husk!” in his Dad’s face.

For Bastian’s dad is a firm believer in the power of parenting through idiom. He tells his son to get his head out of the clouds and keep both feet on the ground, presumably while cutting off his nose to spite his face and pulling his finger out. Misunderstood Bastian meekly agrees with him then trots off, shoulders slumped, to school. On the way, an encounter with a trio of clichéd 80s bullies sends him running off to hide in a magical bookshop.

I’m sure you know what comes next. After nabbing a magic book, Bastian stows away in his creepy school attic where they store all the usual school stuff, you know, like wolf heads on sticks and a graveyard’s worth of bones (what kind of school is this?).

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He then gets involved in a meta-tangle of a story about a magical land called Fantasia, a story which he is simultaneously reading, featuring in, and bringing into existence. Did I mention the movie’s based on a mammoth philosophical German novel, and directed by the guy who did Das Boot? That seems relevant about now.

Fantasia, Bastian reads, is in trouble. It’s besieged by a strange kind of threat, worse even than toxic debt or an energy crisis. Its land is being consumed, piece by piece, by the Nothing.

The Nothing is what makes The Neverending Story the most existentially anxious movie of the enchanted 80s. Fantasia’s big bad is an absence, a void. Not even a hole, as the Rockbiter reminds us, because a hole would be something. What’s destroying Fantasia is, well, nothing, and it’s made the Empress of Fantasia deathly ill.

It was nothing, and it got bigger and bigger

Next, Atreyu, a renowned warrior, is summoned to seek a cure for the Empress. This is where the film’s second, but not final, act of childish wish fulfilment comes in (the first being Bastian having access to unseen, hidden parts of his school): Atreyu is Bastian’s desired self.

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Though just a kid, Atreyu is a courageous, respected hero who rides a horse like nobody’s business. In the real world, Bastian is picked on by other kids and scared of horses, though he idolises the braves of the wild west. You can see what’s going on there. The two actors cast, Barret Oliver as Bastian and Noah Hathaway as Atreyu, share a similar look, even though the first is dressed like a kid from E.T and the second like Robert Plant in the 70s.

Let’s swerve away from the story just for a bit, and consider something these enchanted 80s movies did brilliantly. I don’t mean the effects, some of which still stand up today, others of which are a bit wobbly. Forgive me if I don’t mean the songs either. I know a lot of people have a weird love of the title track from The Neverending Story, but hearing it today pretty much makes me want to self-harm.

Nope, what these movies did brilliantly was to teach their young audiences about metaphor, symbolism and the pleasure of staying up late picking over movie details and theories. They’re basically primers for the film studies students of the future.

I’m willing to bet my Jareth doll that at least some of the following – Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Return To Oz, Willow – found their way first into your childhood sleepovers, and next into your early teen dissections about “meaningful stuff”.

No? Well, okay then, but nobody’s actually getting my Jareth doll. I lied.

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Die? That at least would be something.

The Neverending Story is the perfect movie to have watched goggle-eyed as a kid, then to return to, maybe a bit wasted, as a teen. All those meanings to tease out! All the not-very-well encoded symbolism! The squabbling gnomes Atreyu meets are embodiments of magic and rationalism! The Swamps of Sadness? Depression! That evil black dog, Gmork, who stalks Atreyu and is an agent of the Nothing? A literal representation of Churchill’s metaphorical black dog!

Sylvia Plath thought she’d nailed a metaphor for depression with her bell jar image, but had she waited until the mid-80 to stick her head in an oven, even she’d have seen that Artax the horse being subsumed in the mire-y depths of his own apathy is the best symbol for depression that literature and film can ever produce.

The Neverending Story is a dream for pretentious teens, the perfect fodder for conversations sat around in school corridors at lunchtime, or hunched in the municipal park over a bottle of warm cider. You can trill away about all this for hours with your teen friends, some of whom are possibly, inexplicably, still wearing The Doors T-shirts.

(By the way, if any boys were watching The Neverending Story at their childhood sleepovers, we’re on to the reason why. When Atreyu has to get past the Southern Oracle Sphinxes, he stares up at not one, but two pairs of magnificent be-nippled stone boobies. Maybe that’s what everyone means when they go on about how European a movie it is – a U-certificate kids’ film with full-on boob shots.)

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They look like good strong hands, don’t they?

Apart from a dodgy bat, Fantasia has some great-looking characters. The Rockbiter, who’s beset with survivor guilt after he loses his friends to the Nothing, still looks brilliant after all this time, as does lovely Falkor the luck dragon, all pearly scales, pink fur and filthy laugh.

The rest of the picture looks none too shabby either, despite the trippy scenes of swirling, apocalyptic clouds which lend it the look of an Open University programme on weather systems.

The murky, cloud-laden swamps, icy, bleak tundra and harsh desert leading to the Southern Oracle all combine to create the film’s uncanny universe. No other children’s movies look, or feel quite like it.

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Though it marked director Wolfgang Petersen’s first English language movie, the slow pace of much of the dialogue give it the feel of having been dubbed from another language. Many of the film’s shots are slow and contemplative, with events unfurling and creatures speaking as if they’re stuck inside treacle. Add to that the proggy soundtrack and you end up with an eerie, unusual tone for an 80s kiddy romp.

But that’s impossible

It’s not a film without controversy. Readers of Michael Ende’s original book tend to cry heresy when the movie version is discussed. Ende famously tried to close down production because of the movie’s many differences from his original. Petersen and crew sliced Ende’s story in half, explaining the oddly rushed ending (third childhood wish fulfilment, for anyone keeping count: Bastian gets revenge on his bullies).

The closing scenes with the Empress (an unnervingly adult performance from Tami Stronach) and Bastian are strange and fascinating. In the aftermath of the Nothing, all that’s left of Fantasia is one grain of sand, which needs Bastian’s hopes, dreams and wishes to make it grow. When he gives in to his creative urges, everything comes tumbling back into existence. So much for keeping your feet on the ground, huh, Dad?

So, The Neverending Story. Not quite as scary as Return To Oz, not quite as funny as Labyrinth or Willow, but weirder than all three put together. Michael Ende, Wolfgang Petersen, everyone involved, not to forget Bastian, Atreyu, the Empress and of course, Falkor the luck dragon, we salute you.

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In honour of Labyrinth turning 25, this week we’re looking back at a series of films in our Enchanted 80s season. Tomorrow, we take a look at Return To Oz…

See more of our Looking Back articles here.