A long time ago in a land of matte shots, puppets, and miniatures...a boy had an adventure to the tune of a hypnotic, melismatic synth-pop title song. And it was called The Neverending Story. Certainly, this film holds an unusual place in '80s cinema. An English-language film made in Germany, The Neverending Story derives from a 1979 German fantasy novel of the same name. Wolfgang Petersen's follow-up to Das Boot (and precursor to his first American film Enemy Mine) was, at the time, the most expensive film made outside of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
It seems clear that one has to be a child fully to appreciate The Neverending Story (or, perhaps, to have seen the film as a child and hunger nostalgically to renter its world). The film has won loyal devotees around the world, including most film critics, but it's kids who take to the story most rabidly. This effect is, of course, completely by design. The heroes are two boys in parallel and intersecting storylines. Big-city kid Bastian (Barret Oliver of D.A.R.Y.L.) has a dead mom, a head in the clouds, a father who scolds him (“Stop daydreaming. Start facing your problems. Okay?”) and a pack of bullies on his case: in other words, he's primed for some serious escapism. So when he runs to hide in a bookshop and discovers a copy of a forbidden book called "The Neverending Story," he can't help but purloin it and hole up in his school's attic to get away from class, those bullies, and it all.
As he reads the story, it comes to life on screen. It's a tale of brave young warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), the hopeful savior of the land of Fantasia. There, the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) has fallen deathly ill as a force called The Nothing slowly but surely swallows Fantasia whole. Because of The Nothing, "People have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams." Atreyu's quest to stop The Nothing finds him fighting an evil wolf, navigating the deadly Swamps of Sadness and the Howling Forest on the way to find the Southern Oracle, and meeting up with a happy, white, fluffy luckdragon named Falkor. Would you believe the story also involves a magical medallion called the Auryn, purple buffalo, a narcoleptic bat, and Deep Roy riding a racing snail? No one can accuse The Neverending Story of not trying hard enough, though perhaps it tries too hard in its ornate fantasy design.
Though The Neverending Story is silly and mostly unsophisticated (it's most dated by its deficit of humor), its saving grace is also its built-in self-defense, the metaphor of The Nothing. A fantasy world ruled by kids being made to disappear by an encroaching void handily encapsulates the challenge of holding on to childhood innocence and wonder while holding back the ravages of time. And with the vehicle of that innocence and wonder being a magical book, it's very hard not to give in to The Neverending Story's heart-in-the-right-place charms amidst an increasingly anti-literate society.
The Neverending Story makes its Blu-ray debut from Warner in a bare-bones release. Though the image suffers noticeably from telecine wobble, it is otherwise excellent, and leaps and bounds beyond the DVD release for which fans have long had to settle. The image is film-like, with natural grain and true hues. Texture is palpable, and any softness can be attributed to the source material. As for the audio, it's also a best-yet effort: a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that's not likely ever to be surpassed: dialogue is clear and music and effects are robust and well placed. It's a shame that Petersen wasn't involved in the release or any archival footage (even the trailer) included, but at a nice price, this is a gift for fans in the A/V upgrade.
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