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… Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is a dramatic teenage girl–and I mean annoyingly so, not just typical teen drama–who wishes her baby brother into the goblin realm. Sarah spends most of her adventure either whining that things aren’t fair while stomping her foot petulantly or somehow acquiring quirky friends who help her get to the castle of the Goblin King (David Bowie) despite her lack of sincerity. Sarah is supposed to be a strong female character for girls to identify with. Too bad she’s a pouty doo-doo head for the first half. Sarah is caught up in a world of fantasy, shirking her responsibilities like watching her baby brother and dating boys. However, being the heroine, Sarah manages to overcome her immaturity and accept her impending adulthood. And she is somewhat sympathetic. I mean, she spends most of her time reading, her mother is dead, and she doesn’t have any friends until she gets sucked into a fantasy book–wait a second, this seems familiar.
The answer is Bastian, if you were wondering. Bastian and Sarah are alternate versions of one another. If Bastian hadn’t gotten his hands on The Neverending Story until he was 15 or 16, he may have turned into a petulant, morose ball of hormones, stomping around the house and slamming doors. You know, a typical teenager. Bastian is actually headed down a dark path with the stealing things and the skipping school, but he’s saved by a fantasy novel before he falls further into the depths of depression and suppressed rage. Atreyu, on the other hand, is a bad-ass warrior who accepts a nearly impossible task. And he didn’t wish for the Nothing to happen, thus causing his own predicament, like Sarah. When things get tough, he doesn’t give up or pout. The boy watched his best friend, Artax, drown in front of him and still continued with his quest.
While navigating the labyrinth, Sarah manages to acquire an oddball gaggle of friends. Living in a labyrinth created by the Goblin King must be pretty awful since these creatures are easily won over by Sarah’s pretty face and begrudging solicitousness. Hoggle is a crude goblin who betrays Sarah for shiny things. Despite the fact that Sarah doesn’t do anything extraordinarily gracious, Hoggle still thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread. Ludo tags along because Sarah saved the gentle giant. Ludo is a bit slow in the head, but comes in handy in a fight or if you need to cross a small body of water. Finally, Sir Didymus feels obligated as a gentleman (gentlefox? gentledog?) to assist in Sarah’s quest. While Sarah eventually learns not to be a snotty teenager, she is somehow a better companion for these one-dimensional sidekicks than anyone else in the Goblin King’s shitty labyrinth.
Atreyu is a nice kid. He manages to be a generally likable person who acquires friends because he is pleasant and thoughtful. He also tragically loses his dearest friend, Artax, to the Swamps of Sadness. No worries, though, because he gets a luck dragon instead. Falkor proves to be a loyal companion, searching for Atreyu even when the Nothing is threatening to destroy everything in its path. Falkor doesn’t leave Atreyu for gems or precious metals. Atreyu even finds friendship with the cantankerous Engywook and Urgl. He is a thoughtful guest who appreciates the effort the couple has gone through to help him recover and continue his quest. Falkor and others can be a little kooky, but nothing like the annoying Sir Didymus or the materialistic Hoggle.
THE QUESTS AND TESTS
Sarah faces grabbing hands, stinky bogs, mechanical guards, riddles, dismembered creatures, and David Bowie. Basically, she overcomes crazy obstacles in order to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around her childish ways, and to save the little brother who she wished away in the first place. Sarah somehow manages to petulantly find her way through most of the labyrinth, but discovers she needs some help to reach the Goblin City. Once she gets some friends and ditches her go-it-alone attitude, she is able to conquer her own fears and insecurities. Her biggest test is not the physical quest through the labyrinth, but her mental resolve to reject her childhood dependency on fantasy and end her egocentrism. While she may not be saving the world from destruction, she is saving herself from her selfishness.
Atreyu has no lessons to learn. He’s already a good kid who was chosen by the Childlike Empress for his awesomeness as a warrior and being an overall nice guy. Atreyu serves as a tool in finding the true savior of Fantasia: Bastian. Atreyu has to go through some pretty dark tests to garner Bastian’s sympathy. Firstly, Atreyu has to stand by while his best friend, Artax, drowns. Sarah has to worry about smelling bad, Atreyu has to worry about death and a lifetime of mental trauma. Atreyu has to put in some serious physical effort and suffers injuries for his trials. And he’s being hunted down at the same time. Laser eyes, snow, swamps, killer wolves, and the Nothing all try their best to end Atreyu’s quest. Also, he’s out there for weeks, not a piddly 13 hours.
The Goblin King is a different type of villain. He’s your typical bad guy with evil minions and a penchant for baby stealing, but he also represents the sexual development of our heroine. His androgynous rock star attire and bulging codpiece certainly gets my lady bits a-tingling, so I can only imagine what a dramatic teenage girl from the ’80s must be feeling. Jareth wants to seduce Sarah to join him so that he can shower her with her every desire, stunting her maturation into adulthood. Sarah could end up as an eternally spoiled daddy’s girl. He is the allure of childish gluttony and the shirking of any and all responsibilities. Despite being played by the dreamy David Bowie, in the end Jareth is still just a creeper seducing young girls who will never be as pretty as him.
