Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“I wish for…a spray can!”

I finally got my hands on the 1991 sequel to the NeverEnding Story, The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter. Interestingly enough, the “e” in “ending” is not capitalized. This does not bode well. Nor does the seven year gap between the films.

PlotA young boy who’s mother died some time ago wants to join the school swim team but chickens out on the high dive board, comes home, yells at his dad quite a bit and steals the same book from the same bookstore owner as the last movie because he’s looking for self-help. He re-enters Fantasia because the book tells him to, and finds that he must save the place from…something that is filling the place with emptiness.

The subplot focuses on his dad coming home and trying to find the kid and stumbling across the book that his son went into, and starts reading it (with similar fourth wall results to the first movie).

I know the movie tries to do justice to the second half of Michael Ende’s book, but the tacking on of the subplot feels dull and unnecessary, and indeed, most of the “real world” scenes feel too long and too unneeded. The draw of the story is supposed to be the wondrous sights to be found in Fantasia. The real world stuff in the first movie was all there for the purpose of speeding things along to that end. Here, the real world stuff lingers, and lingers, and takes away from watching Falkor & friends having wild adventures.

Bastian Bux: Immediately after the intro credits, I could tell the new Bastian was going to grate on me. He makes an irritating entrance that is all about making a godawful mess in the kitchen and then making it worse in the most obvious way. Slightly later, when dad recommends he wear a different sweater, Bastian just explodes at him verbally before storming off. This coming from the shy character of the first film. As the story progresses, and he starts losing his memories (as a result of his making wishes in Fantasia), he becomes more of a jerk, turning paranoid and murderous (so he can learn his lesson by the end of the movie and is actually an integral part of the book) but the effect is lessened when he’s more or less a smartass jerk at the beginning of the film. The jokes he tries to crack just aren’t funny either. Its rather jarring seeing how much they’ve changed the character from one movie to another, and here, it doesn’t work.

Atreyu: Also a different actor, here Atreyu looks much more like a native American than before and demoted to second banana status. He’s there mostly to look confused at Bastian’s change in attitude (which is sort of how the book goes). He also has a moment where, facing a force (I refuse to call them a horde) of the bug-like giants, he unleashes an army of little windup…things. Bastian asks if they’ll be killed, and Atreyu says “it’s a good day to die” without missing a beat. Which was just so…so…what the hell??

Bastian’s Dad: Hey look, its John Wesley Shipp, TV’s Barry Allen from The Flash! Bastian’s father ends up getting an arc where he finds the Neverending Story (the book) and starts reading Bastian’s current story. It seems like the filmmakers were trying to mirror the trick of the first movie, but here it feels unnecessary. The subplot, while not particularly interesting, didn’t annoy me as much as I thought it might.

Falkor: Hey kids, remember how cool the luck dragon was in the first movie? Yeah, he doesn’t do much in this movie. He’s in it less than Atreyu is, which is a shame, since the animatronic is actually an improvement over the first movie’s: Falkor’s mouth actually moves when he talks (not in synch, but I’m paying the film a compliment here).

Xayide: The Villain, and a character mostly loyal to the book version. She wants to rule Fantasia (something about imposing order on the chaos that is the imagination) and to that end, has a device that, when Bastian makes a wish, causes him to lose a memory. The more he wishes, the more he forgets and that will ensure that the Child-like Empress stays locked away forever, or something. I’m not really sure how Xayide was able to imprison an omnipotent figure like the Empress, and I call that a plot hole. Still, Xayide’s a bright spot for the movie, and makes a decent, and rather sultry, villain. At least she has a face (sort of) compared to the Nothing of the first movie. However, the stakes never feel as important as in the first movie.

Now let’s talk minions. She’s got an army of “giants” which are large, clunky, top-heavy, subterranean monsters that made me immediately think of Umber Hulks. Consult your nearest Monster Manual for comparison. She’s also got an interesting fella named Tri Face, who is basically Man-e-Faces’ nerdy brother with a playing card fetish. The visual effect is kind of neat, and he was the one who created the machine for Xayide, but the character gets shoved to the background as wasted potential.

Nimbly: And speaking of henchmen, Nimbly is Xayide’s spy, and the one who eggs (haha, get it? cuz he's a bird and-...sigh) Bastian on to make wishes to solve his problems. I’m of two minds about Nimbly. The first is that its pretty obvious how his storyline is going to go, and a lot of his dialog is rather painful (“Nimbly’s the name, tour guide’s the game”). On the other hand, it is a fairly well-realized costume, and the actor inside of it does a pretty good job of acting like a bird.

Rock Biter: Remember in my NeverEnding Story review that I said the Rock Biter was a very minor role? Guess what? He’s back. That wouldn’t annoy me at all, actually, except…except…they gave him a kid. Junior annoyed the living hell out of me, brought nothing to the story, and cried a lot (for his limited screen time). Why they thought this was a good idea escapes me.

The Child-like Empress: Different actress, not quite as good this time (could be the curly hair). Somehow manages to deliver a “help me Obi-Wan Kenobi” message, despite being very trapped.
Hmm. I just realized I need a badass for this movie. I guess I’ll go with the Wambos, the tiny wind-up toys that fire sparklers after they leave the eggs they were hatched out of. It was a “what the hell?” moment, but I’ve gotta give the little guys credit. They died for Bastian’s sins.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
I expected the special effects to be lesser than the first movie, and in general, that’s the case. The Silver City looks rather like a low-rent Venice, the giants are difficult to take seriously, and the second dragon introduced, Smurg, is not very well done for his limited screen time. However, I’d have to say Falkor’s an improvement, and the physical effects (makeup and costumes) are still rather good.

The part that pleasantly surprised me was the cinematography. George Miller and crew provided quite a few good and interesting shots. It was very well lit, atmospheric, and suitably moody. However, Fantasia lacks that certain otherworldliness that the first movie had in spades. This one feels more like it was shot on a soundstage (the first one was as well, but the feel is different). Its hard to nail down exactly what it is, but it is missing that certain something (maybe a budget). That said, the directing was pretty good, all things considered the general inferiority of the film to the first one.

The adaptation by Karin Howard does, as I’ve said, bring in a few elements from the book as nice surprises, but the writing is the definite low point of the film. The jokes that Bastian tells (the ones that baffle Atreyu) just aren’t very funny. At all. They feel forced and, since this is a sequel after all, don’t really match up with Bastian’s character from the first movie (unless you count being a vindictive jerk who chases bullies down with a dragon in a case of unbalanced response). Worse than that though, is the heavy-handed hammering home of the movie’s point. Its about memory, and the movie will never stop telling you how wonderful and important memories are. Ever. Also: Rock. Biter. Junior.

Sound is neither here nor there. There is quite a bit more synthesizer in the music, and the ending theme song just doesn’t have the same panache as Lihmal’s original version (I can’t believe I said that).

While I have seen considerably worse movies than this, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. Some of the visuals were nice and/or interesting, but this movie just can’t muster up the charm and eye-catching visuals of the first movie. Only see it if you’re a completist or curious to see how much the franchise slid down in quality from the first movie to the second. Otherwise, its not really worth your time.

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