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A young, lonely boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) lives with his widowed father (Gerald McRaney). He doesn’t have many friends and is the target of bullies who chase him down alleyways and into trash dumpsters and because this was before the internet there are no viral video of that happening. So it is on this day while on his way to school, Bastian finds himself running from thugs again, this time escaping into a side-street bookstore because also, this was before the internet and side-street bookstores were a thing instead of coffee shops.
Inside, the crotchety old owner is reading an old book that he says is not safe to read since unlike other stories, you don’t get to come back from the adventures. He warns Bastian to leave it alone (wink wink) so naturally, as the man becomes distracted, Bastian five-fingers the bulky read, “borrowing it” before running to school where he then skips classes and heads up to the attic to take a peak at this so-called dangerous book. The story starts fast, telling of a desperate young hero on a quest to save an enchanted faraway world named Fantasia, a mystical land that has become the victim of a dreadful scourge, a frightful power slowly consuming the world and leaving behind a hideous void. It is called “The Nothing.” The thing eating Fantasia that is. Not the book. The book is called, wait for it . . . The Neverending Story.
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson and adapted from the German children’s fantasy novel of the same name, The NeverEnding Story is a wonder to watch for its well-made practical special effects, which succeed in creating a vivid world populated by such things as Luck Dragons and Rockbiters. It is aimed squarely at a younger audience, delivering a rich, imaginative experience that grown ups might still enjoy. And, being a German children’s fantasy, is wildly weird and dark. Admittedly, it gets a bit heavy-handed at times, with its menacing adversaries, but the twist between the real and fantastical is a standout with Bastian reading the story as it comes to life, slowing becoming more deeply immersed, where he eventually realizes he is the very reason it exists at all. That’s a powerful read. And like every movie, it has one great (toothy) moment.
Fantasia is about to go belly up. The Nothing is closing in fast and behind it well, there’s nothing. Sent on a mission by the little girl ruler of Fantasia, The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) living in the Ivory Tower, the young hero, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is tasked with finding a cure to stop The Nothing’s evil doing. Atop his trusty steed, Artax, Atreyu, is armed only with the AURYN (man that’s a lot of A’s), a dual snake emblem of one eating the other, representing infinity. Hey! That is on the cover of the book Bastian is reading. We’re catching on to you, Neverending Story.
As Atreyu rides through the countryside, he, and by default, Bastian, and of course we the audience, witness the devastation of the horrify force tearing apart the lands, but finding no answers no matter whom Atreyu meets along the way. Worse, unknown to him at first, The Nothing as conjured a terrible wolf-like monster that is hot on his tail, a relentless beast that’s only job is to stop him from finding the secret that can save all of Fantasia. Let’s talk about him.
By the third act, *spoilers*, Atreyu has lost all his friends to The Nothing, even well, something special in dreary place called the Swamps of Sadness, but to be sure, a place called the Swamps of Sadness is probably a good a place as any to find dreary. Now utterly alone, fighting despair, storms, and questioning his own ability to please the Childlike Empress, he meets Morla the Ancient One, a rather large and groggy tortoise who lives in the swamps and is either cause of it sorrowfullness-ness or is reason she is a bit dour herself.
The old turtle gives the boy some sound advice, telling Atreyu to get a move on to The Southern Oracle where she is sure he can find the answers to his troubling queries. One problem though. The Southern Oracle is ten thousand miles away. So Atryu gives up and The Nothing wins. The end. Thanks for reading.
Oh wait. No, actually, as luck would have it, Atreyu gets a bit of luck in meeting a luck dragon who luckily flies him there. That’s lucky. And luckily, it’s a part of the story I’ll skip so we gan get right to G’mork. Who is G’mork? This is G’mork.
You can see why The Nothing chose him. I mean, if you’re gonna send a henchman to scare the bejeeshum out of a little kid, a puffy white bunny isn’t the way to go. You have to have some teeth. And thankfully, G’mork has got them. And then some. It’s biting time.
And so now we come to their fateful meeting and the exhausted but stalwart Atreyu is now face-to-face with his second greatest enemy (The Nothing is the first, people. Really. Pay attention). By looking at the two, you’d think, well, someone ring the bell, this fight is over, thanks everyone for playing, but G’mork has got this, can anyone give me a ride home? But good on G’mork, he’s a chatty henchman, and falling victim to that timeless movie villain tradition of explaining everything away before supposedly doing in the hero, G’mork really lets it all air out.
G’mork reveals that Fantasia in the home of all of human fantasy and this being a kid’s movie, that entails funny-looking creatures but none engaged in a three-way with a Rockbiter atop the Ivory Tower. He doesn’t actually say all of that, but you get the idea. The Nothing is in fact the emptiness created by our loss of hopes and dreams. And a people who have no hopes and dreams are easy to control and whoever has control has the power. Wait a minute, this is all starting to sound like a political metaphor. Nice going Nevervending Story. Way to make me think while fantasizing about funny-looking creatures in the Ivory Tower.
But then, G’mork let’s slip a bit of something he doesn’t know. Sent by The Nothing to kill the one who can stop them, he lost him in the Swamps of Sadness. Ding! He doesn’t get it that Atreyu is the one. It’s understandable. Without a Google search, it’d be hard to find an image of him. Now with the upper hand, surprise on his side, Atreyu picks up a (rather convenient) dagger-shaped stone and beckons the wolf to fight, for he is the boy he seeks. “Come for me, G’mork,” he shouts. And he does. Initiate chills.
It is this moment in The NeverEnding Story that reveals the true braveness in Atreyu, a young man who has endured so much and becomes forever linked with the boy reading about him in a magical book in a dusty school attic. The parallels and symbolisms of the two journeys are now connected, with the courage of one who faces his fears inspiring the other to find himself. Atreyu is a perfectly-realized hero character, a child who travels along the imaginations of others on an odyssey of self-discovery but also of hope, the warrior at the heart of Bastian’s own story, the inner fighter who survives the sorrows and despair of loss and once again has hopes and dreams. Yes, sure, it’s about Germany, but much more so, it’s about imagination and for any child watching, it’s free to soar . . . on the back of a luck dragon.