The Nothing is much more frightening than Jareth’s codpiece because it aims to destroy humanity, not just spoiled teenage girls. Insidious in nature, the Nothing is a depression killing the hopes and dreams of people until they become automatons perfect for controlling. Add in the nightmare-inducing G’mork and you have a recipe for evil far beyond that of baby snatching. G’mork is relentless in his mission to kill Atreyu. He travels across Fantasia and even ventures into the deadly Swamps of Sadness to find his victim. He also doesn’t give a fuck if he dies as a result. The Nothing is ripping Fantasia apart and G’mork remains steadfast in his mission to kill the only possible savior.
Jim Henson and company do not disappoint with their amazing puppets and costumes. The Fiery sequence alone is an amazing testament to the talented puppeteers in Henson productions. There are plenty of people dressed as creatures such as Ludo and Hoggle. There are also creative sequences like the creepy wall of talking hands. There’s not much more to say about the master of puppets. A Jim Henson production will always have quality creatures and excellent workers behind them.
The NeverEnding Story creatures look lame next to those from Labyrinth. The creatures are pretty damned fantastic. The racing snail, Rockbiter, and Falkor are lovely puppets. The suckitude comes from their physical manipulation. A puppet can only become believable as a creature if it’s articulated correctly. The most noticeable failing is the mouths of these creatures. Nobody looks like they are actually moving their face correctly to the dialogue they are “speaking.” It’s poorly executed and distracting.
Jim Henson productions just blow their load on the puppets. Ew. In terms of sets and effects, the labyrinth looks good and the “battle” sequence between Sarah and Jareth through an M. C. Escher set is sweet, but there’s no extra effort put in. The Fiery dance, an amazing puppetry sequence, is ruined by the low quality of the green screen. The matte paintings are also lacking. Labyrinth suffers from the same issues as The Dark Crystal, mainly that the puppets and the sets were given a good budget, but not any other visual effects. And the damn CG owl has not held up well at all. Bubo from Clash of the Titans remains more convincing, and he’s a robot.
The NeverEnding Story is underrated for its visual effects. The matte paintings are flippin’ gorgeous and entire sets are built just for Atreyu to take a quick ride through. The Swamps of Sadness are a feat of set design. The film does suffer from dated green screen effects, though, making any ride on Falkor cringe-worthy. When Fantasia is nothing but hunks of rock floating in space, I get the chills because it looks so damn good. The effects are nowhere near perfect, but they look decent for 1984.
Sarah must save the brother she wished away and learn that she’s not the center of her own fantastical universe. She meets interesting characters and finds out that life isn’t fair. Labyrinth aims to teach teenagers that adulthood comes up fast and childhood imagination must take a backseat to responsibility. While the lesson is completely different from that in The NeverEnding Story, it’s still a good one for the target audience. Too bad Sarah isn’t convincing. Learning that “responsibility” is not the same as “burden” takes time, and half a day in a kooky labyrinth doesn’t seem like enough for the annoyingly peevish Sarah. A good story can still be ruined by an unlikable character.
The NeverEnding Story teaches kids to never stop imagining and to hope and dream or else the dourness of adulthood will make you a mindless puppet for evil. Also a good lesson to learn. What makes the plot more palatable is the empathy towards Bastian. He has a dead mother, an emotionally stunted father, bullies to contend with, and a school system that doesn’t recognize the symptoms of depression and aberrant behaviors. All he wants is some time alone to read a good book while dealing with his grief. Even Atreyu’s journey is compelling despite the fact we learn it was all in the name of getting Bastian on board with saving Fantasia. A meta twist in a children’s film is amazing.
I want to like Labyrinth more just because there’s a female protagonist. That would be wrong. Sarah isn’t even likable. She’s a brat. She’s the epitome of a selfish diva. There’s nothing about her that makes her sympathetic. Yes, she has a dead mother, but that doesn’t justify her petulance and general air of discontent. Bastian also deals with a shitty life and a dead mother, but reacts with less foot stomping. He’s a depressed kid with a tendency toward rule breaking, but I care more about him and his adventure than about Whiny McPrincesspants. Even though Sarah learns to grow up and accept responsibilities, her character ruins the majority of this otherwise entertaining film.
When put side by side, Labyrinth wins at puppetry. It ties on visual effects. Despite the fact that The NeverEnding Story outranks Labyrinth in five categories, Labyrinth remains more popular and memorable due to catchy songs, Jim Henson’s creatures, and David Bowie. I love Labyrinth, but I’m not convinced that it’s a better film than The NeverEnding Story.
You’ll just have to get over it.
Perhaps the key is the age at which you watch these films. Labyrinth was amazing to me in high school, but Sarah’s character bogs the whole thing down now that I’m older. The NeverEnding Story remains a dark film with an important and uplifting message that I related to as a child and still find pertinent. Its plot and lessons can be appreciated by young and old, making The NeverEnding Story a better film.