There comes a time when people suffer their first real deep loss. For some it’s a grandparent. Or it’s a pet they love. But what if it’s a parent who you were more closer to than the other parent. The NeverEnding Story focuses on Bastian Bux (Barrett Oliver), a 10-year-old who is lost in his own world as a coping mechanism dealing with the death of his mother. He has 186 books that he reads to escape reality.
When the movie opens, his father, Barney (Gerald McRainey) is talking to him about how he needs to quit daydreaming because the teachers are mad because he’s drawing unicorns. It’s obvious in this small interaction, there’s a huge wall between Bastion and Barney and neither was prepared for what would happen when they lost someone. Barney has coped by focusing on his work. Yet, Bastion can’t because of his youth. If Barney has any grief or mourning, he hides it.
Bastion is bullied on his way to school for being a “weirdo” and chased and thrown in a dumpster. When he tries to get away from his bullies a second time, he takes refuge in an empty bookstore where the older proprietor (Thomas Hill) initially tells him to leave but after hearing Bastion read off a collection of his books which includes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Last of the Mohicans, they have a moment of common ground. But the book he’s reading is too much for Bastion, who takes it when the man has to answer a phone call.
At school, Bastion hides in the school’s attic, which doesn’t seem real. What makes the movie so odd is how Wolfgang Petersen, who recently passed away, films a movie we presume is somewhere in America but it’s actually filmed in Munich, Vancouver and parts of Spain. Do schools have attics? Maybe. My guess is Bastion attends one of those intercity elementary schools that have been around for decades which is why the attic looks more like something out of a fantasy itself.
As he reads the book, Bastion follows the adventures of Arteyu the Warrior (Noah Hathaway) a tweenish boy who has been tasked with finding a cure for the The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) who’s fallen ill. The Nothing has taken over Fantasia destroying the terrain. The Nothing presents itself as a huge storm front that that tears apart tears and earthquakes that break open the ground.
Arteyu finds the task difficult at first when his horse and friend, Artax, sinks and drowns in the Swamps of Sadness. The images of Artax sink as Arteyu cries for him has become memorable for many years for its traumatizing way. Usually most young people lose a pet as their introduction to death. And the despair that Arteyu is going to have to continue the quest without Artax nearly does him in as he almost drowns too.
But he is saved by a luck dragon, Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) who has flown Arteyu closer to his location of the Southern Oracle. He discovers he must find a human child beyond the boundaries of Fantasia who can find a name for the Empress. But as he continues to read the book, Bastion begins to sense the book is also mentioning himself. But what is really going on?
The NeverEnding Story looks at how we sometimes get too involved in stories that it affects us. But what if each story is different depending on the reader? Bastion begins to wonder if what he’s really reading is real or is he making it up because he has a wild imagination? Who hasn’t watched a movie or read a book, especially in their youth and imagined themselves in the story? In the end, Arteyu meets the Empress as the Nothing has destroyed Fantasia into small pieces floating through space. In the end, the Empress is speaking to Bastion himself to give her a name.
So, in the end, Bastion finally screams her mother’s name as a type of closure and realization that he must come to terms with her death. Barney and other adults are taught to live in reality that they can’t ever have some fun while watching a movie or reading a book. In the end, Bastion is allowed to make a wish that the Nothing never happened and bring back all that was lost. As Gmork, a talking wolf creature (also voiced by Oppenheimer), who works for the Nothing, tells Arteyu that the Nothing is a manifestation of loss of hopes and dreams.
Bastion still daydreams despite his father’s criticism. And like the bullies who called him a weirdo and tormented him, they lack hopes and dreams. They have to torture other children to make themselves feel valuable. Is the book different for the proprietor? Most likely. The idea of metafiction in 1984 was still a novel idea. Forgive the pun.
Since Bastion has defeated the Nothing by remaining hopeful and optimisitic, he can still see Fantasia as a thriving place. And since the Empress is now named after his mother, which is Moon Child, it’s a way for her mother to live on. Bastion is able to ride Falkor as his first wish all over Fantasia, which is what most children would’ve wanted to do. He’s even able to take Falkor into the real world where he gets back at the bullies. But it’s not just the child bullies that see Falkor but the adults on the street, proving that adults and children must have a little bit of imagination and hope.
Based on a book by Michael Ende, Petersen co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Weigel. However, Ende asked for his name to be taken off as it only included half of the novel. Also, Arteyu had green skin in the book and Falkor looked more like a lion than a dog. What the movie also doesn’t show is how Bastion’s wishes cause him to lose important memories event tough parts of this was hinted at in the sequel The NeverEnding Story II. Also, Fantasia is called Fantasica in the book.
Petersen made The NeverEnding Story after his critical and box office success Das Boot. He would make Enemy Mine after this, a sci-fi version of Robin Crusoe that wasn’t a success despite having a theme that we’re only enemies with other people or alien species because the higher powers force us to. After a lackluster pyschological thriller Shattered, Petersen found success with In the Line of Fire, Outbreak and Air Force One later in the 1990s.
Then in the 2000s, he directed big-budget blockbusters such as The Perfect Storm, Troy and Poseidon, a remake of The Poseidon Adventure. But the latter got negative reviews and only made $180 million on top of a huge $160 million budget. He wouldn’t make a movie for another decade and it would be his last, Vier gegen die Bank (Four Against the Bank), a German crime comedy.
While he’ll probably always be associated with Das Boot, if you were a kid in the 1980s, this was one of the many movies from that era that are most memorable.
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