Lots of you know that I write movies. But what you might not know is that the single greatest influence in my life as a screenwriter is a dark children’s movie that came out in 1984, when I was six years old. That movie is The Neverending Story.
Let me tell you why.
On the surface, the movie is about a troubled boy who dives into a fantasy world through the pages of a mysterious book.
But it’s so much more than this.
SO. MUCH. MORE.
It’s dark. Depressing. Horrifying. It’s got strange creatures and an ivory palace and a princess who’s got no jurisdiction whatsoever. It’s got a flying dog dragon who likes to have his ears scratched, and ice statues with full-on boobies and laser eyeballs.
Weird, right? It should be noted that this movie was produced in Germany. I don’t mean to stereotype an entire people but… somewhere in between backpacking across the world keeping hostels in business and trancing out to house music, these Germans came up with a delightful tale about the metaphorical destruction of the imagination.
I know. You’re so excited about this.
Where do I start? What’s the entry point for something that has sunk so deep into your psyche that you can no longer remember a time before it? My life began with The Neverending Story and it will likely end there, too. I’ll be the lunatic at the nursing home with The Neverending Story on a loop in my room. My last word will be “Moonchild” as my roommate chokes me to death for calling her “Morla” one too many times.
OK LET’S DO THIS.
The movie starts out with a little kid named Bastian Balthazar Bux (!!!!) getting scolded by his Dad over breakfast for being too imaginative. BEING TOO IMAGINATIVE. Says the man who gave his kid that name!
Dad says Bastian needs to “keep his feet on the ground” and stop drawing horses in his notebooks at school.
“Unicorns,” Bastian corrects him. Softly, trying to keep his imagination in check.
The basic tenet of The Neverending Story is this: adults lose their imaginations and thus become assholes. Remember that.
The reason this conversation has come up in the first place is because Bastian tells his Dad that he’s distracted. He’s been having dreams about his mom.
HIS DEAD MOM.
BECAUSE HIS MOM IS DEAD.
Look at this kid.
He needs a hug and a therapist, not a scolding. Bastian’s imagination “problem”—in that he has one—is like focusing on mismatched drapes when a house is on fire. Don’t knock the kid’s perfectly legit coping skills while the root cause goes unexamined. (Go ahead and give me a Psychology degree right now.)
Just to prove to his Dad that he’s SUPER paying attention during this conversation, Bastian makes a sort of finger Fibonacci and daydreams about the day he’ll have arthritis.
Meanwhile, during all of this Bastian-bashing, Dad’s making a protein shake from raw eggs just because.
“Son,” his eyes seem to say, “I get the squirts. And that’s REAL LIFE.”
Anyway, now that he has a full grasp of manly reality, Bastian heads to school. But on his way there, he’s accosted by some buck-toothed bullies who demand that he hand over his money.
The bullies have cool backpacks and lots of pieces of flair on their jackets. They’re trying to steal from someone who clearly has less than them.
Look at their faces.
After these punk-ass chipmunks put him in a chokehold, they throw Bastian into a garbage dumpster where the city apparently stores all of its hay supply.
Bastian gets out, cleans himself off, and—just when he thinks he’s in the clear—the bullies see him again. He runs, they chase. Cue Benny Hill music.
Bastian finally loses them by ducking into a bookstore. Not just any bookstore, though—a mysterious one where no one’s shopping. Let’s call it Border’s.
In the center of the store is a Grumpy Old Man reading a book and smoking a pipe. This guy.
Bastian’s like, “Dude, I escaped into a bookstore,” and rattles off all these classics he’s read. Grumpy Old Man is very impressed.
Bastian then notices the book Grumpy Old Man’s reading. It’s badass, with a weird symbol on the front in which two intertwining snakes bite their own butts.
“What’s that?” Bastian asks, all casual-like. No biggie.
DEFCON-1, SON! NOT FOR SALE! ABORT! Grumpy Old Man tells him to stay away from this book. It’s dangerous, not like the “safe” books Bastian’s read before. It’s irregular. Abnormal. Like a certain little kid we know, maybe? With this particular book, he says, you can’t put it down and just return to reality.
Then the phone rings and Grumpy Old Man gets up to answer it, putting the book down and returning to reality.
…. Heyyyyyyy now. Plot hole the size of a hay dumpster. Look away.
Bastian—well-read Bastian, overactive imagination Bastian—can’t help himself. He will be a curious nerd his whole life. He practically licks his lips as he steals the book and slips out of the store. But he does leave a nice note for Grumpy Old Man, saying he will return the book later.
Good kid. YOU ALWAYS LEAVE A NOTE.
Bastian arrives to school late. His class has already started and today is test day. Does Bastian enter the class and apologize?
No. He runs the hell away, escaping to read his crazy dangerous book in the only place most kids feel at home: the school attic.
