Remember when children’s films were unexpectedly dark and profoundly deep? When death lurked around every corner, tragedies befell loved ones at every turn, and happy endings weren’t always assured? I grew up cowering beneath the heft of films like ‘The Secret of Nimh,’ ‘Watership Down,’ and the original ‘Land Before Time’ -- even treasured Disney classics like ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Snow White,’ and ‘Dumbo’ featured scenes that gave my impressionable toddler brain nightmares and plenty of sleepless nights. But it was ‘The Neverending Story’ -- a film that offered kiddies a faceless surge of evil, the infamous drowning of a faithful companion, a blood-thirsty beast on the prowl, and a series of bizarre and deadly trials of will and skill -- that continues to plague my most nostalgic dreams and send chills down my very-adult spine.
Based on an evocative and haunting German fantasy novel of the same name by Michael Ende, ‘The Neverending Story’ follows the misfortune of a bullied boy named Bastian (a very convincing Barret Oliver) who steals an ancient book from a store clerk, skips class, and finds a comfortable reading spot in his school’s attic. The book introduces him to Fantasia, a mythical kingdom in which a young hero named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) has been tasked with stopping a sinister force called the Nothing. As Atreyu searches for a way to save his world, he must rely on a variety of creatures and miscreants -- including a massive Rockbiter, an overgrown swamp tortoise (Robert Jadah), a snail racer (Deep Roy) and his steed, a Nighthob (Tilo Pruckner) and his bat, a pair of quarreling gnomes (Sydney Bromley and Patricia Hayes), and a fabled luck dragon named Falkor (Alan Oppenheimer) -- to cross the wastelands of Fantasia, contend with a deadly beast called the G’mork (also voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), stop the spread of the Nothing, and save a dying Empress (Tami Stronach) whose salvation may rely on Bastian instead of Atreyu.
Very little about ‘The Neverending Story’ allows it to feel or function like a traditional children’s film. From the identity and cause of Fantasia’s destruction to the complex relationship between Bastian and the characters in his story, and from the intensity of the film’s threats to the incredibly heartbreaking beats between its heroes (Atreyu’s final moments with his horse, his mounting frustration, Bastian’s helplessness and disbelief, and the sight of a noble rock monster relinquishing himself to fate, just to name a few), director Wolfgang Peterson’s bleak fairy tale hits hard and often. As a child, I remember fleeing the room at the mere sight of Morla’s bog, cringing at the gnarled face of a knight killed beneath the towering guardian statues, and hiding beneath a cover any time the G’mork appeared. It’s a testament to the film that, even as an adult, its tone, startling visuals, and challenging themes still resonate and register with enormous impact.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience isn’t as traumatic now that I’m thirty, but every time I see the film I’m awed by its ability to unsettle and disturb my sensibilities. It helps that the practical and voice actors are exceptional -- even the trio of young leads are authentic, believable, and wholly engaging. I still feel my eyes welling up when Hathaway pleads with his only friend, when Bastian refuses to put aside his disbelief even when chaos is erupting all around him, and when the Empress pleads with him to acknowledge his mother’s death and scream her name into the wind. Combine these and other involving moments with Peterson’s cinematography, impressive special effects, and striking design sense and you have one of the most thrilling and staggering fantasy films of all time.
Best of all, ‘The Neverending Story’ has aged extremely well. Aside from a rather dated (but catchy) theme song, the effects are still strong, the real world aesthetics never slap any flashing “1984” warnings across the screen, and the film’s epic sense of scope manages to feel distinctly modern. All things considered, Peterson’s dreamscape will continue to draw in new fans, young and old, and find new life in the coming years. If you’ve never experienced this extraordinary, twenty-five-year old gem, track down a copy and see why it’s earned such a rabid cult following over the last three decades.
(Please note this import edition of the film contains its more familiar 94-minute cut; not the 102-minute version distributed in Germany.)
Unfortunately, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer featured on the import edition of ‘The Neverending Story’ only looks marginally better than its domestic DVD counterpart. Color saturation, contrast, and clarity all receive noticeable upgrades in both quality and stability, but the palette often appears weak and flat, the darkest blacks aren’t fully resolved, and fine object detail isn’t consistent from shot to shot. While I don’t mean to imply the presentation is a complete wash, I’ll be severely disappointed if the film’s eventual domestic high-def release looks so ordinary. The print hasn’t aged very well either. Lingering scratches, flickering hairs, and plenty of nicks and flecks pop up throughout the film and continually left me distracted and dismayed. Worse still, artifacting, crush, and a bit of banding prevents other scenes from looking as good as they could.
Yes, the transfer’s increased detail and more attractive BD picture will give big spenders enough excuses to happily drop their hard-earned cash on this stilted transfer -- in fact, I’m sure some people will argue this is the best the film could look considering its age and the condition of its source. However, this diehard fan expected and will continue to expect a lot more from such a beloved classic. I was happy to find that the import outclassed my DVD copy in every way, but I was completely disenchanted by how poorly it stacks up against other catalog transfers on the market.
Sadly, the disc’s audio package doesn’t fare much better. With a pair of mediocre standard tracks in tow -- a substandard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and a slightly more robust (but nevertheless underwhelming) DTS 5.1 track -- this import doesn’t deliver the sort of sonic bombast or flawless fidelity I’ve come to expect from the best Blu-ray catalog mixes. Dialogue is generally clear and well prioritized, but the original source is in need of further remastering and remixing. Several lines vanish beneath on-screen chaos, the majority of the soundscape is crammed into the front channels, and the soundfield is too spotty to provide an immersive experience. Likewise, pans are hit-or-miss, directionality is fairly imprecise, and hissing can be heard in a few quiet scenes.
Thankfully, the LFE channel still injects some much needed weight into the mix and the rear speakers pipe up in the most active sequences. Even so, this import of ‘The Neverending Story’ won’t win over any converts on the strengths of its audio tracks. Passable at best, this one left me unexcited and unimpressed.
No added value here. The import BD doesn’t feature any supplemental material.
It always kills me when one of my favorite films arrives in high definition with bland visuals and second-rate audio, but my love of ‘The Neverending Story’ almost pushed me to buy a copy of this import. While my funds are still snuggly secured in my checking account, I imagine I’ll crack and settle for this average disc if a domestic Blu-ray release isn’t announced within the next year. I hate to say it, but unless you’re an absolute Fantasia junkie, skip this one and invest in imports with better transfers, fuller surround sound, and more supplemental features.