Growing up, I used to frequently go to a video rental just down the road and in the late ’80s/early ’90s enjoyed some terrific films. Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story was one of my personal favourites from childhood, and it has lost none of its appeal today. Depicting the world of Fantasia (Fantastica in the novel), there are many wonderful moments. But one stands out vividly in my mind whenever I think of the film.
The film depicts quiet school boy Bastian (Barrett Oliver) who is victimized by a trio of school bullies. At the outset he flees from the group, taking refuge in a bookshop where the owner (Thomas Hill) is eager for Bastian to leave. Challenging Bastian about his knowledge of books, the owner is stunned when the boy reels off an impressive list of novels he has read before enquiring about a strange book resting in the owner’s lap. When told the book isn’t safe, Bastian can’t resist borrowing it, taking it to school and skipping his lessons so he can begin reading.
The book, entitled The Neverending Story, tells of the story of Fantasia, a fantasy world that is being destroyed by a malevolent force known as the Nothing. Races across the world head for the Ivory Tower, home of the Empress, to beseech her for aid only to find she is ill and dying.
A quest is prepared to find a cure for the Empress and a young boy, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), is sent forth with his horse, Artax, to roam Fantasia. While Atreyu sets out on his quest, a wolf known as Gmork begins a quest of his own to stop Atreyu. The quest leads Atreyu to the Swamps of Sadness where Artax sinks into the muddy waters to his death after being overcome by despair. Atreyu seeks out Morla, a giant tortoise, that is the wisest being in Fantasia. Despite persistent sneezing and signs of fragile sanity, Morla points Atreyu towards the Southern Oracle which is 10,000 miles away! Atreyu narrowly avoids being killed by Gmork when a Luck Dragon, Falkor, plucks from the young hero from swamps and carries him to safety.
The best moment in The Neverending Story comes when Atreyu wakes to find Falkor has brought him to the Southern Oracle where two gnomes Engywook (Sydney Bromley) and Urgl (Patricia Hayes) live. Engywook is a scientist studying the Southern Oracle and he informs Atreyu that in order to reach the Oracle that has the answers to saving the Empress, he must pass two tests. The first is to walk a narrow passage between mountains where two golden sphinxes line the pathway.
Atreyu learns that the eyes of the sphinxes remain closed until someone approaches and if that hopeful believes in themselves enough then the eyes remain shut. If one passes beneath the sphinxes and has just a glimmer of doubt about themselves then the eyes open and shoot at the one that approaches. Atreyu takes on the challenge and it’s a fantastic moment, almost matched by the second test where one looks into a mirror and sees their true self which is in fact the opposite of everything they believed. Atreyu, who is strong and brave, looks into the mirror and sees a boy reading a book. Suddenly the reader looks up and Atreyu is staring into the eyes of Bastian! A memorable fantasy film with a terrific concept.