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The NeverEnding Story(1984)
When young Bastian borrows a mysterious, ornately-bound book, he never dreamed turning a page would draw him into a shimmering fantasy world of racing snails, hang-glider bats, soaring luckdragons, puckish elves, a Childlike Empress, the brave warrior Atreyu and a slab-faced walking quarry called a Rock Biter.
For more about The NeverEnding Story and the The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray release, see the The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on February 28, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Thomas Hill, Moses Gunn, Alan Oppenheimer
Narrator: Alan Oppenheimer
Director: Wolfgang Petersen (I)
» See full cast & crew
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray Review
"In the beginning, it is always dark..."
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, February 28, 2010
Grim and unsettling, intense and unnerving, Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story isn't the lighthearted fantasy or spirited adventure its whimsical coverart might suggest. Just ask any former '80s tot to rattle off the most disturbing movie scenes they remember from their childhood. Chances are, The NeverEnding Story will come up more than once. A young warrior's faithful steed drowns in a murky swamp mere minutes after he begins his quest; a pair of towering statues kill a man for simply walking between them; an endearing rock giant mourns the loss of his family and friends; a fanged creature prepares to devour a young boy before their world is consumed by nothingness; a desperate girl pleads with a hesitant savior as her palace collapses around her; an unlikely hero must come to terms with the death of his beloved mother, struggling to believe that the simple act of screaming into the wind could save an entire kingdom. Far from the rosy children's fare modern filmfans and sheltered kids of all ages have become accustomed to, it's a weighty, worthwhile, terribly satisfying classic that deserves to be rediscovered, recommended, and treasured.
Based on the first half of German author Michael Ende's 1979 fantasy novel of the same name, The NeverEnding Story tells the tale of Bastian (Barret Oliver), a troubled boy who "borrows" a mysterious book from a rare-books dealer (Thomas Hill). After skipping class and hiding himself away in his school's cluttered attic, Bastian begins reading the story of Fantasia, a mystical realm whose lands are being torn apart by a merciless entity called the Nothing. When its panicked peoples gather at the Ivory Tower, Fantasia's dying Empress (Tami Stronach) summons a young warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and tasks him with preventing its destruction. Setting off across the Plains, Atreyu makes his way to the Swamps of Sadness, searches for an ancient sage named Morla, faces a series of deadly gateways, and seeks the guidance of the great Southern Oracle, all in a valiant attempt to cure the Empress and stop the Nothing. Along the way, he elicits the help of a flying luck dragon named Falkor (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), two cantankerous gnomes (Sydney Bromley and Patricia Hayes), and a mammoth Rock Biter (also Oppenheimer), and races to stay one step ahead of the Nothing's wolven servant, the Gmork (Oppenheimer, yet again). But as Bastian continues to read about Atreyu's harrowing quest, he starts to suspect he has a direct role to play in the narrative; that he has the ability to intervene in Atreyu's future; that he may be the Earth-child destined to save Fantasia.
Famously disowned by Ende, Peterson and co-writer Herman Weigel's arresting adaptation is nevertheless an engrossing, sharply penned slice of stark fantasy that captures Bastian's mounting heartache and confusion, and Atreyu's growing turmoil and hopelessness. Their individual quests are compelling and deceptively complex -- pitting the two heroes against staggering odds, both physical and emotional, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, both symbolic and literal -- and the dangers they encounter are the stuff of thrilling dreams and inescapable nightmares. As conflict is piled upon conflict, tragedy upon tragedy, Bastian is forced to claim the mantle Atreyu begins to realize isn't his. The two are irrevocably linked, and their symbiosis proves itself to be as inevitable as it is exhilarating. Sadly, theirs is an adventure rife with pain and torment. Sure, it's dotted with whimsy and humor, but it's also frequently overwhelmed by darkness and despair. And while Peterson and Weigel have jettisoned entire characters and plotlines from Ende's novel, even altering its tone (sometimes rather significantly), they retain the author's most memorable creatures and storylines, and capture his sense of wonder. More importantly, the filmmakers don't pull any punches, weaving an unexpectedly mature tale for kids and a refreshingly nuanced film for adults.
