WHEN: 7:19 pm EST, May 26th, 2013
WHERE: The living room of my apartment in Portland
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Spent my day at the Portland Museum of Art looking at pretty things.
During my viewing, I performed the Bechdel Test on The NeverEnding Story when I realized that there was a very large flaw in the film. Perhaps you can figure it out once I explain what the Bechdel Test is. For a film to pass, it must first have at least two (named) women, then those women must talk to each other, and lastly, the conversation cannot be about a man. Basically it’s an equality-o-meter to weed out poorly scripted female characters.
“Men are the only things that define us as human beings. Tee-hee!”
If you haven’t figured out why The NeverEnding Story failed, allow me to help. Let’s take a quick moment to list all of the female characters in the film. There’s the Childlike Empress. Then there’s the potion-brewing Urgl. And don’t forget, um… Morla’s a female turtle, I think. The racing snail is asexual, so that doesn’t count. Uhh, the Southern Oracle may be a pair of stone sphinxes, but it’s at least partially female. And… wait! Bastian’s dead mother. She was a lady once. Plus, Bastian’s math teacher is a female. Oh, but she doesn’t have a name, so fuck her.
And her love of Euclidean geometry.
So, using the Bechdel Test, when we narrow the field down to characters who have a name and who are definitely female, there is a grand total of two: Urgl and the Childlike Empress.
One of them has aged better than the other.
That’s… pathetic. I never realized the lack of female characters in my film. Even if we include any of the other possible candidates from above, no two females share any screen time together. What kind of female deficient place is this? And how the hell are any Fantasians born?
Since The NeverEnding Story has such a small number of prominent female characters, let’s spend some time looking at their roles. Even though Urgl and the Empress do not speak to each other, that doesn’t mean they lack depth in this male-centric film. For example, Urgl may be called a “wench” several times by her husband, but she certainly shares equally in the playful contempt with Engywook. She bosses him around in matters concerning Atreyu’s health and Engywook defers with only minor grumblings. She also has her own workspace that Engywook frequently uses, much to Urgl’s consternation. And when Engywook gets his science on at the observatory, Urgl is there to help.
Helps like a boss.
All of these small things add up to a character whose brief appearance still paints a layered portrait. Urgl could have been a one-dimensional comic relief wife. You know this type: henpecking her husband, nothing useful to add to the plot, plus a dash of the 1950s housewife. But Urgl is not that. She and Engywook are an equal team that both aid Atreyu on his quest. So good job, film, for not taking the easy path and instead making a female character more than another bland trope.
The Childlike Empress is the biggest reason that I did not notice the lack of women in The NeverEnding Story. The Childlike Empress’s presence permeates the film. Even though we don’t see her until the climax, she is always there in the back of our minds. Yes, she could be boiled down to a simple MacGuffin, but she manages to step outside that role. I’ve written before about how the Empress is not a love interest (there’s no Emperor of Fantasia) and I’ve covered her lunar symbolism. She is the embodiment of Fantasia and is linked directly to the physical land as well as the ephemeral dreams of humans. She’s an untouchable and powerful ruler who takes the guise of a young girl, but is the Mother (with a big, bold “M”) of hopes and wishes.
The Empress purposefully assumes the role of the damsel in distress in order to save her world. Playing this trope allows Bastian to emotionally attach himself to Fantasia and is the motivation behind Atreyu’s quest. During the film’s climax, she reveals that she knew the cure for her sickness the entire time, but needed Atreyu to go on a quest anyways. Atreyu is rightfully pissed, but the Empress is trying to save Fantasia as well as the human world, so there are bound to be casualties along the way. She is an amazingly strong but sadly overlooked female character in the fantasy film genre.
Don’t be fooled by the doe-eyes. She will sacrifice you for the good of the many.
I have to take a moment to laud Tami Stronach for an amazing performance as the Childlike Empress. Being eleven years old certainly gave her an edge on the whole “childlike” part, but her cadence and tone kill me each viewing. Stronach exudes a combination of strength, wisdom, age, and innocence which makes the climax all the more poignant. She speaks softly but confidently and pleads with sincerity. I always perk up during my viewings to watch the Empress, and that’s a sign of a well-written character as well as a compelling climax.
I could end with some sort of “Girl Power” sentiment, but that seems trite and also sexist. The Bechdel Test is designed for female characters, but all movies should strive to have well-rounded roles for men and women. Female characters do tend to get the shaft in terms of complex writing, but that’s a commentary on the state of Hollywood and does not reflect what actually occurs in real life. People are complex despite their genders. Films will continue to have flat characters because commercial audiences enjoy simple plots. This doesn’t excuse sloppy writing, but it does continue to highlight the films that care to take the time to develop all of their characters.
The NeverEnding Story is full of symbols and archetypes, but these characters and plot devices are used purposefully. Urgl and the Childlike Empress are not simple tools, but sophisticated devices in an intricate machine. The NeverEnding Story doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test and is seemingly overrun with male characters. However, Urgl and the Childlike Empress are not generic roles. Yes, shame on Wolfgang Petersen for not including more women, but congratulations for portraying strong, multi-faceted female characters. Both are worthy role models for the young girls and boys who watch this film.