Sunday, June 25, 2006

The neverending series

Everyone knows that sequels tend to suck. But it's particularly distressing to see a favorite childhood movie ruined by one or more inferior sequels. The Neverending Story is an excellent example of this problem. The original was far from a perfect movie, but it was a fun and engaging movie with a sense of wonder. Unfortunately, it depended greatly on its high production values and the skill of its director, Wolfgang Petersen, who apparently had no intention of making a sequel even though his film covered only half of Michael Ende's novel. The sequels that did get made were low-budget enterprises with little chance of doing justice to the original. Even so, they managed to hit rock bottom, and I cannot think of a single other series that has taken such a low fall.

It's not just an issue of budgets. The people who made the sequels seemed clueless as to what made the original special. No fantasy film I've seen has tapped more successfully into the kinds of philosophical thoughts that kids have. Think of Rockbiter's speech describing the Nothing: "A hole would be something. Nah, this was nothing. And it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger...." It's the type of film that greatly appeals to introspective kids who think about things like infinity and the end of the universe. Do children really think about such things? I did. People who find that surprising have forgotten how profound children can sometimes be.

The whole of Fantasia, indeed, seems to be built out of children's dreams and fears. Some of it is about exhilaration, as when Atreyu rides Falkor. Others reflect anxiety, as in Atreyu's trek through the Swamps of Sadness. What appealed to me most as a kid was how an imaginative but passive child, sort of a young Walter Mitty, opens up a book in which an older, braver version of himself goes on adventures. But The Neverending Story isn't so much escapism as it is about escapism. It's essentially a fable about the destruction of a child's fantasy world as he grows older and adapts to the modern world.

The special effects are good for their day. Although they occasionally look phony, the film's distinct visual look, from the shimmering Ivory Tower to the assortment of weird creatures, holds up well today. What makes the film work especially well is that the two child stars--Barret Oliver and Noah Hathaway--prove themselves capable actors. I use the word "capable" because almost everyone in the film overacts in an annoying way, which I blame primarily on the director. But there's a wonderful cameo by Gerald McRaney as Bastian's father. He has the perfect tone for the scene, appearing loving but distant, unable to fathom Bastian's mind. I wish the film had followed through by returning to their relationship at the end and exploring how Bastian changes as a result of his experiences in Fantasia.

The reason the ending doesn't work is obvious to anyone who's read the book. Simply put, the movie shows only the first half of the book! While this isn't the movie's fault entirely--there was no way the entire story could have fit into one movie--this could have been handled better. The Wizard of Oz faced precisely the same problem yet managed not only to become one of the greatest fantasy movies of all time but to surpass its source material in some ways. The Neverending Story doesn't accomplish that feat. The story feels unresolved at the end while at the same time failing to clearly set up for a sequel. It attempts to wrap everything up with a sequence in which Bastian takes revenge on his old bullies. I enjoyed this scene when I was a kid, but in retrospect it creates a clash between the real world and the fantasy world. Bastian never grows as a character, he never learns to put his feet on the ground, something the early scenes suggest will happen.

There's one other problem, and that's that Wolfgang Petersen never really figured out the proper tone for a children's movie. He must not have had a clear idea what age he was shooting for. Some of the scenes are quite scary and violent, making this film inappropriate for younger children. Yet the muppet-like characters are presented in a cloying way that I doubt older kids (not to mention teens and adults) would appreciate. For example, the first scene in Fantasia plays like a revival of Sesame Street, with Rockbiter filling the Cookie Monster role. By the time I was old enough to appreciate the deeper aspects of the story, I cringed at the film's cutesy moments.

This sort of approach is never justified, in my view. The best children's movies do not condescend to their audience. Films like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or any of the great Disney animated films, are easy to enjoy and appreciate as an adult. This is a lesson that does not seem to have rubbed off on Petersen. Had he shot for a wider age group, the result would have been fresher and more authentic for everyone.

