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THE NEVERENDING STORY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, Gerald McRaney
Director:  Wolfgang Petersen
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Pan & Scan 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Notes and Trivia, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  92 Minutes
Release Date:  September 4, 2001

“What if they really DO know about me in Fantasia?”

Film ****

Every child had one movie that meant more to him or her than any other.  For me, that film was The Neverending Story.

Even more than the enchanting E.T. that preceded it by three years, The Neverending Story captured my heart, my breath, and my imagination.  I responded to it on every possible level.  I understood every valuable point.  I lived every magical moment.

I loved Bastian (Oliver) because he was like me…a boy surrounded by books that took him anywhere he wanted to go.  We even shared some of the same favorites.  I loved him because he understood the power that books held…they opened the doors of imagination.  You could be anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I loved the concept that a book he reads comes to life by the power of his own fantasies.  I loved that the movie had something to say about the strength of imagination, and the importance of a single child who never saw himself as anything special.  How many kids have felt the same way?  Here, at last, was a story to prove how wrong they were.

The Neverending Story shows through adventurous storytelling, fantastic special effects and wonderful, memorable characters how important even the smallest of us is.  Bastian may be a daydreamer with problems, but that turns out to be crucial.  If he wasn’t…well…

As the film opens, we learn about him.  His mother has died recently.  His loving father (McRaney) is doing his best to help his son face forward.  He’s tormented by bullies, and he has troubles with school.  He is, in other words, a protagonist just about any kid can relate to.

In one of the most intriguing openings, Bastian meets a mysterious old book store owner, who warns him about a strange book called The Neverending Story.  “Your books are safe,” he intones.  “By reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe…but afterwards, you get to be a little boy again, right?”

Bastian borrows the book and heads for his school’s attic for a full day’s reading.  By the time a stormy night rolls around, he and we will have traveled a long way together.

The story is about a world called Fantasia, and it’s filled with amazing characters…the giant Rock Biter, the elfin Engywook, the vicious Gmork and more.  The problem is, it’s a world that’s dying, and nobody knows why.  A terrible Nothing has been sweeping over the land, causing more and more of it to disappear.  An appeal is made to the Childlike Empress (Stronach), only to find that she, too, is deathly ill.

A warrior is sent for…the brave young Atreyu (Hathaway).  He is given the task of finding a cure for the Empress, which may be the only hope of stopping the Nothing from destroying Fantasia.  No one can tell him where to look or who to ask, and time is running out.

Atreyu’s adventures take him all over Fantasia, where he encounters even more amazing characters (the turtle-like Morla, the friendly Luck Dragon Falkor), and visits strange places (the Swamps of Sadness, the Sea of Possibilities).  All the while, Bastian follows him every step of the way, never imagining that he, in the ordinary world, is the key to the future of this imaginary one.

I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I saw this movie, because I still feel that way when I see it now.  Unlike many kids’ movies that become more nostalgic and less enchanting with the passage of time, The Neverending Story is as beautiful as ever, because it really has something to say.  Some call it a lesson on the value of reading…or, if a kid already understands that lesson, like Bastian and myself, it becomes a confirmation of all your deepest hopes and dreams.

My first real thought after viewing the film for the first time was simply that I wished I had written it.  I still feel like that, because this movie says everything I had ever wanted to say about the value of imagination.  Bastian went places I could never really go, to be sure…but he and this movie made me believe that I could.

The young cast is quite charming, though none of them went on to distinguished acting careers.  Young Barret Oliver was good as Bastian, the quintessential Everykid who allowed us to experience the story through his eyes.  Noel Hathaway carries most of the film as Atreyu…he plays the role with sincerity and conviction, and we therefore follow him gladly.  Most amazing of all, however, is Tami Stronach as the Empress, who delivers a potent, unforgettable performance in a small amount of screen time.  Her spirit is exactly what the film needs at the moment it needs it most, and all these years later, it still breaks my heart that she never appeared in another movie.

This was acclaimed director Wolfgang Petersen’s first English language film.  He co-scripted the story as well, and it was quite a departure from the action/dramas he was most known for (and would be known for again).  The Neverending Story doesn’t make for the most comfortable fit in his body of work, but that’s just fine…it’s a movie that deserves a shelf all to itself.

Amusingly enough, this was the first movie I ever wrote about…not a review, but just a short paper in which I plotted out the obvious symbolism of the movie.  The Sea of Possibilities is where the story hinges on a pivotal point.  The Swamps of Sadness was a dreary place where if sadness overtook you, you would sink.  Falkor’s impeccable timing was perfect for a Luck Dragon.  And most of all, the Ivory Tower of the Empress symbolized hope.  It was where the people of Fantasia gathered in hopes of preventing the end.  It became, at the finale, the site of a new beginning.  (The paper, by the way, impressed no one, but here I am, seventeen years later, still writing about The Neverending Story.  I guess it really is never ending!)

In the end, maybe some kids did pick up a few more books because of this movie.  Maybe a few more pages got turned in childlike awe and anticipation.  Maybe, in the back of a few young minds, Fantasia came to life for real, and they found they could escape there themselves when the world closed in a little too much. 

And after all, maybe, just maybe, we really are just as important to the things we imagine as they are to us.

Video ***1/2

Thank goodness the marketing geniuses at Warner Bros. didn’t decide THIS was a family film that should be in full frame only, a la Willy Wonka.  The visuals in The Neverending Story are all about perspectives, and you can’t appreciate that perspective in pan and scan.  In scope form, one never loses sight of how big some creatures are, and how tiny others can be in juxtaposition.  This film has a wondrous, colorful look about it that translates well to DVD (even more so than my old faithful laser disc copy).  From brightly lit shots to darker ones, images render cleanly and smoothly, with excellent detail and a full, distinct, wide palate of colors to play with.  There are some minor shot-to-shot inconsistencies, whereby brief cuts show a little more softness and enhancement of texture, but these are few and fleeting.  For the most part, this movie has never looked so good, and I think fans who loved the picture will be more than pleased.

Audio **

The problem with the surround track is that it’s so damn quiet.  I’ve had many discs where I felt the need to turn down the sound, but never until now have I had to go the other way.  This was a film begging for a full, new 5.1 remix, but it didn’t get it.  The original audio is serviceable, but lacks any real dynamic range until the last half hour or so, where the rumblings of the Nothing really make the sound come to life.  The rear stage is used sparingly, but often effectively, with some extra ambient sound effects and occasional musical cues from Giorgio Moroder’s amazing score.  All in all, a workable listen, but with DVD, the potential was there to be a lot better.

Features *1/2

A rather weak effort in the extras department, as the disc contains only a trailer and some printed trivia about the film and the characters…nothing really that you don’t learn from the movie itself.

Summary:

The Neverending Story is as perfect as a movie can get for me.  It’s imaginative, it’s inspiring, it’s unforgettable.  It’s really the only picture I can think of that still makes me feel like a kid again…after all, no matter how old you get, it’s important to remember never to lose sight of your dreams.  Otherwise, your dreams may one day lose sight of you.