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… Willow.
Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) is the ultimate underdog. Not only is he the butt of jokes in his own village, but he’s abandoned to a nearly impossible quest of saving the future savior of the realm. Willow wants to be a great wizard, but he lacks the confidence. The responsibility of returning a baby to its people is thrust upon him. Luckily for the infant, Willow has a sense of moral obligation (since he’s also a father). Despite being a small man in a big person world, he manages to stand up for himself and for what’s in the best interest of Elora Danan. Willow transforms into a man who is confident and brave, but still humble. He has a good heart from the beginning and that’s what keeps him from giving up on keeping Elora safe from evil.
Atreyu is also an unexpected hero. When he arrives at the Ivory Tower he’s almost kicked out because of his age. As an underdog in the quest to save Fantasia, Atreyu must work extra hard to prove that he was the Empress’ right choice in a hero. Atreyu faces grander, more supernatural obstacles during his quest and has some pretty depressing encounters throughout his journey. He manages to remain focused yet vulnerable without becoming hardened. Atreyu has a better résumé than Willow if it came down to who is best suited to a quest. Atreyu is a warrior that hunts buffalo and is respected enough to be chosen by the Empress. Willow is a farmer who knows how to change diapers. While both possess a good heart, Willow uses his cunning and Atreyu uses his strength, making them two different sides of the hero coin.
Fuck. The. Brownies. I hated the Brownies when I was young and I still despise them today and I will loathe them for an eternity. They are the precursors to Jar Jar Binks, so thanks for the heads-up, George. Willow manages to keep his precious bundle relatively safe despite having the worst help. The bumbling Brownies can barely manage to keep themselves out of trouble, let alone help out Willow. Then there’s Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who provides some brawn, for sure, but lacks the skill of subtlety, which is necessary when the entire kingdom is on high alert. The only person who comes close to helpful is Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), but she doesn’t even have opposable thumbs for most of the quest. Willow somehow manages to eke by with his own good senses and a healthy dose of luck.
Atreyu’s companions are actually helpful. Artax is a trusty companion who just happens to succumb to the Swamps of Sadness. Falkor’s folk wisdom and creepy love of sleeping boys can grate against you, but he’s an excellent mode of transportation. Plus, the luck dragon saves Atreyu from the Swamps of Sadness and from the Nothing at Spooky City. Engywook proves to be quite helpful with his kooky love of the Southern Oracle. The potions and care that Urgl (coincidentally played by the same actress as Fin Raziel) provides to Atreyu is immensely helpful to the young hero. Atreyu doesn’t have a large contingent of sidekicks like Willow, but his are much more helpful.
THE QUESTS AND TESTS
Willow puts up with ridiculous obstacles caused mostly by his hapless companions. Willow would rather remain unnoticed by the general populace lest somebody alert the evil queen. All of the physical danger seems almost incidental to Willow’s greater personal quest: to be respected as a great wizard. Willow encounters dangerous men, two-headed monsters, the Brownies, and some wacky hi-jinks just to keep things interesting. He is tumbled along through all these dangers, but the only times he doubts himself is when magic is involved. Despite Fin Raziel’s pleas, Willow cannot find enough confidence to help transform her back into a human. Willow’s greatest showdown is with the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), whom he must defeat using his wits and magic.
Atreyu faces some dark trials. In Willow’s adventure, there’s a sense that good will prevail in the end. The NeverEnding Story is bleak. Atreyu loses his best friend to a horrible death. He then nearly drowns while being hunted by a giant wolf. Once he does recover enough to continue his quest, he faces deadly tests at the gates leading to the Southern Oracle. Then after he passes those and discovers what he needs to save the Empress, he encounters the Nothing and must face G’mork, the giant wolf sent to kill him. But even this is not enough for Atreyu to defeat the Nothing because the Nothing still manages to destroy all of Fantasia. Atreyu is doomed to a weird kind of Pyrrhic victory.
Queen Bavmorda is truly frightening. She’s also the only female villain out of the five films I’ve looked at this year. She’s the ultimate evil sorceress like Snow White‘s step mother or Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent. Bavmorda is determined to kill every female infant in the kingdom to make sure that she can continue to reign. She’s also insane. At one point, she turns the army at her front gates into pigs and laughs about it. Even her vicious general looks a bit wary whenever she starts getting hyped up on dark magic. Queen Bavmorda also rejects her daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) which of course means that when the two meet again, the queen immediately tries to kill Sorsha. Bavmorda will not let anyone stand in her way and she’ll laugh maniacally while she destroys you.