Did your school have an attic? That’s cool. Mine didn’t. It especially didn’t have candles to light, motherflippin’ skulls, and wizard-y glass vials which I can only presume would be for casting demonic spells to torture children who refuse to play dodgeball.
Who authorized this?
Here’s where the story gets real interesting, though. As Bastian begins reading, we get sucked into the world of the book, the world of…
FANTASIA, a place from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
Something terrible is happening to Fantasia. It’s disappearing, being eaten up by something called THE NOTHING.
Think about that for a second. THE NOTHING is an actual SOMETHING destroying an entire planet. German children must be great abstract thinkers because this part of the movie made nein of the sense to me at six. I guess there just wasn’t enough lederhosen in my diet.
Later, as an adult (ten seconds ago), I realized that The Nothing is called that because it leaves behind emptiness in place of beauty, and not because it itself is nothing. I also realized as an adult (five seconds ago) that Fantasia is most likely representative of Bastian’s imagination facing imminent destruction. Huh.
We know about The Nothing because three Fantasia citizens are casually chatting about it during lunch in the forest: a man with a snail, a man with a bat, and a giant rock man, called Rock Biter. Here they are.
Truthfully, this scene has always bugged me. It’s not the fact that one of these guys starts inexplicably snacking on a stick. And it’s not the fact that another one wears a top hat like he’s going to some kind of goddamned night at the opera. It’s the fact that this scene—and only this scene—is poorly dubbed.
Watch the lip synch for yourself here.
Even as a kid I remember thinking, “Hoo boy. Somebody got canned for this!”
But now I believe this had to be an in-joke on the part of the producers. Here’s how I imagine it went down:
Two producers sit in an editing room. They wear black turtlenecks. One turns to the other.
“Let us make funny ha ha joke on das stupid kinder,” says Producer One in a very Germanly manner.
“Yes. Let us make das words too fast for das lips, even faster than das autos on das autobahn,” says Producer Two, chomping on some bratwurst.
Then they laugh and share a cigarette.
It’s the only way to explain it.
Anyway, I want to point out that the Rock Biter (above) is made of rocks but also eats rocks. He’s friendly enough, I guess, but the movie kinda skirts the issue of his cannibalism. Shame—seems like a cool subplot.
Each of these characters has been sent by their people to seek help from the Empress, who lives in the Ivory Tower. The Ivory Tower looks like this.
I know what you’re thinking. This? This is the best piece of real estate on the entire planet? It looks like a bitch to clean with all those craggy rocks. How is grandma supposed to get up to the top? Are the school districts good? Does it at least have a heated pool?
No. It contains only a single room with a bed upon which sits a sick Empress who cries a lot. They don’t say what she’s sick with, but I think it’s safe to assume she caught cooties from The Nothing. They’re tied together somehow anyway.
Everyone’s confounded by it, including the Empress, whose confusion is perfectly expressed with beautifully waxed eyebrows.
So one of the Ivory Tower staff goes out to greet the crowd.
“Gary,” the citizens cry out. “What in the hell is happening to Fantasia?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “The Empress doesn’t tell me dinkle.”
“But Gary,” they say. “Look at our heads! They’re too big to carry on our puny bodies. Fix them!”
Gary’s waiting for a great warrior named Atreyu to show up after being summoned. Atreyu is believed to hold the key to saving Fantasia.
Why is he so great?
BECAUSE HE’S HOT.
That’s his horse, Artax. We’ll get back to Artax.
Oh god. Artax.
Anyway, Atreyu must find a way to save the Empress and Fantasia from The Nothing. He is given the Auryn, a medallion comprised of two snakes eating their butts that will supposedly guide him on his journey, but nothing else.
No weapons. No help. Just a kid and his horse.
“Eff my life,” he whispers as the Auryn is placed around his neck.
Say hello to what Atreyu’s up against.
Gosh, you’re saying. Just looks like a bad storm to me. It’ll pass.
You poor, pathetic idiot. That’s one hungry cloud of bad juju and it won’t stop until it’s gorged itself on the entire planet. Then it’s coming for the rest of the universe—even though that’s likely impossible since The Nothing is a localized atmospheric event consisting only of the elements from that particular planet.
NEVER MIND. BE AFRAID.
Remember the Ivory Tower at the beginning of the movie, with its expansive, craggy acreage? Here’s a little SPOILER ALERT for you.
So now you know what Atreyu is up against when he sets out from the Ivory Tower. He rides without knowing where he’s going or what he’s doing.
Here he is, riding.
What’s that? What’s going on with Bastian back in the “real world”? Don’t worry about him. He’s just chillin’, enjoying the book and having a sandwich in the school attic.
…. FOR NOW.
Back to Atreyu. though. He’s decided for some godawful reason to ride through the Swamps of Sadness.
“That doesn’t sound good.” – You.
