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… The Princess Bride.
Westley (Cary Elwes) is the archetypal rogue. He’s dashing, intelligent, and romantic. He’s a hero for tweens and beyond with more layers and sophistication. He’s farm boy turned pirate on a quest to reclaim his one true love. I’m not much into romance, but Westley makes me swoon. His love for the fair Buttercup (Robin Wright) conquers even death. Westley is not out to save a world, only his love. With his more personal story, Westley is a hero the audience can connect to. He’s an everyman cast into wild circumstances and trying to reclaim his life.
Atreyu’s quest has nothing to do with romantic love. He’s a child sent on a man’s quest to save a dying world. His quest is so grand that it seems almost hopeless at times. While some real world problems may seem epic, Atreyu is not as relatable. When you’re a kid, Atreyu is a character to aspire to. Atreyu is meant to be the ideal hero for Bastian, so it makes sense that Atreyu’s appeal only lasts so long whereas Westley embodies the appeal of adventure for younger children and romance for the more mature viewer. Perhaps if we checked in with Atreyu in ten or fifteen years, he’d be a hero with more experience and with more universal appeal.
Somehow a giant from Greenland and a drunk Spaniard full of revenge are the best of friends. Fezzik (Andre the Giant) and Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) are rough men with soft hearts. They fall in league with bad men like Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) because it gives the two outcasts the opportunity to earn money. The duo works best together enjoying a kind of camaraderie that is wholly their own. What makes these two so enjoyable is that they are complex characters who are not just there to follow Westley’s orders. Fezzik is a giant out of place looking for people who accept his talents rather than exploiting them. Inigo is on a quest for revenge, but is thwarted by his own depression and alcoholism. Either could easily have a film of their own.
Falkor is excessively one-dimensional when held up to Fezzik and Inigo. The luck dragon offers advice and is certainly helpful, but we never learn anything about him. Where is he from? Why did he help Atreyu? Are there more like him? At least Engywook and Urgl get some development during their brief time in the film. They are a fun little couple, but have the simple job of showing Atreyu the way to the Southern Oracle. Atreyu’s sidekicks also have a nasty habit of dying.
THE QUESTS AND TESTS
The intrepid Westley faces many obstacles between himself and his true love. First, he’s abducted by pirates, which actually turns out to be a good thing in the end. Then he faces Buttercup’s three kidnappers and defeats them with his pirate-y skills. The two lovers encounter the dangers of the Fire Swamp while hiding from Buttercup’s would-be husband. While difficult, the Fire Swamp seems like a pretty easy test to endure considering Westley eventually dies. Yup. Westley manages to beat death itself with the help of Fezzik and Inigio. Overall, he kicks down a long list of nearly impossible obstacles in his own suave yet bad-ass way, all in the name of true love.
Atreyu’s quest is also compelling: he has an entire world to save. Atreyu loses his best friend, nearly drowns, faces deadly guardians trying to reach the Southern Oracle, and eventually faces off with G’mork. Atreyu has some seriously dark encounters, but manages to keep his quest in mind the entire time. Atreyu’s quest spans more space, but less time. Westley spends years pining for Buttercup, then even more years trying to return to her. Atreyu quests for only a few weeks, but he’s trying to save his world.
Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) is a prick. He’s the worst kind of prick, too. You might know somebody just like him. He has power and knows exactly how to abuse it for his own gain. It’s not enough that he’s a prince and can marry any lady he wants, he wants to start a war. Humperdinck would make a good Bond villain. He has a secret lair, a loyal right-hand man, a creepy henchman, plenty of money, a huge fort, a penchant for pretty ladies, and plans to incite a war just for funsies. Humperdinck doesn’t just think he’s better than everyone else; he knows he is. And he ‘s probably right about most things, which is why he’s a great foil to Westley. Westley, even as a simple farm boy, was perfect for Buttercup, while Humperdinck–with all his money and power and skills–will never have her love.