That being said, the most surprising thing about The NeverEnding Story is that, even some twenty-five years after its release, it still holds up so well. Oliver initially pushes a bit too hard, but soon settles down with an affecting, altogether captivating performance; one matched at every turn by Hathaway, Stronach, Oppenheimer, and every other character actor whose efforts grace the screen. I still tear up every time Hathaway begs Atreyu's horse to push on, still feel shivers go up my spine when Stronach looks directly into the camera, still sniffle whenever Oppenheimer delivers the Rock Biter's "these hands" lament, still experience a rush of emotion when Oliver flings open the attic window and screams into a raging storm. It helps that the creatures and otherworldly beings that inhabit Fantasia are so convincing. I know, I know: without the aid of CG, how can anything, especially a cast of practical puppets and animatronic beasties, possibly be so believable? Simply because the film's effects wizards and voice actors invest their all into every monster. The Gmork's stocky head movements may date the wily wolf, but his terrifying eyes, bloody chops, and menacing growls speak volumes. The Rock Biter's stony skin is too malleable, but I could swear that's a soul I see behind those massive eyes. Falkor's movements may be limited to his cumbersome head, but I'd call upon his steely services long before those of the heartless CG dragons that have emerged in recent years.
Though nostalgia often plays a crucial role in a longtime fan's ongoing love of a childhood favorite, The NeverEnding Story continues to stand the test of time. Its effects may show their age, its synth-infused music may date the production, but the true test of a film lies in the resonance of its characters, the impact of its story, the vision of its director, and the power of its performances; four areas in which Peterson's gripping fantasy excels. I can't guarantee everyone will be enamored with it as I am -- I've watched it so many times over the years that I could probably quote every line -- but few children's films have swept me away as readily and reliably as The NeverEnding Story. Forget the fact that it was first released in 1984. Ignore the limitations of its special effects. Sink into Bastian and Atreyu's story, follow them to the film's fateful end, and let your imagination take hold. I have a feeling you won't regret it.
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray, Video Quality
The NeverEnding Story features a competent, at-times striking 1080p/VC-1 transfer; one that obliterates the standard DVD's dated, ungainly picture and, despite some lingering setbacks and inconsistencies, looks much better than the Blu-ray edition released in the Netherlands in 2007. Cinematographer Jost Vacano's haunting palette -- which descends further and further into darkness the closer Atreyu comes to the end of his journey -- is brimming with earthy browns, rich amber hues, wintry whites, lifelike skintones, and well-resolved blacks. Although primary colors only appear on occasion, they arrive in force, granting blue flashes of lighting searing intensity, a deadly gateway's golden glow palpable warmth, and the spilled blood of a lunging beast a fittingly visceral edge. Moreover, contrast is fairly reliable (particularly considering the age of the film and condition of the print), and depth is surprisingly convincing. If the presentation falters, it's in regards to detail. While many shots look fantastic, reborn even, several extensive effects sequences, low-lit scenes, and dreary interiors don't fare as well, suffering from middling delineation, minor print damage, and some intermittent softness. That's not to say there are any serious technical problems -- the film's grainfield is intact, there isn't a hint of noise reduction, I didn't spot any glaring edge enhancement, and eyesores like artifacting, aliasing, and banding aren't a factor -- but it's clear The NeverEnding Story didn't receive the sort of high-dollar overhaul it would take to eliminate the picture's inherent issues.
I'm sure there will be those who balk at the presentation's graininess, its errant nicks and specks, or the manner in which the high definition transfer showcases every seam of the film's aging special effects, but I can't help but focus on the studio's faithfulness to the source. Do I think it could look better? Perhaps, given any number of improbable scenarios (a Blade Runner-esque miracle springs to mind). Personally, I'm just relieved Warner didn't slather the Nothing with noise reduction, toss some artificial sharpening at Artax, and call it a day. Look at Atreyu's face when he speaks with Gmork, the Rock Biter's teary eyes when he describes how he lost his friends, the cracks and grooves in Morla's thick skin, the bristling fur on Falkor's scaly hide, the sandy surface of the Oracle statues, the mud-spattered overgrowth in the Swamps, the dust that flitters through the shafts of light in Bastian's hideaway, the frazzled crowds gathering round the steps of the Ivory Tower, Engywook's unruly beard, the tattered books in Mr. Koreander's shop, the paintings on the walls of an ancient ruin, the wrinkled, witchy face of the Nighthob... I could go on and on. I'm sure some NeverEnding newcomers will shrug their shoulders here and there, but cinephiles and nostalgic filmfans will hopefully appreciate the technical quality of the transfer as much as I did.