You’re right. So many children of my generation have been messed up by what I’m about to describe that I’m not sure I’m going to make it all the way through the next few paragraphs without flinging myself into a jar of peanut butter chocolate coconut. (It exists.)
******* You have been warned. *******
Anyway, here’s Atreyu and Artax slopping through the Swamps of Sadness.
Here’s the thing about The Swamps of Sadness: they make you feel sad. It’s right there in the name. So not only does Atreyu feel like garbage for failing an entire planet at this point, but now he’s in Fantasia’s equivalent of Florida. This seems to be rock bottom.
Then he notices that Artax is having a hard time getting through the mud. So he gets down off the horse to help pull him through.
But Artax stops struggling. Just stops.
“C’mon Artax,” Atreyu says, a quiver of panic underneath the bravado. Silly horse. WOSSAMOTTA U?
The horse, he realizes, is sinking.
Panicked, Atreyu pulls at him, fighting, trying to get Artax to move. But the horse just keeps sinking deeper into the swamp.
Artax is now up to his mane in oily mud.
“Stupid horse!” Atreyu cries, trying some tough love. He slaps the water to scare Artax into action.
The horse looks at him as if to say, “YOU BROUGHT ME HERE YOU SICK SON OF A BITCH.”
But it’s too late. The mud has slipped all the way up to the horse’s eyes.
Oh god. Artax.
The screen fades to black to the soundtrack of Atreyu’s wails.
“MOMMY? IS THE HORSEY DEAD?”– Children everywhere.
Fade in and we are left alone with Atreyu.
Just sitting there. Horse-less.
You can watch it all here if you really want to do that to yourself.
This scene is the reason why I started asking tough questions of my parents. “Since everything in life is so fleeting, why do we make our beds?” I would ask. “Who cares about homework when life is so fragile?” Etc. I started wearing black lipstick and quoting Sylvia Plath. I was a very popular six-year-old.
So Atreyu. Atreyu’s now all by himself and even sadder than before. But he keeps trudging along because he has to. Everybody’s depending on him.
This kid. For someone whose testicles haven’t descended yet, he’s got a pair.
Atreyu—muddied, tearful Atreyu—happens across a giant hill. The ground shakes and the hill becomes bigger and bigger until we’re looking at a giant turtle. A CRANKY turtle who’s allergic to children and sneezes on poor Atreyu repeatedly.
Listen, if my nostrils were in my forehead and my sinuses were acting up, I would be a grumpypants too. Morla, who refers to himself as “we” after being in the swamps so long by himself, tells Atreyu “we” don’t know one goddamned thing and to leave “us” alone.
“If you don’t help me,” Atreyu says, “you’ll die too!”
That’s when Morla goes from regular turtle to GANGSTA TURTLE. He laughs. He laughs with the cynicism of eleventy million jaded teenagers.
“We don’t even care!” he says. Then, just to show how much he doesn’t, he cuts himself and drinks his own blood.
Just kidding. BUT WAIT A MINUTE. If Morla is a depressed turtle and lives in the Swamps of Sadness, why hasn’t he drowned long ago like Artax? Is it because Morla wants to die and his punishment is living forever in loneliness?
God, this movie. It’s so twisted.
Morla finally tells Atreyu to seek the Southern Oracle, which is 10,000 miles away. Maybe the answer will be there. MAYBE.
Atreyu’s like, “Gee thanks. Was that so hard?”
Morla sneezes one last time and returns to his shell.
Atreyu is less than enthused that he might have to walk 10,000 miles for just a hint of help when he already spent half the movie wandering aimlessly.
Surprisingly, Atreyu, now covered in turtle boogers, starts to let the swamp get to him. Because this movie isn’t dark and terrible enough, our hero begins to sink in the mud.
BUT THEN. Out of the parting clouds comes Atreyu’s rescuer, a dog-dragon hybrid named Falcor.
A nice older couple, presumably the folks who adopted Falcor from the kennel, come out of a nearby hovel and greet Atreyu.
It just so happens that Mr. Moleman is a “Southern Oracle scholar.” Sure, award yourself a degree from Bullshit University there. What he means by “scholar” is that he watches people trying to cross through the gates to get to the Southern Oracle like some kind of creep-o stalker with no hobbies.
Here’s Gate #1.
Mr. Moleman says that only people who really believe in their own worth are permitted passage through the gates. On cue, through a telescope, he sees a brave knight attempting passage. He invites Atreyu to watch as the sphinxes at the gate judge the knight’s worth.
As Atreyu watches, this happens.
Sphinxes – 1, Knight – 0.
The sphinxes at the gate basically fry people who don’t really have any self worth. Take that, insecure people! Maybe death will learn you some confidence!
Atreyu gulps. Despite all common sense, he’s gonna try it. As he approaches the gate, he looks up.
Not only that, but look what’s at Atreyu’s feet.
