Blu-ray Reviews: “The NeverEnding Story” and “Clash of the Titans”

Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is a wonderful book, and one of a few novels that I read three or four times as a kid. It was something of a young adult literary sensation in the early ’80s — I don’t know how many books were translated from German into English and then went on to inspire a film trilogy, but I’m guessing the number is something like one, and if you’ve ever read it, it isn’t hard to understand why. Ende dealt with themes that book-loving kids have always responded to, including magic and fantastical creatures, but he was also smart and unflinchingly honest when it came to the real soul of his story, which focused on the desperate loneliness of a boy who missed his mother, couldn’t connect with his father, and didn’t fit in at school.

Ende’s sprawling tale filled almost 450 pages, nearly living up to its title, and anyone who went to see Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 film adaptation had to expect some clear differences between the movie and the novel — for one thing, you just can’t squeeze that much story into a 91-minute movie, and for another, The Neverending Story is full of the kind of stuff that gave special effects departments migraines in the ’80s, including a flying “luckdragon,” giant creatures made out of stone, and — best of all — a magical realm being slowly devoured by a ravenous blankness called the Nothing. How do you show nothing on the screen?

Strictly speaking, it’s impossible, but Petersen came pretty close with this Nothing of a movie, which unites cheesy effects, an inexplicable solo hit from former Kajagoogoo front-thing Limahl, and some of the worst child acting you’ve ever seen in your life to create a film that never comes close to the magic of Ende’s story. Ende agreed — he sued to have his name removed — but for kids who never read the book, the film version (which adds a little ’80s punctuation, calling itself The NeverEnding Story) has become something of a hokey, Legend-esque cult favorite.

The plot, if you’ve never read or seen it, goes like this: A boy named Bastian, on the run from some bullies, ducks into a book shop, where he ends up pilfering a book the store’s owner tells him isn’t safe to read. Late for class, Bastian lets himself into the school’s attic and hunkers down with the book, which concerns the troubles facing a world called Fantasia (it’s Fantastica in the book — whatever, Petersen) and the efforts of a young warrior named Atreyu to save it. As Bastian gets more involved in the story, he discovers he’s actually becoming a part of it — and overcoming his disbelief at this development ends up being crucial to saving Fantasia once and for all.

I still say Petersen’s Story stinks, but if you’ve gotta have it, it’s never looked better than it does on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer Warner Bros. has put together here, which remixes the soundtrack for 5.1 audio, is actually one of the nicer upgrades I’ve seen for a movie from the era; though NeverEnding comes in an ordinary blue clamshell case and includes nothing in the way of special features, it has the visual polish of one of the studio’s more puffed-up digibook titles. Priced to sell at under $18 at Amazon, Story will give you the 90-minute nostalgia fix you crave; if you love the movie, pick this up, and then do yourself a favor and buy the book, which adds the equivalent of a sequel (and some real storytelling soul) to this stale mound of corn. In fact, I think I might go buy it myself — I’ve long since lost my copy, and now that I have kids of my own, it might be time to pass the story along.

Just as cheesy, but somehow much more enjoyable, is Desmond Davis’ Clash of the Titans, the 1981 cheesefest that gave special effects wiz Ray Harryhausen an ancient Greek sandbox to play in. It also gave him the unbelievably blank Harry Hamlin as an apparently mentally disabled version of Perseus, as well as a deeply hokey Beverley Cross script, but nobody went to see Titans in ’81 for the acting or the dialogue, and that isn’t what they remember it for now; it’s all about Harryhausen’s beautiful stop-motion effects, from the destructive wrath of the Kraken to the (then-) jaw-dropping Medusa.

With its Sam Worthington-led remake just around the corner, Warners smartly decided to bring the original to Blu-ray, adding a photo-packed booklet, a handful of special features, and a $7.50 coupon for a ticket to the remake in the bargain. Has the original Titans stood the test of time? Not really. Even if you haven’t seen an effects-heavy film since 1991, you’ll giggle at these FX shots; Davis used every cheesy trick in the book, including underexposing outdoor shots to make them look like they take place at night, and although you can’t help but be awed by Harryhausen in any context, his work just isn’t quite as amazing in the post-Avatar world.

Still, if you buy Titans, you aren’t going to watch it looking for good acting, non-hysterical dramatic dialogue, or state-of-the-art special effects; you’re just looking for a slice of your childhood, and this gives it to you, right down to the pleasantly grainy transfer and front-heavy soundtrack. This is a retro cheesefest, and Warners doesn’t waste much time pretending otherwise; even the Blu-ray’s handful of special features focuses on Harryhausen’s work rather than anything that doesn’t have to do with winged horses or giant sea demons, which says a lot when you stop to consider we’re talking about a movie that starred Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, and Ursula Andress. It’s currently selling for $25 at Amazon, which is about the right price point for a beloved childhood artifact starring Harry Hamlin, and if you’re planning on seeing the remake anyway, there’s that $7.50 coupon in it for you. Sometimes you’ve just gotta give in to nostalgia, right?

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  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Neither film has aged particularly gracefully.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Much as I love Harryhausen CLASH OF THE TITANS wasn't all that hot in 1981, either, one of his weakest films. It's no JASON OF THE ARGONAUTS, a timeless classic. Which suits it for remaking; it can't be more pedestrian, and could be better. (The digital effects have a Harryhausen feeling to them in the trailer, so, that respect shown, onwards and upwards.)