Series Title: Tales from the Neverending Story
Episode: 1.1 “Heart of Stone” (2001)
Director: Giles Walker
Lead Actors: Mark Rendall (as Bastian Balthazar Bux), John Dunne-Hill (Coreander), Noël Burton (Michael Bux)
Length: 44 minutes
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Wherein Bastian Balthazar Bux, a young boy who loves books, experiences the tragic death of his mother and an increasingly awkward relationship with his father. Meanwhile, he finds the magical book The Neverending Story, the story of which begins to seem suspiciously similar to a bizarre dream he had.
Reason for Beginning: I saw it available free on On-Demand, and since I’m a fan of both Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story and the 1984 film of the same name, I thought I’d give it a whirl. Also, I’d never heard of this adaptation before, and was morbidly curious as to what a low-budget Hallmark TV adaptation of the inspired fantasy epic would look like.
Reason for Finishing: Gaahhhh! The horror! Can’t take my eyes off the unfolding catastrophe!
Episode Re-viewability: Only to laugh at its terrible campiness, but even so, it’s not really worth it. I will not be seeking out the other episodes of this series.
Recommendation: NO. I mean, okay, many kids under ten would probably like it well enough, but that’s more due to the inherent interest of the source material rather than any virtues of the episode itself.
This is a spur-of-the-moment, unplanned review. Let me try to get a handle on what I’ve just seen.
There was trouble the moment the credits told me that this series was “Based on themes of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story.” In other words, it takes some key ideas and names from his book and creates a totally different story. An inferior story, poorly told. Now, I can forgive the fact that they changed the setting from Germany to modern-day America, but the other changes make less sense. Do we really need to see how Bastian’s mom died? Do we need an entire episode of her being in the hospital, just so the Hallmark Channel can conjure more of its typically saccharine nonsense? And what is the purpose of telling us cryptically that the mother knows about the magical book and Fantasia, without any explanation of how or why, and then killing her off before Bastian can learn anything? Maybe this gets explained later in the short-lived series, but it seems awfully shoehorned in, especially since it’s such a big departure from the book. The 1984 movie handled it much better by starting a short time after the mother’s death, so it could look immediately at the ways Bastian and his father were trying to deal with it, without suffering through the forced melodrama of this TV episode.
There’s just no sense of mystery or emotion anywhere. Bastian is made fun of by an absolutely ridiculous pair of bullies, who not only don’t act like grammar school bullies but also just don’t seem to have their hearts in it. When his mom gets in a car crash and is in the hospital in critical condition, there’s simply not much emotion displayed, by Bastian or his father. They’re supposed to be trying to hold it all in, sure, but even then the audience needs to be able to sense the emotion beneath the surface. The actors and director seem unclear about what they want from each scene – dialogue is stilted, tending towards the obvious or irrelevant, and there is no energy, no focus, and no passion.
Things just happen, regardless of logic. It’s plot railroading at its worst. In the hospital, Bastian’s mom, now seemingly doing fine with all the bandages and tubes off her, tells him that he must get The Neverending Story book, or else she will die. So he runs back to the little bookstore, where he’d met the eccentric Coreander (played as an eccentric Irish-leprechaun stereotype, which is ridiculous but also kinda fun), who now lets him borrow the book. (In the novel and 1984 film, Bastian steals the book because it is exerting a strange and powerful attraction on him, which makes far more sense in the story’s context than this version.) Then, right after he steps outside the shop, he stops on the side of the street, opens the book to the middle¸ and starts inexplicably reading the beginning of the book’s story. By the way, did I tell you it’s evening and the whole reason he got the book is because his mom said she had to see it immediately or she would die? Yet he stands in the middle of the sidewalk, in poor light, and starts to read it for himself. Cue the magical world of Fantasia opening before our eyes to tell us, with sets and costumes more fit for the local children’s stage theater, how the young warrior Atreyu was chosen for a special quest by the Childlike Empress (who looks less like a child and more like a sultry teenager. Seriously, every time she talks to Atreyu it looks like she’s trying to seduce him!).
Ah, how fares Atreyu, who in the 1984 movie was one of the most noble and pure-hearted characters in fantasy cinema? He’s played here by a bland cross between Orlando Bloom and Keanu Reeves (and sports ridiculous braids). Having been swiftly introduced and sent on his journey to the Childlike Empress in about two minutes’ time, he proceeds to immediately kill Gmork the evil black wolf.
Please note that this takes place before anyone, even Atreyu, even the viewer, has even heard of Gmork or the Nothing! The plot has barely gotten started, and yet it shows one of the key villains killed in Fantasia. Except…he’s not really killed. Because somehow, you see, Gmork earlier shows up in the real world, causes the car accident that killed Bastian’s mother, and shapeshifts into a creepy man in a long black coat who stalks Bastian, and then mysteriously becomes his new teacher at school. Yeah. So how in the world he was able to be killed by Atreyu in Fantasia and yet be alive in the real world is beyond me.
The script would be poor for a college screenwriting class, displaying no familiarity with how real people talk and interact. It’s just ineptness all the way around. And while a movie cannot be founded on special effects, the terrible shoddiness of those on display here really ruin all the scenes in Fantasia. Atreyu’s tribe, the Green People of the Western Plains (inexplicably called just “woodlanders” in this series), are not only dressed gouachely as hippie-Indians, but they seem to be very racially confused: their supposedly isolated little tribe has white and black people in it, but no one looking remotely Native American.
Favorite characters from the book and 1984 movie, like Rockbiter and the Nighthob, are nowhere to be seen. Probably for the best, considering. I dread the reveal of Falcor, who is shown in the opening credits montage to look like some cut-rate animatronic that manages both to rip off the 1984 movie and yet look utterly unrealistic and ridiculous at the same time. *shudder* Honestly, I don’t have the heart to recite all the other pointless deviations from the novel, which change the whole nature of the story and reduce its complexity to simplistic platitudes.
In short, don’t watch this unless you just want to laugh at something that’s really quite bad. The idea of adapting the huge book into a miniseries isn’t a bad one itself, but it would have to be done very creatively by someone willing to take narrative risks and stay very close to the source material.