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MMYIF Fantastical Trauma Double Feature: The NeverEnding Story / Return To Oz

My Misspent Youth In Films...

The NeverEnding Story
Directed by: Wolfgang Peterson
Starring: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronarch
Released: July 20, 1984

A troubled boy dives into a wondrous fantasy world through the pages of a mysterious book.


Return To Oz
Directed by: Walter Murch
Starring: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh
Released: June 21, 1985

Dorothy, saved from a psychiatric experiment by a mysterious girl, is somehow called back to Oz when a vain witch and the Nome King destroy everything that makes the magical land beautiful.

What I Thought Then

Here are two movies about fantasy realms full of wonder, magic, bizarre rock-creatures, dead ungulates, a ruling class of underage girls who are suddenly out of power, deus ex machina endings, and evil things that want desperately to murder children. They were so cool! They were also completely terrifying.

What I Think Now

Fantasy was weird in the 80s. The make-up and special effects were just on the cusp of being able to create an immersive fantasy world, but the limits of filmmaking inevitably run up against the tropes of fantasy in predictable ways. You will have a gnarly scary forest. There will be a lot of fog to hide the fact that we're on a set. If we're not on a set, the background will be matted in. There will be many, many puppets. Oh, and synth music is cheap and very much in vogue! All of these things come together to make these films feel very, very dated very, very quickly. But if you can get past that, what you have here are two films tasked with whisking audience surrogates away to another world so that world can be saved. Both do an admirable job, and they take very different approaches.

The NeverEnding Story (whose title is partially Pascal-case, for some reason?) is a story about a troubled boy named Bastian who is dealing with the loss of his mother and being bullied and a no-nonsense father played by a perfectly cast Geralt McRaney (TV's Major Dad). He ducks into a mysterious book store and "borrows" a book called The NeverEnding Story, which he then reads in the attic at his school while skipping class. But then it turns out the movie is really about the story in the book, which takes place in a land called Fantasia that's being consumed by a formless entity called The Nothing and it's up to a warrior boy named Atreyu (who is patterned uncomfortably close to Native American stereotypes) to cure the illness that's afflicting the Empress and thereby save Fantasia. But actually it's really about Bastian experiencing the story through Atreyu's eyes and allowing himself to get lost in stories and believe in his dreams. But then it's really about the audience watching the movie and experiencing Bastian's journey along with Bastian which is also Ateryu's journey, and multiple characters will look straight into the camera to drive this point home.

Because if you're going to get meta-textual, you might as well take it three or four levels deep. This is a movie about how kids who like fantasy stories are the real heroes who will save the world through the power of imagination, and it concocts an elaborate meta-narrative around what's honestly a nothing-burger of a story in order to explicitly give the audience permission to lose themselves in it. And it's completely transparent about what it's doing. The traumatic moment that defined a generation happens early in Act II when Atreyu's horse drowns in the Swamp Of Sadness. Atreyu cries. Bastian cries. The audience cries. When Atreyu asks why it had to happen, the Empress just flat-out tells him that it was so Bastian--and by extension, us--would be invested in the story enough to follow it to its conclusion. It would almost seem cynical except that the movie plays it completely sincerely. In fact, everything in this movie is played not just with seriousness and sincerity, but with a profound, childlike earnestness. There's a moment where Atreyu decides to eat, so Bastian also decides to eat, but then Bastian only eats a little bit of his sack lunch because they still have a long journey ahead. It's completely ridiculous, but it's also exactly what a nine-year-old would do, and that makes it kind of perfect. This is not a story you could tell ironically. Small wonder it's an enduring favorite of a generation of burgeoning nerds.

Return To Oz is similar in that it is sincere when you would expect it to be cynical, but the similarities don't go much farther than that, outside of the usual fantasy tropes. It's kind of a sequel to the 1939 landmark MGM musical The Wizard Of Oz while also being a loose adaptation of the books The Marvelous Land Of Oz and Ozma Of Oz, and this turns out to be a fine line to walk, as the 1939 adaptation was not particularly faithful to its source material. Return splits the difference, aging Dorothy back down and drawing design elements more from the John R. Neil illustrations of the books rather than the previous movie, while holding onto a few elements from the film, notably that Oz mostly exists in Dorothy's imagination (in the books, Oz is a real place that you can get to via, for example, balloon) and that the Emerald City is, in fact, green.

Dorothy is played by a very young Fairuza Balk, who is doing a spot-on homage to Judy Garland's iconic take on the character. After returning to Kansas, Dorothy can't stop talking about this Oz place, to the point that it's disrupting her home life, so Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have her committed to an experimental psych ward. Let's take a moment to ding the film a few points for its negative portrayal of electro-convulsive therapy. And.... moving on. Dorothy escapes and falls into a river and wakes up in the Deadly Desert surrounded by ugly matte paintings and accompanied by a wisecracking hen. She finds The Emerald City in ruins and being threatened by an evil queen and her clown-like terrifying henchmen the wheelers. She befriends a pumpkin and a moose head, as well as a gearpunk security guard named Tik Tok (no... really) and goes off to find the Scarecrow and also free Ozma, who've both been kidnapped by the evil Nome King, who hates the Emerald City for mining all the emeralds out of his home and is ultimately defeated by a chicken egg. Because fantasy.

Return To Oz has no pretenses towards meta-narrative, beyond setting up doppelgängers in the real world for the characters we'll meet in Oz later. Its goal is to tell a straightforward adventure that kinda sorta continues a then-46-year-old narrative. It is dark. It is bleak. And I can't stress enough how scary the freaking wheelers are to a little kid. But, like The NeverEnding Story, it's the sincerity of the movie that sells it. It is committed to its own ridiculousness and never bats an eyelash or pauses to wink at the camera. And you know what? I enjoyed it. In fact, both movies hold up surprisingly well. The effects aren't great, but they aren't awful. The soundtracks are working very hard to sell the emotion of the film. It doesn't always land, but you have to admire the effort. (And the song The NeverEnding Story is just so damned catchy, right?) The stories are a bit of a mess, but the characters are fun and the design is eye-popping at times. They both show us a fantasy world on the brink of destruction and circle back to bright-eyed optimism.

Recommendation?

Yeah, actually. They aren't great films, but, like I said, they held up way better than I expected. Return To Oz is on Disney+, and you probably own a copy of The NeverEnding Story already.

Tune in next week to see a big bird...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through his the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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