One of the Greatest Fantasy Movies of the '80s

"The NeverEnding Story" is returning to theaters this week. And the emotions are all rushing back.

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The Plot

Atreyu, the boy warrior tasked with saving the magical land of Fantasia.
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OK, a quick breakdown for those who haven't seen it: Our child hero, Bastian, is a lonely kid who finds peace by diving headlong into adventure books. One day, after narrowly escaping a crew of bullies, he ducks into a bookstore where he finds an old, curmudgeonly shop-owner smoking a pipe and reading a magical book, one that he tells Bastian "isn't like your safe books."

Not long after cracking it open, Bastian discovers why this is no normal book, as he finds himself becoming part of the very story he's reading. Beautiful things ensue. He meets Atreyu (the long-haired, androgynous boy warrior of Fantasia), Falkor (the luckdragon who becomes Bastian's best friend), and learns of the amorphous, abstract "Nothing" against which Atreyu must battle.

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The Horror

The image that's haunted my dreams since the mid-'80s.

Could anything be more dread-inducing to a child than a nameless, sort-of faceless villain called The Nothing whose sole desire is to make everything good in the world disappear? Child me and adult me both say—together, loudly—no.

The Feelings

It's hard not to feel like you've won the game of life when you're astride a luckdragon.
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When I rewatched The NeverEnding Story this week, I once again felt all the emotions the film always makes me feel: fear, excitement, anger, sadness (get out of my mind sad-horse-in-the-swamp-of-sadness-scene!), wonder, and, eventually, triumph. When the credits rolled, I found myself feeling a tentative sense of resolution, quickly followed by a sharp, haunting aftertaste. Even though (spoiler alert) things ostensibly work out in the end, I am still, all these years later, unable to reconcile the movie's dark passages simply because the wrongs behind them have been righted.

Atreyu and Falkor sharing a quiet moment between their various universe-saving missions.

To this day, if I like an album or a book, I'll often mention that it taps into a "NeverEnding Story kind of feeling." I'll say it instinctively, only to wonder moments later what exactly I meant. I think it's a nod to the movie's mix of softness and danger, anarchy and safety.

And what art, specifically, reminds me of The NeverEnding Story? The dark, dreamy tunes of Beach House; Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" drawings; the films of director Adrian Lyne (Jacob's Ladder, 9 ½ Weeks, Unfaithful); anything, really, that serves to remind the audience that there's never that wide a gulf between safety and peril, joy and sadness.

The Excellent '80s-Era Special Effects

The glory days of special effects work.

The move is over thirty years old, but its age very much works to its advantage. In tandem with Italian conceptual artist Ul de Rico, director Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire, The Perfect Storm, Troy) crafted a thoroughly believable world through the use of charmingly clunky and tactile prop work that people did before CGI animation took over the world.

The Point Is...

The 1984 film is being re-released in select theaters for two days: September 4 and 7.

The movie looms so large in my mind, and informs my taste to this day, because it was the first art I ever engaged with that openly acknowledged the idea that darkness needs to exist in order for there to be light. (Might sound corny now, but let's not forget: I was four when this movie came out.) For me, the end of this harrowing—and, yes, PG-rated—fantasy film functioned like the cinematic equivalent of the first time I got a bad cold: When I finally shook it off, I discovered for the first time that the only way to really appreciate being healthy is to remember what it's like to be sick.

To find out where The NeverEnding Story is playing, and for tickets, see fathomevents.com.

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