Some movies you know backwards and forwards. Some you could see five times and still forget everything about them. And some you see at a certain point in your life when they make an impression, you don't see them for a long time and forget their existence, and when and if you happen upon them again, it's like a decade or two disappears in a flash. (The most accurate analogy I can think of is remembering lyrics to songs heard during childhood; the second they come on the radio, you're harmonizing with every phrase.)
Over the weekend I saw not one but two of my childhood favorites, The Clash of the Titans and The Neverending Story, both of which are scheduled to be released on Blu-ray soon. I will undoubtedly be covering Clash of the Titans one way or another, either here or via my "Making The (Up) Grade" column, but my surprise at the quality of The Neverending Story made it an immediate and obvious choice for this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, The Neverending Story was released July 20, 1984 in America and followed the adventures of an introverted by named Bastian (Barret Oliver) who becomes part of the story when he steals a book about an imaginary world called Fantasia that is under threat from an evil force called The Nothing. At the time of its release, it was supposedly the most expensive film ever produced outside of the United States. However, the film eventually only grossed slightly more than $20 million against its $27 million cost, earning it a reputation as a box office dud. Meanwhile, the film currently holds an 83 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: The Neverending Story is shockingly good – spartan in terms of character development in the real world, but lush with detail in Fantasia, creating a gorgeous world for Bastian to escape into when his father (played by Gerald McRaney) asks him to grow up sooner than he's ready. What's amazing is how the film offers exactly the right amount of information for any given moment, cutting around even the penchant for fantasy indulgence, instead paring down Bastian's own desperation to something so simple and clean that audiences are helpless to defend against becoming involved themselves.
Petersen's direction is so proficient, both in terms of normalizing Bastian and breathing life into his alter ego Atreyu's fantastical world, that the film becomes an immersive and deeply affecting experience. The opening scene between Bastian and his father is played tightly but tenderly, a shared moment between a father and son who must have communicated mostly through their now-absent wife or mother. Then, Petersen constructs a world that really makes you feel as if you're taking a journey yourself, creating a variety of vistas and locales that seem gigantic and tactile and awe-inspiring; from the lethargic turtle who keeps knocking Atreyu from his perch to the vast emptiness of a post-nothing spacescape, the realities of Fantasia are palpable and emotionally real, moreso than I honestly feel ever could be achieved with computer-generated imagery, even by today's standards.
Finally, the concept of the film seems obvious – a kid gets drawn into the story he's reading – but Petersen directs key scenes brilliantly and builds the film in a way that it becomes an interactive, involving odyssey for the audience. Specifically, by the time we realize that the point of the film is that we are watching Bastian as he reads Atreyu's adventures, we care about both the fictional, motherless boy and the "fictional" literary character; my girlfriend opined that kids must shout girls' names from the rooftops by the time the Child Empress pleads directly into the camera for Bastian to give her a new name, but I was surprised that I found myself tearing up as this poor kid comes to terms with his mother's death, his father's wishes and this seemingly unexplainable opportunity he has to see his imagination flourish and repair all of that pain.
What Doesn't Work: Predictably, some of the effects aren't quite as state-of-the-art as today's CGI, but with the exception of just a few of the rear-projection shots, I think almost everything in the film stands up to almost anything filmmakers can do today. The puppetry and prosthetic work is all terrific, the forced-perspective shots that distinguish Atreyu from some of the other denizens of Fantasia, and even the enormity of the Rock-Biter seems to mesh together into a seamless and satisfying whole.
In terms of its other potential shortcomings, however, I'd say that the bullying that Bastian endures at the beginning of the movie is slightly over the top, but given the fact that one of my viewing companions said that she saw kids get dumpster dunked when she was in school, perhaps his torment isn't that farfetched after all.
What's The Verdict: The Neverending Story not only holds up, I think that it is even more important today as a piece of entertainment and an artistic achievement than it was during the time of its original release. Much like The Bridge to Terabithia, Petersen's film harnesses the idea of childhood creativity and encourages its audience members to indulge theirs whether they're kids or not, and does so without just splaying all of the effects work all over the screen without any effect or purpose. The sequences all have a purpose, and creatures and characters all have a dramatic weight, and you care about what is happening, and want this kid to help save this world while helping himself. Ultimately, The Neverending Story is a triumph because it generates imagination rather than exploits it. (Plus, it's got one of the best theme songs of all time.)