UPDATE: After speaking extensively with one of our readers about the differences between the Dutch Blu-ray release and the US edition, I decided to compare the two. The results were interesting to say the least. The main differences? Contrast leveling and image brightness. Warner's transfer is darker and more foreboding, with inky blacks that occasionally veil Petersen's backgrounds in heavy shadow. The Dutch transfer is much brighter, revealing more of the director's production design, albeit at the cost of slightly washed out hues. (An extremely helpful series of member-contributed screenshot comparisons are available in our forum's 'NeverEnding Story' thread.) Personally, I prefer the aesthetics of the US edition, but I can definitely see why some would gravitate to the Dutch version. For me, the richness, saturation, and oppressive atmosphere of the domestic transfer is more complementary to Petersen's tone and thematic pursuits. Warner's harrowing image makes Bastian and Atreyu's encounters more frightening, more dangerous and, most importantly, more unnerving. It's also worth noting that fine detailing is crisper, skintones are more natural, and foregrounds are cleaner in the US presentation (not to mention the fact that the import struggles with some artifacting, noise, and minor instabilities). Even so, the Dutch edition shouldn't be dismissed. The import boasts far more background detail in a number of scenes, namely an early meeting between the rock giant and his newfound friends, Atreyu's first arrival at the Ivory Tower, and several sequences involving Bastian and his school's attic.
Petersen inadvertently stirred up a small storm when he revealed Warner hadn't consulted him on the US Blu-ray release. But because he didn't elaborate on the intended look of the film, fans have been left to wonder whether he would favor the dark domestic transfer or the brighter Dutch presentation. While I doubt Petersen would want his production design blotted away by overzealous shadows, I also doubt he would want his tone sacrificed to see more tufts of grass. Though he doesn't address The NeverEnding Story directly, ever-insightful Motion Picture Archivist Robert Harris had this to say on the issue of image darkness and the accurate preservation of a filmmaker's actual intent. In it, he explains that just "because something is exposed to a film negative's emulsion does not mean that it is intended to be seen during projection or electronic viewing." Or, more simply, "the fact that information exists on a negative does not mean that the viewer is intended to see it." His full analysis is invaluable to this debate, and I would strongly encourage everyone to read it. Still, if Petersen expressed specific dissatisfaction with Warner's transfer and its contrast leveling, rather than their treatment of him as a filmmaker, this would suddenly become a very different review. Director's intent is paramount.
Ah well. Until Warner decides to release a newly mastered, director-approved definitive edition (don't hold your breath), or until Petersen reveals exactly how the film should look, consumers will have to rely on their own tastes and preferences. I know such an analysis isn't the chastisement some feel is deserved, but I hope it brings attention to the differences between the two editions and offers readers a more comprehensive analysis of both 'NeverEnding Story' releases.
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Presented for the first time on home video with a 5.1 surround track (at least domestically), The NeverEnding Story boasts a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that, while not the immersive sonic spectacle I was hoping for, still manages to impress. Dialogue is clean, crisp, and well-prioritized, regardless of whether it's shouted in the boggy mists of the Swamps of Sadness, whispered in the chilly air of the gnomes' Southern Oracle overlook, or barked in the dust-swept confines of a cave as Gmork prepares to strike. Likewise, LFE output is strong and hearty, lending welcome weight to the Rock Biter's transport and tenacity to the ravenous winds of the Nothing. The soundscape is overwhelmed on occasion -- crackling thunder, crumbling stone, and uprooting trees sometimes jumble together, resulting in some displeasing low-end distortion -- but the fault seems to lie with the original elements, not Warner's lossless efforts. Rear speaker activity is aggressive as well, allowing Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder's music to consistently envelop the listener, but many of the film's effects (ambient or otherwise) are merely culled from the front channels, resulting in a fairly artificial, somewhat shallow soundfield. Even so, Bastian's cries to the night sky have never sounded better, Atreyu's visits to the Ivory tower have never been so absorbing, and Falkor's roars have never been more satisfying. Though it suffers from a few issues, the overall experience is commendable, and one fans will be pleased to hear unfold.
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray edition of The NeverEnding Story doesn't include any special features, not even a theatrical trailer.
The NeverEnding Story Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The NeverEnding Story still has a powerful hold on me; no small feat considering how readily I've cast off other childhood favorites that have failed to stand the test of time. Its effects may be dated, but its story and characters have endured the decades, drawing me in as easily as they did when I was a young boy. Thankfully, Warner's Blu-ray release is worth owning. I do wish the studio had finally taken the opportunity to give The NeverEnding Story the generous supplemental package it deserves -- actually, any special features would have been nice -- but the Blu-ray edition's exceedingly faithful video transfer and decent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track certainly soften the blow. My copy has already found a permanent home on my shelves. I suggest other nostalgic filmfans prepare a similar spot in their collection.
The NeverEnding Story: Other Editions
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