REVIEW: Perhaps even more than the animated horrors of boat down and Nimh’s Secreta film traumatized a generation of Kiwi moviegoers.
Yes, Kajagoogoo singer Limahl’s self-titled theme song is a terrifically addictive earworm and the film’s existential threats of “nothing” had the potential to plague young minds for days afterwards, but nothing could prepare Generation X for a moment in a 1984 West German fantasy film (based on the novel Michael Ende’s popular film from 1979) – somewhat ironically designed to promote the imaginative power of reading books – it would leave many with their first real cinematic scars.
Forget the authorities catching up with ET, the Ewoks battling the Empire, or Gizmo threatened by the Gremlins, the sight of Artax the horse disappearing into the Swamp of Sorrow is a searing memory that sends shivers down my spine even now.
Worse still, in the Dunedin cinema I witnessed in 1984 (the lamented end of the century, whose sad demise even inspired a novel by fellow Dunedinite Duncan Sarkies), they decided it was time where the intermission was to take place. Cue stunned silence, broken only by soft sobs and the strange howl of horror. No one headed for the Candy Bar – the Jaffas remained unrolled and the tart fruit pottles were undisturbed.
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While Peril was certainly not unheard of in children’s films at that time (and, indeed, they seem much bolder than now) and The never-ending story (now streaming on Netflix) is filled with dangerous obstacles and potentially deadly foes for our heroes to overcome, such a death, even revisited nearly three decades later, is still shocking, especially since it’s accompanied by increasingly frantic cries of despair from its owner Artreyu (Noah Hathaway, who apparently nearly died while filming the scene).
These days, you’d expect a last-second miracle or a barely believable escape – no such easy emotional exit exists here.
Perhaps that’s what we should have expected from the director whose previous outing was the claustrophobic World War II drama. Das Boot (and a man who would later tell us such nightmarish stories as Epidemic and The Perfect Storm) – Wolfgang Petersen.
Fans of the book were dismayed to learn that his rewrites meant the story only covered the first half of Ende’s tome, while the author himself was so furious with the result (“a gigantic melodrama of kitsch , trade, plush and plastic”, as he called it) that he demanded a halt in production or a name change and even tried to sue the manufacturers (a case he lost) .
In truth, despite feeling rushed and boasting a wildly nailed, albeit crowd-pleasing, ending involving the film’s true talisman, Falkor the Luckdragon, The never-ending story is a crazy adventure that still holds up today (once you get past the date that the practical and visual effects are dated).
Intimidated Bastian Balthazar Bux’s (Barret Oliver) immersive escape into the magical world of Fantasia is an enjoyable blend of princess bride– the narration in the style of a story, narnia-like fantasy and Flash Gordon– heroic style (with a score infused with Giorgio Moroder synth). There are narcoleptic hang-gliding bats, racing snails and a “childish” Empress, all of whom look like cast-off characters from a Lewis Carroll adventure, while the devouring “Nothing” and his herald, the wolf Gmork , feel very Tolkien-ish.
In fact, there is an argument that without Never ending StoryJim Henson’ Labyrinth might not have been the success it was two years later (despite the power of Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie’s tight pants). What’s not in question is how this fantastical oddity sticks with everyone who’s seen it, long after the credits roll.
The never-ending story (PG, 94mins) is now available to stream on Netflix.