Based on Michael Ende's best-selling novel, directed by Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "The Perfect Storm," "Air Force One," "Troy"), and co-written by Petersen and Herman Weigel, 1984's film version of "The NeverEnding Story" was never the instant hit the studio hoped it would be, yet it has picked up a sizable following over the years. Although the movie has been available on DVD for quite some time, it's nice to have it now in Blu-ray high-definition.
It's true "The NeverEnding Story" never quite became the classic fairy-tale fantasy that "The Princess Bride," a movie that follows a similar pattern, did a few years later. Maybe it's because "The NeverEnding Story" hasn't as much humor or adventure in it, I don't know; certainly, it has enough heart and soul and enough fantastical characters. Or maybe it's because director Petersen wanted too much to make it more meaningful than a mere children's story. It is slower and heavier than "The Princess Bride" for sure. Still, "The NeverEnding Story" has enough charm, delight, and wonder going for it to entertain most youngsters, and that's all that matters.
The film begins with our introduction to young Bastian (Barret Oliver), a boy who has lost his mother and whose father (Gerald McRainey) cautions him to stop daydreaming and get his head out of the clouds. The poor kid is something of wimp, too, whom bullies chase into a bookstore one day. There, the owner is reading a "special" book called "The NeverEnding Story," which Bastian borrows and takes to school with him. Holed up in the school's spooky basement storage room, Bastian begins reading the book rather than going to class. Thus, we get a story within the story.
In the book, Bastian meets a group of extravagant characters in the land of Fantasia, the most interesting character being a huge, stone beast called Rockbiter (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, who also does several other of the film's characters). Here, Bastian learns that an evil force is destroying all of Fantasia, a force known as the "Nothing." It engulfs parts of the land one piece at a time and turns it into...nothing.
As in "The Wizard of Oz," whose plot "The NeverEnding Story" greatly resembles, the characters all head to the fabled Ivory Tower of Fantasia's Empress (Tami Stronach), for they believe only she can help them. When they get there, they learn the Empress herself is dying of the Nothing, and she can only help them if a great warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) goes on a quest and finds a cure for her and the land. When Atreyu appears, he's a child about the same age as Bastian, and he must face a number of challenges in his quest, including eluding the dreadful G'mork and finding the Southern Oracle, who can answer all their questions, ten-thousand miles away.
Like so many fairy tales, this one is a quest adventure, a Hero's Journey. The difference is that as Bastian continues reading the book, he's sucked into it, becoming increasingly a part of the adventure.
The film has a lot of magic going for it, not the least of which are the often brilliant costume and creature designs, most of them done the old-fashioned way without the aid of computer-generated graphics. The flying, doglike dragon, Falkor, for instance, is wonderfully characterful, and the aforementioned Rockbiter is at once menacing and sympathetic. Moreover, we get a plentitude of creative set constructions, the wondrous Ivory Tower among them.
Unfortunately, for this adult the film has its shortcomings as well. Neither of the movie's lead actors--young Oliver and Hathaway--have much personality to draw upon apart from their age and good looks. In fairness, though, the script doesn't allow them much room to grow beyond appearing happy, sad, startled, or amazed most of the time.
Furthermore, the music by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder isn't particularly memorable and does little but provide a sonic backdrop for the story rather than helping the movie soar. Moroder's opening theme song, with lyrics by Keith Forsey, is downright mundane and today sounds positively dated to the Eighties.
Worse, Petersen never seems to bring the story to life. He paints some lovely cinematic portraits but fails to invest them with much vitality, at least not until the very end, where things become rather sentimental and overobvious, which at least is something. I kept wishing for the sense of wit, whimsy, music, and playful wonder of a "Wizard of Oz," a "Willy Wonka," or a "Princess Bride." Alas, it was not to be. Instead, things just happen to the hero Atreyu, with seemingly little rhyme or reason. As the book's title implies, it's like a story kids make up as they go along, with no real motivation for anything happening beyond simply keeping the narrative alive and moving forward.
Then there's the movie's message about opening up one's imagination and learning more about the joys of reading, which children might find attractive but adults may think too simplistic.
"The NeverEnding Story" is colorful and inventive in many ways, yet slow and dreary in others. It may be a somewhat frustrating experience for the first-time adult viewer. However, if you saw the film as a child and loved it, you're sure to find this new Blu-ray transfer equally enchanting. Who am I to spoil anyone's fun? Read (or watch) and fulfill your dreams.
Warners use a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 encode to transfer the 2.40:1 ratio movie to disc. Since the studio include no extras to accompany the film, the single-layer disc is sufficient to get the job done.
Colors are bright and deep, with decent black levels, although facial tones appear sometimes a bit too dark and sometimes a bit too pale. The overall image is a tad soft, too, giving the story itself a kind of fairy-tale quality. A light, natural film grain provides the image with a realistic texture, and the only seriously distracting noise shows up in vast, broad daylight shots. The occasional age fleck or spot also puts in an appearance; not to worry.
Warners use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio to remaster the soundtrack for the first time in 5.1 channels. While it doesn't really open up the surrounds to anything like today's pinpoint directionality, the new audio does provide a pleasantly ambient bloom in the sides and rear of the listening area, especially noticeable during musical backgrounds and several big storms. Otherwise, dynamics are strong, bass deep, and the midrange smooth and well balanced with the rest of the frequencies.
To say there are very few extras on the disc would be putting it mildly. There aren't any extras on the disc besides languages and scene selections. You get a menu of thirty chapters; English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and a host of other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Nothing more.
Some things one might best leave to memory. If you saw "The NeverEnding Story" as a child, you'll probably still love and enjoy it. It's fun in a colorful and imaginative way, although I doubt that it has nearly enough humor or excitement in it to make much of an impact on adults coming to it for the first time. So, let's say it will no doubt continue to work its charms on kids and nostalgic adults.