I didn’t realize that this film was about grief when I first saw it at the tender age of 12. Back then, it was about luck dragons! And racing snails! And a lonely kid (Barrett Oliver) who discovers the coolest book in the whole wide world! But even then, The Neverending Story held darkness at its heart, and like a lot of children’s stories, it didn’t shy away from exploring it. Leave it to a German to tap into that vein, and more importantly to bring it out into the light for us kids to see. These days, director Wolfgang Petersen would be castigated for exposing to wee ones to such material. But children know those shadows better than we think, and sometimes they need to face the things that lurk within them.
So… grief. Loss. The pain of a loved one taken away forever. And worst of all, absolutely no one else you can talk to about it. So it is with Oliver’s Bastian, a sweet kid who likes to read and who lost his mother to God knows what. His father doesn’t have the first idea how to talk to him about it, while teachers keep asking why he’s not doing his homework. And peers? They’re mostly interested in beating the crap out of him. Then a weird old bookstore owner passes off a strange fairytale to him, giving him a momentary escape that feels more real with each page he turns.
On the surface, it feels very superficial. How many hundreds of outsider movie kids have found respite with some kind of magic reserved for them alone? But Petersen is much more interested in what’s going on beneath the surface than he is with another elementary school security blanket. The book in Bastian’s hands depicts a fantasy kingdom being destroyed by The Nothing, a sort of living oblivion that erases its victims from existence. It creeps forward inexorably as the book’s young hero (Noah Hathaway) desperately seeks a way to reverse it, swallowing up all of the kingdom’s strange and beautiful residents in its wake. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that his quest ties into the little boy reading about it, and the faith that boy has in what he’s reading.
Petersen plays on that quietly but beautifully, in ways that only a real bibliophile can appreciate. Great books can pull us in like that, especially at a younger age. The Neverending Story simply turns that into a formal plot point. The loss of this world to an all-consuming abyss connects to Bastian’s unformed mourning, as he slowly shuts down in the face of a real world indifferent to his suffering. The story makes him care again – if only about seeing how it all comes out – and therein lies the key to his (and its) salvation. Petersen makes the message clear, though he never comes out and states it. It lines the standard Hero’s Journey plot in ways we don’t see very often, showing us ways through an abiding anguish rather than inflicting pain on the hero as a means of conveying wisdom.
Part of its power stems from the film’s imaginative use of visual effects, particularly forced perspective which makes some of the book’s larger residents truly gargantuan. They feel a little chintzy 30 years on – you can see the techniques very clearly – but the art direction displays marvelous concepts you’ll never see anywhere else. They seem conjured from Bastian’s mind far more than some effects guy who needs to figure out how to sell us on their reality, and while we can see the means used to bring them to life, their reality is never affected by that artifice.
It’s a tough trick and in the film’s rougher moments, it becomes impossible to pull off. From time to time, The Neverending Story falls back on easy notions about being brave and figuring things out rather than the real strengths in its corner. Thankfully, such moments are infrequent at best. The remainder is something dark, entrancing and even a little special. More importantly, it demonstrates that some monsters stay with us no matter where we are, then shows its eager young audience how to beat them in ways that have nothing to do with magic swords. We’ve seen it done before, and even done better, but rarely with such purpose and conviction.