The Nothing and G’mork represent our darkest fears and the evil that lies within us all. The Nothing is an abstract villain to fear. That’s where G’mork comes in; he’s the servant and allows for there to be a physical form to attach to the Nothing. Prince Humperdinck represents the kind of villain you might find in our own world. A villain like Humperdinck usually gets his comeuppance at some point through his own hubris. The Nothing is a force that cannot be easily fought or defeated. Lies, depression, and apathy are more prevalent and terrifying than your everyday douchebag.
The R.O.U.S.s look like a small person in a giant rat suit because that’s just what they are. Even as a child I was more frightened by the fact that somebody was zipped up inside that costume. It’s amazing that anyone on the crew thought that the outfit was convincing. Even more disturbing is thinking about Cary Elwes wrestling some poor man who could probably see nothing except the insides of his own sweaty rat suit. Perhaps the R.O.U.S. is supposed to be eerily human, but it looks morel like a shoddy design and even poorer execution.
The puppets in The NeverEnding Story have had to complete with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop twice already in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth with varying degrees of comparability. The puppetry looks stellar compared to The Princess Bride. The racing snail and Falkor look like creatures occupying a space rather than a man occupying a suit. There’s a sense of reality to the puppets in The NeverEnding Story despite their poor mouth articulation. Falkor may not look like he’s saying what he is, but at least the production put in effort to make him look amazing.
The sets in The Princess Bride are amazing. The Fire Swamp is fantastic and filled with great opportunities for practical effects. The Pit of Despair looks wonderful, too. Unfortunately, all the other visual effects are mediocre. The matte paintings are a solid meh. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. The scenes where the boats are in the water are clearly water tanks with obvious staging. The story is so compelling and witty that the visual effects are a sharp dose of reality that jerks you out of the film. If a bit more time had been taken or more real locations were found, then The Princess Bride may not have lost some of its charm.
The sets and matte paintings in The NeverEnding Story remain my favorites. There is obvious care and dedication put into each one, even those that only appear on screen for a few seconds. Some of the green screen work has not aged well, but it’s still comparable to other movies of the same era. Since The NeverEnding Story is set primarily in a world of fantasy, the sets and effects needed to convey an atmosphere of wonder, whereas The Princess Bride only needed places closer to reality, thus the lack of production value on effects.
True love conquers all. The Princess Bride‘s message is pretty clear and simple. Two lovers are separated by circumstances out of their control and they both fight to reclaim their right to love one another. Westley faces innumerable tests to get back to Buttercup, while Buttercup tries to fend off Prince Humperdinck. The film is full of fun characters, adventure, romance, and good conquering evil. Plus there’s that whole subplot with little Fred Savage and Grandpa Peter Falk where a boy who’s more interested in video games gains a sense of maturity (kissing isn’t gross) and learns to appreciate books.
The NeverEnding Story has the guise of a straightforward plot. There’s a boy who loves books and stands to learn something important by reading about the adventures of a hero who must save the world. Then it gets meta. Once the film reveals its deeper layers Atreyu’s quest comes into sharper focus. Atreyu is tasked with not only saving Fantasia, but the human world as well. Plus, Bastian gets to literally join the quest. He learns that standing up for your dreams can be a life or death decision. Ultimately this comes down to Classic Fantasy versus Romantic Fantasy.
The Princess Bride takes the prize by winning for hero, sidekicks, quests and tests, and plot. The NeverEnding Story put up a valiant effort winning villain, puppetry, and visual effects. Finally, there’s another children’s fantasy film from the ’80s that is better than The NeverEnding Story based on categories I felt were interesting! Perhaps The Princess Bride‘s appeal lies in its simplicity and lightheartedness. The film’s romance is tempered by the action and adventure, never becoming too dark (even when Buttercup is about to commit suicide). The NeverEnding Story is a bit darker and more philosophical, making the film less universally appealing. I tip my hat to The Princess Bride for being part of my own childhood, for giving us fun quotes, choreographing one of the best sword fights, and teaching us all that true love can defy death.
I know, Bastian, but maybe you should just read the book.