When I adoringly watched The NeverEnding Story (1984) over and over as a child, I gave little thought to anything other than how cool Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) looked on his horse Artax, or how awesome it would be to have a luck dragon like Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer). For instance, I never noticed the distinctly German flavor to its production. Just by way of example, its original title was Die unendliche Geschichte. I will give you a moment for your tongue to attempt to form those words. Give up yet? No matter where this story originated, being a work of fantasy it is, well, strange. But that is kind of the point, of the film and fantasy in general.
Bastian (Barret Oliver), the star of The NeverEnding Story, is a boy with his head in books, most of the time. We learn early on that this is partly an escape in his coping with the death of his mother. It is also causing him to do poorly in school, thus leading to his father (Gerald McRaney) admonishing him about the need to be more grounded. Nevertheless, after dodging some bullies on his way to school by ducking into a bookstore, he comes across a mysterious tome that he cannot pass up. The allure of the book was deepened by the store’s owner, Carl Conrad Coreander (Thomas Hill), who spoke ominously of its power to transport a person directly into the story. Book in hand, Bastian ditches class (at the school, a rookie mistake he gets away with) in favor of spending the day reading. The tale unfolds of the mythical land of Fantasia (a bit obvious, really) that is slowly being consumed by terrible force known as the Nothing. The various magical creatures that inhabit this world are on their way to seek guidance from Fantasia’s ruler, the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach). In answer, she summons the mighty, but also quite young, warrior Atreyu to find a way of stopping the Nothing. His first stop is to a giant turtle in the middle of the Swamp of Sadness (you know, because it is a swamp) named Morla (uncredited), otherwise known as the Ancient One. Morla directs Atreyu to the Southern Oracle, though that is over ten thousand miles away and Atreyu has already come so far. Feeling discouraged, but before he suffers the same sinking death as his horse Artax or is eaten by the wolf-like creature G’mork (also voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), Atreyu is rescued by Falkor. Apparently the young warrior was mumbling in a delirious sleep for Falkor ends up taking Atreyu nearly the entire distance to the oracle. He wakes up outside of the home of gnomes Engywook (Sydney Bromley) and his wife Urgl (Patricia Hayes). Engywook spouts expository dialog about the Southern Oracle because, of course, he is an expert on the subject, and before long Atreyu is charging through. Up until this point, we are treated to reminders that Bastian is reading all this, and they come in the form of hints that maybe the story is actually speaking to him. It is while Atreyu makes his way through the gates leading up to the Southern Oracle that he and Bastian come face-to-face, literally. At first, Bastian cannot believe it, but continues reading as Atreyu pushes on and learns what is needed to save Fantasia: the empress needs a new name given him by a human child. The only way to find such a child is beyond the reaches of Fantasia. While attempting to reach it, the Nothing eventually consumes the rest of Fantasia, though the empress’ palace is still standing for the moment. Defeated, Falkor takes Atreyu there where the empress apparently knew what was needed all along. Here the fourth wall is completely shattered (for Bastian, not for us) as the empress pleads with Bastian directly to give her a new name. Once Bastian finally gives in, it seems like it might be too late, until the empress hands him a grain of sand from Fantasia. From there he is left to rebuild the world with the strength of his own imagination.
The magic of The NeverEnding Story is in the fact that all of Fantasia, and seemingly by extension the book, is the work of Bastian’s imagination, even before its destruction. Given the tragic events in Bastian’s life, and the stern talking to by his father, the pressure is there for him to “grow up.” Interestingly, many of the Gospel readings from Mass in recent weeks have pertained to Jesus telling his disciples that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you must receive it as a child. There is a certain parallel to be drawn here between imagination and hope, the latter being the more adult version of the former. Throughout the movie there are themes suggesting that if one gives up hope, then all is lost to the Nothing. Bastian had basically been told to get his head out of the clouds, but in reading the book it teaches him that there is a kind of death that comes with losing your imagination. When things seem to look hopeless is when they are at their worst, and the Nothing comes with its destruction. Think, too, on that word “Nothing.” The pillar of Christianity is a hope in an eternal life. The opposite is essentially nothing, which is eternal torment. Put differently, since we are dealing with absolutes and getting to Heaven is everything for a Christian, it follows that its opposite is nothing. Finally, modern culture would tend to suggest that Faith lacks imagination, that in being “slaves” to Christ we surrender our wills to be some kind of unthinking prayer drone. I would counter that sublimating your thoughts to imagining God as informed by the Bible opens up in an infinite realm, not just of the Heavens, but of the good you can do for society. I envisioned The Legionnaire as a service to my fellow Catholics, and others, as a bulwark against the bad parts of the American culture as seen in film. In the movie, Bastian recreates an entire world with his imagination. As Christians, we are called to use our imaginations to contemplate another world, vast beyond our comprehension.
I had not seen The NeverEnding Story in a while, and I found that, unfortunately, there were parts that my adult brain found a little too close to being innuendo. If only we were all so innocent as we were in 1984. Then again, because this is supposed to be a movie for kids, much of this would go by unnoticed by little ones. Truly, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. And because they would not really understand such things (nor will I point them out), I feel this is a great film for younger audiences and older ones looking for a bit of nostalgia.