Welcome to a new series about oft-forgotten family movies. I'm Matt KillKelley, a recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I double-majored in English Literature and Film Studies. As a child growing up in Vermont, I spent countless hours watching films with friends in our parents’ basements, where we became entranced by the stories and the magical feelings they invoked. Although I’m in my early twenties, I’ve seen more than my fair share of films. And one thing I’ve realized from my avid viewing is that there are plenty of great movies out there that fly under the radar.
Each week, I’ll share one of my recommendations with Kids Vermont readers, in the hopes that some of them might find their way to your family’s movie night. First up: The NeverEnding Story, released in 1984 and directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who film buffs may be familiar with from his classic German film Das Boot. The NeverEnding Story is a fantasy film that not only features unrivaled practical effects (a precursor to the computer-generated effects we see in contemporary films), but also expounds on the importance of imagination, reading and self-confidence.
The Story: Bastian Balthazar Bux is an introverted 10-year-old coping with the death of his mother. He is frequently bullied by other children and is often neglected and condescended to by his unsympathetic father. To escape this harsh reality, he finds refuge in books. One of them is The NeverEnding Story, which chronicles the plight of a boy named Atreyu trying to save Fantasia from an apocalyptic entity simply known as “The Nothing.” As Bastian gets further into the book, he begins to discover that he has entered the story and that choices he makes will be pivotal in how the story ends.
Why It’s a Good Family Movie: While there are important life lessons in this movie, families are also in for a magical time due to the impressive creature effects. Because this film was released when computer-generated imagery was in its most primitive state, many of the characters were created through puppetry, animatronics and stop-motion animation. While this may alienate some children due to the perceived notion that “old = boring,” the effects are so impressive that children will likely get drawn into this fantastical adventure.
Some children will relate to Bastian’s plight in the movie. He is often withdrawn, with a lack of self-confidence stemming from trauma, bullying and a dad who tries to repress Bastian’s creativity by telling him to “get his head down out of the clouds” and “face his problems.” Bastian uses his love of books and his imagination as positive coping mechanisms to deal with his mother’s death.
In the film, the idea that books help us find ourselves is taken to a literal level. By the end, Bastian is able to overcome his trauma and accept himself for who he is, using this restored confidence to save Fantasia. He rides a dragon through the sky and stands up to his bullies. It never really matters if Bastian actually became a character in the book or if it was just in his mind. What matters is that, through reading and imagination, he learns to accept himself.
The role of “The Nothing” in this movie is symbolic of the antagonism Bastian faces in the real world. Gmork describes it as a powerful invisible force that tries to crush hopes and dreams. Viewers might draw a parallel to our current reality living through COVID-19: feelings of imperceptible impending doom halting the world in its tracks. Only though using his imagination, remaining hopeful and accepting people for who they are is Bastian able to conquer the villainous force.
Age Recommendation: The movie deals with heavy subject matter, including death and trauma. Additionally, many characters die within the film (a particularly memorable one being Artax the horse). Some creatures in the movie may frighten smaller children, such as Gmork, a large Big Bad Wolf-like character. Some fights in the movie show mildly bloody wounds. I’d recommend this film for ages 9 and up.
Available to rent or purchase digitally on Amazon/iTunes. Streaming on HBO Max.