Since I’ve committed myself to watching The NeverEnding Story 52 times this year, I felt it was my duty to view similar movies. Specifically, children’s fantasy movies from the 1980s. After some research, I came up with a small, but serviceable list: The Dark Crystal (1982), Legend (1985), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and Willow (1988). As I view each of these films, I will be using The NeverEnding Story as my measuring stick. I will be looking at the hero, the sidekicks, the quests and tests, the villains (or nightmare fuel), puppetry, visual effects, and overall plot. So, here we go… Ridley Scott’s Legend (Director’s Cut).
Legend features a young and dreamy Tom Cruise whose desire to get in the even younger but dreamier Mia Sara‘s pants causes eternal winter and the potential destruction of the world. Jack (Tom Cruise), a child of the forest, shows his girlfriend, Princess Lili (Mia Sara), some unicorns, inadvertently allowing some goblins to drug one of the unicorns and steal its horn. This causes the idyllic world to plunge into a deep winter. Jack then has to right his wrongs and serve as the great warrior to destroy the evil Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) who wants the unicorn horns in order to dwell forever in darkness. Jack is a serviceable hero, but relies on help from others to guide him. He is revealed to be more skilled with wit than with brawn. He’s supposed to be an innocent forest dweller, but comes across as a bit clueless and just along for the ride. He cares more about saving Lili from marrying Darkness than about the future of the forest. Cruise’s performance becomes distracting, too. Perhaps it’s because Tom Cruise is just too well known and that viewing his earlier works tinges them with all his other films.
Atreyu is not sidetracked by love. His mission is clear and not confused. Also, he’s not responsible for the Nothing, he’s just another victim trying to do what he can. Atreyu is similar to Jack in that he is also young (moreso than Jack) and also more in tune with nature being one of the Plainspeople. However, Atreyu comes off as more of a warrior than the reluctant Jack. Atreyu has weapons at the beginning that he must give up, whereas Jack has to look for weapons, choosing a shiny gold dress, a shield, and an overly large sword. Atreyu carries nothing, but manages to defeat G’mork with a piece of stone. Also, Noah Hathaway’s performance is superior to Tom Cruise’s. Atreyu has depth while Jack seems more like a caricature.
Jack is rolling deep in his posse. Or something. Basically, Jack is like a ball of Gak rolled across a carpet. He picks up unnameable things along his way and continues on his quest. We first meet Gump, who challenges Jack to a riddle contest. Jack wins and becomes part of Gump’s gang of forest dwellers. Gump is a satyr-like creature who appears young, but is actually quite knowledgeable. There is also Oona, a sprite who can transform from a tiny ball of light into a fully grown form. She keeps this a secret from all except Jack. She has a bit of a crush on Jack and tries to blackmail him into kissing her. Then there’s also two dwarves, Screwball and Brown Tom. They have no discernible character traits other than to be comic relief. Finally, a third dwarf named Blunder, who briefly worked as a servant to Darkness, joins them when the contingent is stuck in the goblin prison. Also, the unicorn mare joins them? Jack has some sort of psychic conversation with the mare and she also gets herself captured on purpose, I think. It’s hard to tell the true intention of unicorns. Anyways, Jack totes his sidekicks along with him on his journey. Luckily, each of them serves a helpful purpose at an opportune time.
Atreyu’s sidekicks and helpers are few. He is told from the beginning that, in addition to not bringing any weapons with him, he must also go alone. This spells doom for his horse, Artax, who is swiftly drowned in the Swamps of Sadness. Atreyu then meets Falkor who, despite his good-natured character, is more important as a mode of transportation to Atreyu. Atreyu also meets Engywook and Urgl who help heal him and prepare him for his journey to the Southern Oracle. They are a more balanced version of comic relief, but they do not join Atreyu. Their contribution to the story is complete. Atreyu stays the focus of the story, not a myriad of characters that serve little contribution to the plot.
THE QUESTS AND TESTS
Jack passes all the heroic tests he encounters, but Tom Cruise’s performance leaves me not caring. First, he answers Gump’s riddle, which was to test Jack’s… something? I don’t really know why Jack had to answer a riddle other than to join a gang. Jack then picks a shiny outfit from a cave. Pretty easy decision. Except for the lack of pants. Gotta protect those gams, Jack! On the way to Darkness’s fortress, he encounters Meg Mucklebones, who is horrendous, but played fantastically by Robert Picardo. Jack utilizes his smarts to kill Meg. However, he’s pretty stunned that his scheme worked, muttering “I did it?” He also passes some tests regarding the purity of his love for Lili. First, he refuses to kiss Oona. This is mostly a mistake since Oona nearly leaves him locked in a goblin prison. Later, he trusts in Lili not to unman the trapped unicorn despite her apparent change in sides. There’s some incidental fighting with Darkness in which Jack is nearly killed several times. Fortunately, he uses his wits again to assemble a series of shiny objects to bring daylight into the fortress, thus destroying Darkness. Jack does a lot of things with mediocrity. However, I do like that his brains are his strength rather than just his physical prowess.