G’mork is also dedicated in his mission. He tracks Atreyu across all of Fantasia and even dares to enter the Swamps of Sadness to catch and kill the young boy. G’mork is willing to die in order for the Nothing to succeed in destroying Fantasia. His evil is more insidious than Queen Bavmorda’s. G’mork lurks in the dark places, waiting to strike when his prey is most vulnerable. We never get to see him actually kill any other creatures, but his menacing presence leaves no doubt that he has. As the servant of the power that is behind the Nothing, G’mork is truly frightening, which means that his boss (or bosses) must be even more cruel and wicked to hold any power over the wolf.
There’s some puppetry. Briefly. It’s reasonably okay. The giant two-headed monster (aka the Eborsisk) is a lame plot device and hasn’t aged well. While its articulation is reasonably fine, I hold a personal dislike toward it. It looks slow and ponderous, like a Brachiosaurus, but still manages to move its necks quickly enough to cause havoc in the midst of a battle. The Eborsisk’s design is suitably ugly and simple, but the creature adds little to the film.
The NeverEnding Story utilizes incredible puppets whose dimensions are amazing. Falkor is a huge piece of work. Sadly, the articulation of his mouth looks awful. The capacity to match the movements to the dialogue is there, but I think the puppeteer’s skills were not quite ready to handle such a complex creature. The same is true for G’mork. The puppet is great, but there is a level of complexity to the mouth design that wasn’t manipulated in a believable way. Despite these flaws, all the creatures in the film are actual characters and not just plot devices for fun.
The visual and special effects in Willow are dated and highly unacceptable coming from George Lucas. The green screen work with the Brownies doesn’t hold up at all and looks lame. The Rancor looks better than the giant two-headed monster. There’s some redeeming work in the morphing effects used on Fin Raziel, but not enough. And I almost forgot the weird battle between Willow and a giant, walking ashtray. It looks awful and makes me feel sad to see.
The NeverEnding Story was made five years earlier and looks better than Willow. While Willow utilized actual locations, The NeverEnding Story relied on many matte paintings, all of which are damned amazing. The green screen work is even better. Yes, Falkor looks a little bit green around the edges in some shots, but there are no dark outlines and the lighting matches the rest of the scenery. The sets are also admirable in their scope and complexity. The effects are still dated, but they have aged better than Willow.
Willow has a solid plot but lacks good execution. There are many parts that are just dumb and incomprehensible. I think the idea was to make the film fun and whimsical despite being about an evil, baby-killing queen. Without the frippery, Willow is a great adventure film about a hero who has a good heart and gains self-confidence in saving the kingdom from evil. It’s a classic hero’s journey with a bit of “character” that gets out of hand. Willow Ufgood is the anchor in the film and manages to remain relatable despite the zaniness that occurs around him. His focus on his quest and his love for Elora Danan help keep the film on track. When Willow stands up to the maniacal Queen Bavmorda, he proves what it means to be a true hero. Willow teaches that even when the world around you seems like an impossible place to fit into, persevere, follow your heart, and the reward will be a new sense of self-respect and confidence.
The NeverEnding Story embraces the doleful atmosphere. There are bits of humor, but they are easily forgettable in the face of the encroaching Nothing. Since Atreyu has fewer sidekicks, his journey is less frenetic and more straightforward. The plot moves along quickly and sensibly while still being engaging. The NeverEnding Story is not only about Atreyu saving Fantasia, it’s about Bastian standing up to those who would stifle his imagination. It is Bastian’s decision to do what he dreams that saves Fantasia and our world, too. The NeverEnding Story is about never giving up on the things you love and believe in even when the world seems to be against you.
The NeverEnding Story wins, mostly because its fleeting attempts at humor are forgettable and even forgivable. There is no excuse for the train wreck that is the Brownies, or the fact that Madmartigan and Willow become a cartoonish snowball as they roll down a mountainside, or that someone gets bird shit in their face. Willow wins at having an excellent, well-rounded hero, but The NeverEnding Story wins at everything else, which is too bad because I really enjoy watching Willow despite its flaws. Willow had too many plot lines going at once and couldn’t juggle them aptly. The NeverEnding Story could have added many more characters and tangents, but kept things simple in order to make a larger thematic impact. The difference is that The NeverEnding Story is a more cohesive film.