The movie went on to become a box office hit and a minor classic, and the people who made the sequels appear to have learned more from the film's bad points than its good points. I cannot give a detailed description of the second film, because I saw it just once about fifteen years ago, and I have no desire to see it again. What I do remember is that it was painfully bad, one of the worst movies I had ever seen--maybe on the bottom thirty. It attempted to tell the second half of the novel. Unfortunately, the plot had continuity problems and ended up not making much sense. And it fell back on cliches that didn't belong there, like Bastian trying to overcome a fear of water, and a fight between him and Atreyu due to an improbable coincidence. The actor who played Bastian's father this time around was in no way in the Gerald McRaney league, and he came off generic and nondescript. Overall, the film was just poorly done.

Not more than a couple of years ago, I discovered a third Neverending Story movie being played on cable. Intensely curious, I decided to watch it. I did not have high hopes for it. But I knew that, at least, it could not possibly be worse than the second film.

Boy, was I wrong.

Released in 1994, exactly one decade after the original, it is unquestionably one of the worst movies I have ever seen--easily on the bottom ten, maybe bottom five. It is so bad that I risk making it sound like it's worth watching. Trust me, it's not that type of "bad," the enjoyable Ed Wood variety of movies that are so incompetently done they become enjoyable to watch. Those moviegoers who take pleasure in seeing cinematic disasters should be forewarned about this one, lest they never again be able to erase from their memory Rockbiter's gravelly-voiced version of "Born to be Wild," played in a video sequence early in the film and again during the end credits.

No, I am not joking.

The second film does have its admirers, and in a weird way I understand where they're coming from. At least that film had a legitimate purpose, to finish the story from Michael Ende's novel. But the third film has to make up its own reason for being, with a shabbier budget than ever before. So it concocts a story that allows us to see as little of Fantasia as possible. Here, Bastian is a little older, attending a new school. A gang of bullies chases him into the school library. The librarian just happens to be Mr. Koreander, the bookstore owner from the first film. Bastian hides from the bullies by finding the magic book and slipping into Fantasia. But the bullies also find the book, and they use it to wreak havoc on Fantasia. Through a series of magical mishaps, a bunch of creatures from Fantasia end up being transported into the real world along with Bastian. These include Falkor the luck dragon, a baby rockbiter about the size of a fountain statue, and a talking tree. Falkor, who must have gotten a lobotomy sometime between the second and third film, will later chase after a "dragon" at a Chinese festival.

What we do see of Fantasia makes the place seem a lot smaller than ever before. Almost all of the scenes there take place in the empress's chamber in the Ivory Tower, though there is also one sequence where we get to see Rockbiter's home (just what I've always wanted to do!) with Mama Rockbiter and of course the previously mentioned Baby Rockbiter sitting in front of a large stone TV set. Needless to say, the Fantasians seem to possess quite a bit more knowledge of Earth than they did in the first two films. When the gnome describes Bastian as "not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger in the muscle department," we're reminded how much more enjoyable the film would probably be if Schwarzenegger were actually in it.

Curiously, the bullies never seem surprised to learn that magic exists. Think how long it took in the first film for even imaginative, ten-year-old Bastian to become convinced of the book's supernatural qualities. These bullies, much older and more concrete, never go through such a skeptical period. And later, when the Auryn falls into the hands of a teenage girl, she treats it with about the same level of awe as if she got hold of her parents' credit card.

The creatures bear scant physical resemblance to their counterparts from the earlier movies. They look like people parading around in bad Halloween costumes. And Falkor (who in the original was voiced by an accomplished and prolific voice actor, Alan Oppenheimer) now sounds like Goofy.

There are actually some familiar actors in this mess. Mr. Koreander is played by British character actor Freddie Jones, Bastian is played by the kid from Free Willy, and the main bully is played by a relatively young Jack Black, who now probably would like to do with this film what George Lucas wants to do with the Star Wars Holiday Special.

1 comment:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

How sad... but it makes me want to read the book!