For most of The NeverEnding Story, director Petersen’s ability, the special effects, and active lead Noah Hathaway keep the whole thing going. It’s a gorgeous looking film, with great photography from Jost Vacano and exceptional editing from Jane Seitz. Hathaway’s character, a boy warrior, gets a fantastic characterization–simultaneously sensitive and brave–he’s a fantastic protagonist.
Except he’s not the protagonist. The protagonist is Barret Oliver’s similarly aged character (the passive lead). He’s locked up reading the book, The NeverEnding Story, and experiencing the book’s events as they unfold for the viewer too. The only way Petersen and co-screenwriters Herman Weigel and Robert Easton come up with to integrate the two concurrent narratives is cutting to Oliver reacting to the book. Sure, Seitz cuts the scenes beautifully and the “real world” parts of the film are arguably the best directed, but Oliver’s a weak protagonist. He’s a weaker lead. Everything strong about the way Hathaway gets characterized is ignored when it comes to Oliver. He’s bullied–both by classmates and his jerk father (Gerald McRaney)–he’s mourning the death of his mother, but he’s got no depth. It ought to be fine because he’s not part of The NeverEnding Story.
Until the film ties the two narratives together, ingloriously shucking Hathaway, and generally collapsing under its own import. The film had already forecasted a shaky mythology regarding reading but hadn’t run out of goodwill at that point. It burns through it in the final act, with Petersen trying real hard but unable to pull it off. Not even the booming, sweeping score from Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder can save the finale. Probably shouldn’t be a surprise The NeverEnding Story can’t figure out a way to end well.
Some of the performances are wonderful, but there aren’t a lot of supporting parts. Hathaway just goes from person to person (or troll to troll) and has a scene or two, then moves on. Sydney Bromley and Patricia Hayes are great as a bickering gnome couple. Alan Oppenheimer voices most of the animatronic creatures, including the flying dragon. He’s great.
The special effects–and the fantasy scenery–are the real accomplishment of The NeverEnding Story. The composite shots are often awesome, same with the sets, same with the animatronics.
The NeverEnding Story disappoints. Petersen needed to be stronger when directing Oliver, needed to come up with a better finish. Both those elements were essential, both don’t work out.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Petersen, Herman Weigel, and Robert Easton, based on the novel by Michael Ende; director of photography, Jost Vacano; edited by Jane Seitz; music by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Bernd Eichinger and Dieter Geissler; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Barret Oliver (Bastian), Noah Hathaway (Atreyu), Tami Stronach (The Empress), Moses Gunn (Cairon), Sydney Bromley (Engywook), Patricia Hayes (Urgl), Deep Roy (Teeny Weeny), Tilo Prückner (Night Hob), Gerald McRaney (Bastian’s Father), Thomas Hill (Carl Conrad Coreander) and Alan Oppenheimer (Falkor).