The imagination is a powerful thing.
It can take us take us to places we would never otherwise see, either beyond they simply don’t exist or are beyond our reach, conjure us beings and worlds without measure and limit, and send us journeys that never have to end.
Every bit as importantly if you’re a child who was ceaselessly and cruelly bullied to the point of emotional isolation and social ostracism such as myself, it released you, just for a little while, from reality’s cold, cruel. tormenting hand.
Though it arrived in 1984, a couple of years after the bullying had thankfully ceased for me, I found a lot to identity with in The NeverEnding Story, adapted from the book of the same name by Michael Ende.
For a start, the protagonist Bastian Balthazar Bux (Garret Oliver), who plays a far greater role in the tale than simply that of the reader of an altogether magical book given to him by mysterious second hand book store owner Mr Coreander (Thomas Hill), is a kid who’s being bullied every day by three mindlessly-thuggish schoolmates – Ethan, Todd, and Lucas (Darryl Cooksey, Drum Garrett, and Nicholas Gilbert).
Though their actions may seem tame in the age of cyber bullying and trolling, I can attest to the fact that the fear that came from knowing that the bullies would be waiting for you in a venue (school) where you couldn’t escape them, or on the way there, and would do god-knows-what to you – in Bastian’s case, it’s stealing his money and throwing in a rubbish-filled dumpster – is very real and the reactions of young Bastian ring wholly and viscerally true.
But on a lighter side, once the book is in his possession, I saw myself in the sheer delight and eagerness with which he loses himself in the reading of the great story of the land of Fantasia, in whose fate he plays a significantly unexpected role.
Watching the way he escapes into the story, finds sanctuary not simply in the school’s shockingly ill-kept but atmospheric attic but in the tale he reads there rings true for anyone who was an avid reader at a child.
Bullied or not, reading is a joyous place of escape, and seeing it written all over Bastian’s previously-pensive face, makes your heart sing.
But this is simply one of many things that this transcendently imaginative film gets wholly right.
For along with the “human child” protagonist, a young boy whose imagination remains unsullied by the loss of hopes and dreams, the very things killing Fantasia via The Nothing, despite the relatively-recent death of his beloved mother, we have an equally compelling hero in Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) the warrior who is charged by the land’s Empress (Tami Stronach) with finding a way to save Fantasia from disappearing altogether.
Defying the idea that children can’t do anything – an odd attitude given the apparent age of the Empress who is, nonetheless, wise beyond her years – Atreyu journeys the length and breadth of the ailing land, meeting a gorgeously eclectic and eccentric cast of characters along the way.
One of my favourite characters, or at least the one who endures in my mind some 34 years later, is wise old, cynically-exhausted Morla (voiced by Pam Hyatt) who is allergic to plains people like Atreyu – watching her sneeze the one seeking her counsel off his dead tree delights as much now as it did then – and who is of little help apart from directing Atreyu to the Southern Oracle, with her Indiana Jones-esque look and vibe, some 10,000 miles hence.
Gnome scientist Engywook (Sydney Bromley) and his healer wife Urgl (Patricia Hayes) also provide much vivacity and humourous diversion, cosy in their burrow home overlooking the fearsome two gates that lead to the Southern Oracle – who’s rather lovely, in an austere way as long as her gates don’t kill you – and who give a beleagured Atreyu the kind of boost anyone on a major quest that is failing to healed the hoped-for dividends is usually desperately in need of.
The character though that everyone loves the most has to be Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) who swoops in to rescue Atreyu from the soul-destroying Swamps of Sadness (which sadly claim his horse Artex) and the villainous jaws of the wolf-like Gmork, servant of The Nothing, and who spirits him hither and yon through Fantasia and its eventual remains and gives the young warrior much-needed unconditional friendship, love and support.
Falkor alone is reason enough to save the many-wondrous delights of Fantasia but The NeverEnding Story goes above and beyond giving us a beguilingly-varied cast of characters including the Rock Biter (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) whose mournful scene near the end of the film where he laments in shock his inability to save his new friends from the ravages of The Nothing is heartwrenching in the simplest and most moving of ways.
The NeverEnding Story succeeds as well it does because it masterfully balances joyous and harrowing flights of imagination and spectacle – who among us didn’t want to be on Falkor’s back swooping quickly across the geographical wonders of Fantasia to the ’80s-atmospheric music of Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder? – with some very dark, emotionally-devastating moments when all hope appears lost and it looks as if Fantasia’s expansive world will be lost forever.
The stakes here are very real as befits a film that puts everything on the line – Bastians’ motherless, bully-stained life, Atreyu’s seemingly futile quest and the horrors that await failure by either one – and doesn’t pretend that life comes with quick fixes or easy answers.
There is humour too – the aforementioned sneeze attacks by Morla, Endywook’s mischievously-enthusiastic cackles of glee and Atreyu’s reaction to the Empress’s calm assurance that she knew all along how his quest would end even before he commenced it are but three examples in a film judiciously studded with them (narcoleptic bats anyone?) – and a real sense that hope is not some airy-fairy wafty set of pie-in-the-sky ideas but real and substantial, just as imagination carries great weight and power too, as Bastian discovers.
Even the special effects, which rely on puppetry more than what was then nascent CGI hold up, although some of the sequences where Falkor is flying do show their age, giving The NeverEnding Story exactly the kind of timeless quality that a film about never giving up your ability to dream and hope and imagine needs, and has in heart-pleasing quantities.
Then, of course, there is the title song by Limahl, which, I’ll wager, is why earworms came into being in the first place; it has emotion, soaring vocals, and melds seamlessly with the film for which it is the much-loved musical mascot.
The NeverEnding Story is a pleasure to revisit – very much of its time and yet timeless too, holding aloft 34 years later, and I’ll wager many years into the future, the idea that we need to hold on to our capacity to imagine a world beyond our own reality, for in so doing we open ourselves up to all kinds of possibility and wonder and keep alive, not simply the likes of Falkor, Atreyu and the Rock Biter, but our very humanity which cannot exist, sorry Bastian’s dad (Gerald McRaney), on groundedness alone.