Friday, October 28, 2016


Welcome to another installment of FAMILY MOVIE NIGHT, where we give our recommendation on a family-friendly movie to enjoy. Today we look at a true classic of family-friendly cinema: 1984's THE NEVERENDING STORY.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The NeverEnding Story, based on the novel by Michael Ende, is a movie that turns all those PSAs you've seen about losing yourself in a good book on their head with a story about a boy who does just that. Bastian (Barret Oliver) is dealing with the recent death of his mother, and as you'd expect of a little kid in such a situation, he's having a rather tough time of it. He gets no help from his father (Gerald McRaney, aka Raymond Tusk on House of Cards) who is dealing with the loss by throwing himself into his work. Dad's only advice for Bastian comes in the form of trite bromides about "coming down out of the clouds" and "keeping your feet on the ground." So our boy's at a loss overall.

While running from a gang of bullies on his way to school, Bastian hides in a bookstore, where he learns of a book that the shopkeeper warns him is more than just imagination. Bastian is an avid reader; he's read far more classics than I had at his age, including JRR Tolkien's literary barbiturate The Lord of the Rings, so his curiosity is piqued. Bastian steals the book, and plays hooky from school to read it.

The story-within-the-story of The NeverEnding Story is the typical kids' movie fantasy: there's a fantastic faraway kingdom (Fantasia) facing mortal peril (an all-consuming darkness called "The Nothing") and placing all it's hopes in a lone hero (the child warrior and rock band namesake Atreyu) to save the day. The journey will be long (naturally) and fraught with danger (of course), but Atreyu is the only one who can rise to the challenge (quelle surprise). As the story progresses, the reality of the shopkeeper's warning regarding the nature of the book is revealed.

As usual, to mention here that the day will, in fact, be saved and a happy ending is in our future is to spoil exactly nothing. This is a kids movie after all, and there are rules about this sort of thing. Here's the catch, though: they say it's always darkest before the dawn, and before we get to that happy ending, The NeverEnding Story gets well and truly dark. The average kids movie today rarely, if ever, gives the sense that there's anything at risk, and sometimes even goes out of its way to reassure the audience that everything will be all right. The NeverEnding Story, by contrast, withholds that knowledge until the very end. There is precisely no indication of a light at the end of the tunnel until there is one. The result is a kids movie that still manages to be emotionally engaging even with older viewers, a rarity in children and family cinema.

Which is probably why the movie seizes so many opportunities for corniness and humor. What would be annoyances anywhere else become relaxing breathers here as the film ratchets the stakes ever higher. Yes, characters like the Night Hob and Teeny Weeny (the little man with the racing snail) are hammy kids movie tropes, but you will miss them by the end. Even the brief scenes of Bastian looking up from the book to whisper an exclamation ("Morla ... The Ancient One!"), which stop the story dead, seem to work in this context.

In interviews given about this project, director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One, Troy) has said that there was a great amount of the story that they had to leave out due to technical limitations. Apparently there are some things you just can't do without CGI. Almost all of the film's special effects are practical, with only a little blue-screen work thrown in. This explains why Atreyu's journey advances by such great leaps. That being said, the film version of The NeverEnding Story, which only covers about the first half of Ende's novel, is very faithful to the book, with only the film's final scene not appearing in the original work. This cannot be said for the film's two sequels, 1990's The NeverEnding Story II and 1994's The NeverEnding Story III. The former is only loosely based on Ende's novel, and the latter is completely apocryphal. So if you want to learn what happened to Bastian after the movie ends, it's probably best to just track down a copy of the book.

If I had to pick only one point on which to recommend The NeverEnding Story, it would be this: while every kids movie ever made somehow works in the standard message of following one's dreams and believing in oneself, only this movie adequately communicates not only the cost, but the strength and joy that come to those who do so. I can't entirely fault adults who want to keep children perfectly safe, but a movie that preaches self-belief and then never puts its young hero in any real danger beyond a moment of obviously false drama devalues its message and disserves its audience. The NeverEnding Story will likely be a difficult movie for your children to watch (especially if they love horses), but when its over we're left with no doubt that a challenge was met and overcome. The Neverending Story is the kind of kids movie I wish there were more of, but I'm glad we at least have this one.

The NeverEnding Story is rated PG.

Robert's Score: 9/10

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