Wolfgang Peterson’s 1984 adaption of Michael Ende’s book THE NEVERENDING STORY presents a rich colorful world called Fantasia, which is strewn with many dangers. First and foremost is “The Nothing” which threatens to devour and erase everything in existence if a young hero named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) can’t find a way to thwart it. If that obstacle wasn’t enough, the dark force elicits the aid of a horrific sharp-fanged giant wolf monster with glowing eyes called Gmork who steadfastly shadows Atreyu in hopes to rip him to shreds. Strangely enough though, THE NEVERENDING STORY’s most traumatizing scene involves neither of these embodiments of evil but rather a mundane, in appearance, swamp.
Early on in his quest, Atreyu and his trusty sidekick, a majestic white horse named Artex, are required to gain information from a giant turtle named Morla. To find Morla they must first travel through what is known as the Swamps of Sadness. Unfortunately, as one passes through said swamp they are taken over by depressive thoughts and hopelessness. Though Atreyu is at least partially protected by an amulet, Artex the horse succumbs to despair and begins to sink slowly into the mud. Atreyu almost laughs it off at first but then begins to realize his best friend may be beyond rallying. Atreyu desperately pleads with Artex to fight against the sadness that has overtaken him. He begs, “You have to try. You have to care. You are my friend. You have to move or you’re going to die! Don’t quit, Artex!” but to no avail. Suddenly the beautiful white creature has completely disappeared into the mud seemingly never to return and Atreyu is left devastated, lost and alone.
It seems impossible that a children’s film could be so emotionally cruel especially at such an early stage of the story. As heartbreaking as the scene would obviously be to children, it also loudly resonates with anyone of any age who has ever lost anyone. It would be one thing to witness Artex gallantly die in battle or be physically defeated but something about his psychological turmoil and loss of will to exist is especially difficult to grapple with. Most stories directed at children inform us that we have the power to will ourselves to victory (think of Tinker Bell’s resurrection in Peter Pan) but here even the most sincere and desperate pleas and prayers are coldly denied. It’s like a harpoon of reality striking a fluffy cartoon bunny. We don’t really even know Artex at this point in the story and yet of course we do; anyone who has ever loved anyone recognizes how Atreyu feels towards his friend. Death itself is eternally painful to deal with and when it’s entangled with the demise of hope, it’s somehow even harsher.
I’ve never been so happy to deliver a SPOILER ALERT in my life. After jumping through a zillion hoops we won’t get into here, Atreyu’s mission to save Fantasia is a success. Turns out there’s a reason the film and book are titled as they are and The Nothingness ain’t nothing compared to the power of imagination. Phew. During a victory lap we get to see the most comforting image to ever grace a screen, that of Atreyu and Artex riding together in full optimistic victorious glory (I have to say, there’s only two types of people in this world, those who ball their eyes out during this movie and heartless monsters who should be avoided at all costs). I’m almost mad at THE NEVERENDING STORY for yanking on my heartstrings in such a brutal matter but how can I not be impressed that its depiction of loss is more devastatingly relatable than a thousand adult dramas that tackle the same subject put together. Watching it again as an adult, I can tell you it has lost zero of its impact, in fact, due to life experience, I can sadly relate to it even more. Damn those swamps of sadness.