Atreyu, stripped of all his weapons, also relies on his wits from time to time, though not as often as Jack. In his meeting with Morla, Atreyu figures out a way to get the lugubrious turtle to finally give him information. Atreyu excels more in strength of character than brains. He is able to pass through the Sphinx Gate (a test of confidence) and the Magic Mirror Gate (facing one’s true self) in order to reach the Southern Oracle. Also, the boy can hold his own in a scuffle. He has the confidence to be told that he may not survive his quest and, by the way, no weapons are allowed. That’s some serious shit to agree to, and Atreyu does, taking only a brief moment to mull over the situation. He even agrees to find the boundary of Fantasia even though nobody has ever seen it. Atreyu is committed to what he sets out to do. Even though he doesn’t face as many tests as Jack, what he does face is clear and has purpose.
Darkness is creepy. He’s more old-man-watching-children-at-the-playground creepy than I’m-going-to-crush-your-immortal-soul creepy. His motives are a bit classic evil villain. He wants to rule over everything. Unfortunately, his weakness is sunlight, so in order to rule he needs eternal darkness. (Let’s not argue about the fact that the moonlight is reflected sunlight being a flaw in his plan.) The best way to complete his scheme is to destroy the most innocent and powerful beings in the land: unicorns. He acquires the power of one unicorn horn, but since there is one unicorn left, total darkness cannot be achieved. Along his villainous way, Darkness decides that he wants Princess Lili as his bride. Something about his seed germinating inside her. While Darkness is certainly fearsome to look at, his wooing of Lili reveals that he has a vulnerable, distracted side. He tells Lili that he influences the dreams of mankind. Sounds a bit like The NeverEnding Story and C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Anyways, Darkness’s plot suffers from him being sidetracked by Lili and wanting her as his bride. Lili aids in his downfall proving that her presence was unnecessary in Darkness’s plan.
G’mork does his own dirty work. Darkness must rely on his goblin minions to complete tasks for him. True, G’mork is minion of the power behind the Nothing, but he is more frightening than the goblins in Legend. The source of G’mork’s scariness is the unknown. Until the climax of the film, only glimpses of G’mork are revealed, leaving the audience to fill in the terror he represents with their own subconscious nightmares. G’mork is also single-minded. He is not distracted by side projects like Darkness. G’mork’s role is to help the power behind the Nothing enslave mankind and if that means killing a little boy, well, he’s on that because the success of the Nothing is priority. G’mork is also willing to die for his cause. During his exposition speech to Atreyu, G’mork is also at the mercy of the oncoming Nothing. His commitment makes him the more chilling antagonist.
Legend doesn’t uses puppets, I was surprised to discover. Ridley Scott instead relies on live action animals, make-up, costumes, and prosthetics. They’re all amazing, to a point. Meg Mucklebones looks fantastically grotesque and the dwarves and goblins are believable. Darkness is certainly intimidating, but when he charges at Jack, his horns bobble up and down, making him seem much more comical than fierce. The unicorn’s horns suffer the same fate. Unicorns are supposed to be majestic, but the magic is lost once the horns get wobbly. Overall, I was very impressed with the work done on all the characters. There was definitely a theme that ran through the film. They didn’t seem misplaced within the world of Legend. However, since everything else looks so good, it seems a pity to have the spell broken by something that some glue and metal wires could fix.
The puppetry in The NeverEnding Story is acceptable. There are serious issues with mouth movements, but the puppets themselves are fantastic constructions. The NeverEnding Story also has some reasonably good make-up and prosthetics. The scene at the Ivory Tower where the creatures of Fantasia are gathered features characters that are perhaps a degree below Legend‘s. For example, the Night Hob shares similar characteristics with the goblins in Legend, but is just less slimy. More time was spent on construction of puppets and models in The NeverEnding Story than on characters who don’t even have lines and only show up once in the film.
The sets for Legend are amazing. Huge. Magnificent. The forest becomes a character on its own due to the great care in its construction. I think that more time was spent on the sweeping and detailed sets than some of the other visual effects. There are some mattes and backdrops that look out of place compared to the forest. Also, the forest has a ton of fuzzy pollen floating through it. It becomes distracting after a while. Some of the special effects are a bit dated, but that comes with the territory. Legend also has some model work, but it’s inconsequential next to the huge sets. Plus, big, detailed sets.
The NeverEnding Story has beautiful matte paintings and some nice sets. Usually I rave about the sets in The NeverEnding Story, but they just can’t compare to the colossal constructions in Legend. There’s some very good green screen work, such as the scene with the Rockbiter. There’s some very poor green screen work, such as wide shots of Falkor flying and Atreyu at the Sphinx Gate. Just like Legend, the visual effects are a product of their time. I will advocate that The NeverEnding Story has more visual and special effects than Legend. Legend creates more atmosphere, but The NeverEnding Story creates more excitement through variety.
