Friday, July 03, 2009

“To the winch, wench.”

There were a lot of ambitious children’s movies made in the 1980s. I suppose the confluence of special effects advancements, the home video market and a large number of directors/producers (Spielberg, Lucas, Henson, etc) willing to push the visual storytelling medium forward for a family audience. The market was there and there was no shortage of people to try and fill demand. Based on German author Michael Ende’s book of the same name, 1984’s The NeverEnding Story is just such an attempt to tell a visually impressive kids’ film.

The movie has two plots that intertwine. The framing narrative is about Bastian, a cowardly nerdy kid who’s mom died some time in the recent past who hides out in a bookstore to escape some bullies. He ends up stealing a book and holing up inside the school attic to read it.

The plot of the book within the story is pretty high concept. In the land of Fantasia, a strange thing is happening. Everything is being consumed/replaced/nullified by Nothing. It’s hard to explain without examples. Say for instance there’s a lush forest. Instead of being leveled or replaced with a hole, it is replaced with absolute nothingness, formless void. Yeah, high concept stuff. Anyway, the Child-Like Empress who is, for lack of a better word, the goddess of Fantasia, is sick and dying and if a cure isn’t found, then the Nothing will consume everything and that would be a very bad thing, so a young hero must go on an ADVENTURE! to save the day.

And then the two plots converge.

Bastian: Bastian starts off as a little weenie. He’s a damaged goods character, clearly bothered by the death of his mother (understandably) and doesn’t have a good relationship with his dad. Bastian’s arc is all about finding self-worth and confidence. This is triggered by stealing a book from an old man and running away from classes and home to read it, this securing his place as a juvenile delinquent. Wait a minute…

Atreyu: A young member of a tribe of hunters, he is the designated Chosen One to go on the ADVENTURE! Basically, he’s a Ranger in the D&D sense of the word, except the caveat for his quest is that he can’t bring any weapons, so he has to go around asking people “what can cure the Empress?” Atreyu gains badass points for calling out Bastian on his bullshit (like I said, the plot goes high concept)

Falkor: A Luck Dragon, which looks like a Chinese serpentine dragon with a dog-like head and fur mixed in with scales. Falkor is both a sidekick and a trusty steed to Atreyu. He comes off a little more laid back than he should, but I think that’s because of the limitations of the puppet. Has no arc.

The Child-Like Empress: She doesn’t show up until the end of the movie, but everything is about her. She’ a weird figure, omnipotently-powerful but vulnerable, and is a haunting presence in the film.

G’Mork: A giant wolf that serves the Nothing, well, rather the thing behind the Nothing (it doesn’t really get well explained). Anyway, G’mork is eeeeeeeeviiiiillllll and is after Atreyu, but doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the film.

Engywook and Urgl: Two gnomes, Engywook, the husband, is a scientist, and Urgl is a witch/medicine woman. They are the comic-relief bickering couple that help break some of the tension mid-movie, and crazy fun to watch.

The Rock Biter: “They look like good, strong hands, don’t they?” Well, don’t they?? A very minor character in the book, he gets expanded upon to deliver a late-movie scene of pathos that’s pretty well done. Also, he rides a giant, edible (to him) stone bicycle, which is hilarious and awesome when you think about it.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Wolfgang Peterson is a high profile director. This movie definitely helps show why. Filmed in Germany, it has to achieve two different looks. One is the normal world of Bastian’s and the other is the wildly fantastical Fantasia (Fantastica in the book) The normal world scenes are fewer in number, but generally well done, including the attic set that Bastian holes up in. The Fantasia stuff just lets the movie go nuts, with it trying to display all manner of weird creatures and environments. The best shots in the movie are in Fantasia scenes, and really convey the whole “this is not earth” aspect (such as the long-shot outside the Empress’ chambers near the beginning). Lighting and the use of color are key to achieving this.

As a side note, the one scene I remember from my first viewing long, long ago was the part at the sphinx gate where they vaporized the guy in armor. That scared the shit out of me as a kid and stuck in my mind for years. Bravo, Mr. Peterson.

What’s most impressive is the sheer amount of physical effects used in the film. This is the pre-digital age we’re talking about here, so things have to be accomplished with camera tricks, makeup and a big honkin’ luck dragon puppet. Two of the three elements have aged well over time. The camera tricks, like putting Atreyu next to the gnomes, are still solid, and the makeup effects, like the night-hob, are bloody amazing. Sadly, for animatronic stuff like Falkor, G’mork, and even the Rock Biter, the range of expression for the characters is rather limited and the mouths don’t synch up with the voice acting. A slight disappointment in today’s world, but it is very hard to fault the past for being the past. Instead, I applaud their ambition.

Having read the book, I can tell you that it is very, very good. That said, the movie concerns itself with about half of the book’s events (not even, since a lot has to be cut to make a 92 minute film. However, the adaptation is solidly done, and what remains is pretty good. So Bastian’s not a chubby kid in the film, but that’s not an issue in the movie anyway. The pacing of the movie is very rapid, and things move along quite nicely. The only problem is that the villain, G’mork, doesn’t get a lot of development or screen time, so he doesn’t really feel that dangerous.

The film also plays around with the fourth wall (as the book does) and is rather surprising in that it succeeds in playing it mostly straight. Its not a joke when the fourth wall gets broken, its integral to the plot of the story itself. That alone is brilliantly handled writing.

The sound effects are very, very good. When the rock-biter eats rocks, the foley work on it sounds appropriate.

The music is a hybrid of orchestration and synthesizers that hasn’t exactly aged well. The Falkor Flying Montage Music is pretty good though. The score was composed by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder, but the theme song is performed by 80’s pop singer Limahl (from Kajagoogoo!). It is cheesy, 80’s pop, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about that.

There were two more NeverEnding Story movies made, and from what I gather, were cases of diminishing returns and I have yet to see them. The first one though, stands up to general scrutiny quite nicely. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience, so that a 26 year old male can appreciate it without irony. Considering the limitations of the time, it is very well done, and in our modern age, the occasional misses of the effects just add to its charm, because the writing is solid and the story is brilliantly unique. I hear the sequel (very loosely) follows the 2nd half of the book, and the third, while awful, has Jack Black in it.

But that’s a take for another time…

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