Along with Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story makes up the holy trinity of early 1980s fantasy film. Before I review this DVD, I must admit that I remember with clarity going to see this movie at the cinema and absolutely loving it. As a result it still holds a certain place in my geeky heart. Therefore if the review seems to be overly gushy, I am unapologetic. My journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are going to be somewhat tainted by the many memories I have of spending my childhood wanting to be able to chase bullies into a bin while riding on a back of a Luck Dragon.
Based on the 1979 German fantasy novel Die unendliche Geschichte, the film’s unique visual look, script and brilliant soundtrack comes from the fact that the film is actually European rather than American. With an eye for a more obscure sense of fantasy, director Wolfgang Petersen used numerous conceptual artists from across Europe to give the magical world of Fantasia a unique look filled with rock-biters, celestial towers, Nubian warriors and trippy cloud formations all scored by European ‘prog-music’ guru Klaus Doldinger. It is this aspect that makes The Neverending Story stand out so much from the other tide of fantasy flotsam that clogged up a lot of 1980s (Ladyhawke, Legend, Last Unicorn etc.). With its darker, nastier tone the movie is never overly sentimental; though not as dark or brooding as Krull, it still has meaningful deaths and even a splashing of blood here and there. It’s very much a mature children’s fantasy film.
The movie starts out in the real world, where we are introduced to Bastion Bux, a bookish kid who has not only had a recent family tragedy but is also the target of bullying at school. After being chased down by these bullies one day he comes across a bookshop and the mystical Neverending Story which he ‘borrows’ from the shop and subsequently spends all day and night reading, skipping school to read in an atmospheric secret loft.
While this is all happening in the real world, in the mystical world of Fantasia the child-like empress has called a meeting of the various creatures, tribes and beings who inhabit this mystical realm to explain about the Nothing – a reality-wiping storm that is slowly eating away at the world, and slowly killing her as well. Asking for help she assigns the bravest and greatest warrior the realm has – Atreyu – to try to find a way to stop the Nothing.
Decked out with 80s glamour and surreal images, this initial meeting on Fantasia really sets the standard for the film, showing off the amazingly imaginative tone of the film. Visually stunning, the look of the films is like nothing ever seen before. From giant floating heads to super-sonic snails to goblins riding giant bats to the breathtaking ‘rock-eater’ (and his bike), the film’s special effects are outstanding. You can see the influence this crowd scene has had in the market scene in Hellboy 2, which is similarly filled with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them creative creatures and marvelous monsters.
Following the adventures of Atreyu, Bastion, along with the viewer, is transported through the film on a quest through fantastical realms filled with creatures such as the giant allergic tortoise-like Morla, helpful gnomes like Engywook and Urgl traversing places such as the Swamps of Sadness, and trying to get past the Southern Oracle’s laser-firing Sphinxes. We are also introduced to one of the best-looking (ie non-CG) fantasy dragons ever seen on screen, Falkor.
Neverending Story, at just over an hour and a half, manages to tell an epic quest and a very personal story at the same time. Taking you to a realm of imagination and fantasy is all well and good but it’s not all happiness, the film is filled with some scary, dark and quite sinister elements. While not on the same scale as the malevolent Skeksies from Dark Crystal, G’mork, the evil wolf avatar of the Nothing is relentless in his quest to bring down Atreyu and to continue the Nothing’s domination of Fantasia and I guarantee that you will feel a pang when Atreyu’s loyal horse, Artax, gets drowned in the Swamps of Sadness.
As I mentioned before, I love this movie and cannot really fault it. However, I wish that other people would have the same respect for this fantasy classic – and by “people”, I mean Warner Home Video.
The conversion of this film to DVD really seems to be really lacking in every area. Even if this is meant to be a budget release, the production of this disc is pretty dire. Even though it’s presented in widescreen, the picture quality hasn’t really been restored or enhanced, making the movie look as though it comes straight from 1984. Purists who like a straight-from-tape-conversion look, and those who prefer retro production values might enjoy this, but fans of this film have been waiting patiently for a Region 2 release to replace their well-watched VHS copies for a long time, and really, I think they will be very disappointed indeed. DVD releases are supposed to enhance films, and for a movie that is so reliant on its vibrant colours, detail and production values, this effort on the part of Warner is severely lacking.
The original Region 1 version is in 4:3 format, and if I were a more cynical reviewer I’d suggest that this “new” release is really just a re-hash of this version. In an age where Blu-Ray players and a hi-def TVs are becoming more and more common, this laziness is unacceptable. Added to this there are no special features other than biographies of the actors and the initial trailer, making it a barely above vanilla release. Compared to, say, the initial DVD release of Labyrinth, which had an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary on it (even for fewer than ten quid!) it definitely seems that fans of this film are being fleeced with an inferior cash-in.
Technical aspects aside, this is still a superb bit of 80s fantasy fun, and you’ll be humming “Never ending storyeeeee-na-na-na-nanana” for days afterwards. Although it’s not as well-loved as the Bowie-driven goblin escapades of Labyrinth (although Limahl could’ve given Bowie a run for his money in the 1980s mullet stakes) ‘Story holds its own by being a film of pure imagination; a dream translated onto celluloid, splashing every bullied, frightened, lonely child’s wish fulfillment fantasies onto the screen for everyone to see.