I like to pride myself, as a movie watcher, on following plots with relative ease. However, Legend leaves me baffled at times. The overall story is poorly constructed. This may be a result of watching the longer, restored Director’s Cut. The pacing is brutal at times. I get that Ridley Scott was creating atmosphere, but there is entirely too much time spent on some scenes. Unicorns are majestic! But not for six minutes, Ridley; it gets old. Character motivations are unclear as well. Are Jack and Lili lovers or friends? Is Lili selfish or just clueless? Why does Darkness need a wife? These are all plot points that need some explanation. The lack of motivation makes many events seem more like contrived opportunities to take the story in the direction Scott wants to go. Some of the blame does go to the writer, William Hjortsberg. Legend, at its very basic structure, is an interesting story. However, all the additions of characters, subplots, and atmospheric tangents bog the film down. I still can’t tell you all the details of why things are going on, and that’s just sad for a film that obviously had so much invested in it both financially and creatively. The only interesting part that might make your brain work a bit is the end. There are theories that the entire quest was actually Lili’s dream while Jack was retrieving her ring. It adds another layer, but it doesn’t need to be there in the mire that is this film.
The NeverEnding Story gets to the point while still creating a unique atmosphere. Wolfgang Petersen achieves a balance between the sweeping romance of fantasy and the heavier themes he portrays. The plot moves forward with a steady pace, never lingering too long to lose the audience’s attention. Each plot point makes sense and the story progresses in a way keeps the audience invested in the story. Petersen also manages to weave the Atreyu plot and the Bastian plot with equal nuance. He builds the structure to the climax and reveal sensibly. Subtly at first, then with increasing clues that cannot be ignored but are never blatant, we learn the truth. Lili’s dream theory in Legend seems crammed in at the end, but Bastian’s role as the savior of Fantasia is well-planned. Characters have depth through action and not exposition. The plot is clear and concise while remaining engaging.
I need to take a moment to address something that didn’t really fit into any of the categories, but definitely deserves some time. It may not be immediately apparent by the individual analyses above, but this film is a huge sex metaphor. Rather, it contains a large amount of sexual metaphors that add up to a separate, underlying story outside of the quest to save the forest. Basically, there are two stories: the story of Jack and his quest, plus the story of Lili. Lili’s story is the sex story.
The word “innocence” is creepily uttered by Darkness and the goblins, but what they really mean is “virginity.” In medieval mythology, only virgins could attract a unicorn and lasso it with a chain of gold (or lull it to sleep so that hunters could kill it). In Legend, Lili attracts the male unicorn. Let me break it down some more. The horn on the unicorn is a phallic symbol. The unicorn is the beast with one horn to be tamed by a virgin. Add that the stallion approached Lili and boom: sex. Jack chastises her because it is forbidden to touch a unicorn. Jack is society telling her that premarital sex is bad. No worries for Lili, though, she can choose her suitor. She challenges Jack to find her ring which she tosses off a ledge and into the water below. At the end, Jack recovers the ring, places it on her finger, and consummates their love with a kiss.
But let’s not forget about Lili’s other marriage to Darkness. Because of her brazen encounter with the unicorn, which leads to the forest being plunged into winter, Darkness tells her that his seed is germinating inside her. Ew. The outward metaphor is that there is a bit of evil inside Lili, but the layered metaphor is all about semen up inside her. She becomes Darkness’s bride after dancing with a shadow. Dancing is often a ceremonial symbol of the sexual act. Lili’s attire is then transformed from her modest white gown to a revealing black dress. Thus ends her “innocence” once again. The sexual symbolism is a very important piece not to be overlooked, especially in a movie by Ridley Scott.
Thanks for the sexual nightmare fuel, Ridley.
Symbolism in The NeverEnding Story focuses on the Childlike Empress and the moon. (Check out this viewing to get a more detailed explanation.) The Childlike Empress retains her virginity since her role is not the damsel in distress. She is a powerful female figure and not subject to the temptations that Lili faces. Even though she has very little screen time, the Childlike Empress is still a main character and the driving force of the story.
Legend and The NeverEnding Story both have their complexities. However, The NeverEnding Story comes out on top overall. Legend wins at puppetry and visual effects. The two movies might be even on hero since Jack isn’t just a testosterone-fueled manly man, but Tom Cruise’s performance kills anything I might like about the character. The NeverEnding Story certainly excels in the areas of sidekicks, quests and tests, the villain, and plot. It’s a different flavor of the fantasy genre from Legend. Legend is steeped more in romance (not just the love kind) whereas The NeverEnding Story is more about adventure. A fantasy aficionado may choose Legend as the better fantasy film, but The NeverEnding Story stands as the better overall movie.
Tom Cruise’s legs have since disavowed any and all associations with this film.