Atreyu braces himself, inching forward. But he doesn’t get far. Whether it’s from losing his horse, being sneezed on, meeting a dog dragon, or even watching a man just get murdered, you could say it hasn’t been a great day for him, OK? Maybe he’s a little shaky right now. Plus he’s, like, 11.
Sphinxes don’t care. Sphinxes want to blow shit up. They open their eyes, ready to shoot.
I’d like to tell you in this moment that Atreyu stands his ground, letting bravery course through his veins and feeling his self-worth in the face of these chicken-footed harpies.
Instead, he runs.
He runs like the dickens. So they shoot at him with their eyes. And THEY MISS.
Now we know two things:
1. Sphinxes made of stone can’t turn their heads and aim. Makes sense.
2. If you don’t have any self-worth, it’s OK. Just work on your sprints.
Oh, it’s not over for Atreyu. There’s another gate, Magic Mirrorgate. It shows a person what they truly are inside. Men have fled screaming from the sight of their inner selves.
And guess what, or who, Atreyu sees in the mirror?
Oh ho ho! Did you forget about Bastian in the school attic, reading his life away? Everyone’s forgotten Bastian, including his father, who never comes to look for him long after the school day is over. Even Bastian forgot himself until that moment.
Bastian looks up and can see Atreyu too.
Bastian chucks the book across the room. After only a sandwich and an apple at lunch, his blood sugar is low and there are no Capri Suns in the attic. He must be hallucinating.
But it’s dark and stormy outside. He can’t go home just yet.
He stares across the room at the crumpled book. He’s too far in now. He can’t have failed that skipped test for nothing! So he picks it back up and continues.
Back in Fantasia, Atreyu has finally reached the Southern Oracle, an icier version of the sphinxes.
“Sure,” he says. “Bertha.”
“No,” they say. “The name must be given by a human child, found only at the boundaries of Fantasia.”
So off he goes with Falcor in search of Fantasia’s boundaries. They fly around for a while, assessing the damage and destruction that The Nothing has left behind, hoping they can find Fantasia’s boundaries before it’s entirely destroyed.
“Hey Falcor,” Atreyu says after a bit. “What’s a boundary?”
But before Falcor can answer, there it is: The Nothing. It churns and boils toward them, ripping Atreyu from Falcor and tossing him on a beach somewhere far away.
He wakes up, sputtering, and wanders into a cave.
This is where we meet Gmork, the giant wolf-bear creature who’s been hunting Atreyu since his journey started.
Gmork tells Atreyu he is a servant of The Nothing and will destroy him. Atreyu says that if he has to die, he will do so fighting.
Remember, this kid is a pretty good sprinter.
But before Gmork lunges at Atreyu, he reveals that Fantasia has no boundaries because it exists in the minds of humans. Imagination has no limits, silly!
Then Gmork attacks Atreyu and Atreyu shanks him with a homemade shiv because reality trumps imagination in this particular instance.
Scratched and bleeding but alive, Atreyu leaves the cave and connects with Falcor again, who takes him to the Ivory Tower, which is still standing. Remember this?
Atreyu goes in to see the Empress, who’s still sitting on that bed like it ain’t no thang.
“Oh hey,” she says. “Don’t look so sad. All of this was on purpose so we could invite Bastian into our world.”
Atreyu’s like, “Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. You crazy lunatic. My horse died and I shanked a wolf-bear and got turtle snot on myself. Who the hell is Bastian?”
On the other side of things, Bastian cannot believe they’re talking about him. The Empress pleads with Bastian to call out her name.
Bastian starts chanting. “It’s just a book, it’s not real.” Over and over, like his dad taught him.
Then the Empress makes this face.
I can’t tell you how many times I argued with friends about what name he shouts here. Until the arrival of the Internet, nobody was entirely sure. Here’s what we thought it might be:
But no. It was Moonchild, his dead mother’s hippie name.
After he shouts the name, everything goes black. When he opens his eyes, he’s sitting across from the Empress. She tells Bastian that through his imagination he can bring Fantasia back to life, making it even better than it was before.
So he makes a wish.
Suddenly he finds himself flying on Falcor through Fantasia.
Fantasia—Bastian’s imagination—is back and better than ever and in no danger of ever disappearing again.
His father will just have to DEAL WITH IT.
So that’s it. That’s the movie. You can probably see why it touched a generation of kids like me, why it was so deeply disturbing and affecting.
It had so many lessons. For one, it taught us that animal hybrids are the wave of the future.
It taught us that Gary needs a raise.
It taught us not to give our children hippie names.
It taught us key things about German culture.
It taught us to make sure we can run fast.
It taught not to let adulthood get in the way of our dreams.
It taught us our imaginations were limitless.
It taught us that even if the people we love die, we have the strength to keep going.
And best of all, it taught us to keep reading.