The NeverEnding Story
**½/**** Image C+ Sound B
starring Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, Moses Gunn
screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen, Herman Weigel
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. About two-thirds of the way through Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story, the warrior/child Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) encounters a mirror that reveals a person's true self, and he discovers his reflection is that of Bastian (Barret Oliver, once synonymous with '80s genre fare as the child star of Cocoon, D.A.R.Y.L., and the original Frankenweenie), the reader of Atreyu's story. It's a fascinating, Oedipal (read: Lacanian) moment where the hero, enlisted to save his world from an inexorable plague called "The Nothing," realizes that his quest has led to himself and, more particularly, this self's ability to bestow a name upon his kingdom's stricken mistress (Tami Stronach). Atreyu encounters the mirror after he's survived a pair of gatekeepers who test his perception of himself. He makes it, but barely--suggesting, maybe, that he knows he has an author, but hasn't quite put together that he and his world are a boundless "piece of the hopes and dreams of mankind."
But first, its framing story. Grieving, bullied wimp Bastian, recently left without a mother and saddled with an emotionless dad (Gerald McRaney), escapes three porkpie toughs by ducking into a mysterious old bookshop, where he lifts a heavy volume called The NeverEnding Story. The shopkeeper (Thomas Hill) is child-catcher skeevy, and the establishing of Bastian's plight is appropriately nightmarish and surreal. Late for school, he discovers he's missing a test and, instead of choosing to be tardy, he secrets himself away in the school's dusty, skeleton-heavy attic to spend the day, and night (!), reading the book he's stolen. (One assumes the father is looking for him, that someone is looking for him, though it's never made an issue.) Bastian reads by candlelight as a storm rages outside, blowing windows open with choice gusts before breaking through with tree limbs at key, Freudian moments. Meanwhile, in the book, Atreyu is tasked with finding the child empress (Stronach) before the Nothing consumes the kingdom of Fantasia. His horse, Artax, kills itself in a swamp, a giant turtle repeatedly sneezes on him, and then he meets a "Luck Dragon" called Falkor (yep, Oppenheimer), who functions as something of a living deus ex machina. The child empress, when found, tells Atreyu that Bastian is sutured to him, just as we, the audience for the movie, have been sutured to Bastian. Then it all goes dark, and she tells him that in the beginning, things are usually this way. The NeverEnding Story, in other words, is shockingly heady and, until its final minutes, worthy of a conversation alongside other feel-bad "children's" entertainments such as Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Alas, it doesn't seem to know what to do once it establishes its God as a little girl and its Christ as this bullied child. The picture's solution is Superman II's solution: everything reverts to the way it was, and this superhuman creature gets a chance to display human churlishness by seeking out and punishing his bullies. It's a gross betrayal of everything that came before it. And the Miltonian courage of killing off every single creature the story's created because of its hero's reluctance is rendered pyrrhic at best, dishonest at worst when they're restored without complication. Is it sacrifice if the martyr is assured resurrection? The NeverEnding Story decides, ultimately, that its child empress is more vessel towards discovering God than God Herself and so reduces her to sepulchral speechmaker and catalyst for Bastian's awakening. A closing voiceover promise that Bastian made lots more wishes and had many more adventures doesn't tease a sequel so much as reveal an ironic lack of imagination in wrapping up, with almost comical abruptness, a setup so exquisite that The NeverEnding Story is still fondly remembered by an entire generation of kids ruined by it in 1984. (I remember the yellow Sphinx guardians in my nightmares to this day.) Petersen's film is one-half fantasy masterpiece and one-half equivocal bullshit; one-half hyper-intelligent and metatextual allegory and one-half the failure of the same. It's so good when it's good that it's tempting to forgive its crash-landing. In the end, Bastian, given the power of the whole of creation, can only conceive of the world the book has scripted for him. It's no different from Dark City, in its way--but there were limits to Dark City's world-building. By its own boasting, there's no limit to The NeverEnding Story's. It's a victim of its own hopefulness. I love it. And I wish it were better.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner's 2010 Blu-ray of The NeverEnding Story presents the 94-minute U.S. cut in a controversial 2.40:1, 1080p presentation with VC-1 encoding--the controversy stemming from Petersen's criticism of Warner at the time for not involving him in the mastering process. Between the muffled grain, crushed blacks, and a highly suspect teal-and-orange cant to the colours, the film looks oddly clammy in this iteration, and the ancient special-effects work isn't necessarily aided by the heightened clarity of HD. There's also a slight wobble to the image, most noticeable during the opening titles, that's begging to be stabilized. It is superior in every way to the old VHS I used to watch, of course, but that's a low bar indeed. Booming but indistinct, the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track may or may not be a remix--IN70MM.COM refers to the movie's 70mm 6-track Dolby release as "unconfirmed." The full discrete soundstage does get a workout but the whole thing lacks finesse. It's fine. A 30th Anniversary Edition BD released in 2014 adds a small bounty of supplementary material, including an audio commentary from Petersen, but unfortunately recycles the same problematic video transfer.
94 minutes; PG; 2.40:1 (1080p/VC-1); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0 (Stereo), Portuguese DD 1.0; English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles; BD-25; Region-free; Warner