Series Title: Tales from the Neverending Story
Episode: 1.5 “The Gift of the Name” (2001)
Director: Giles Walker, Adam Weissman
Lead Actors: Mark Rendall (as Bastian Balthazar Bux), John Dunne-Hill (Coreander), Noël Burton (Michael Bux), Stéfanie Buxton (Fly Girl)
Length: 44 minutes
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Bastian tries to figure out who stole $63 from his locker at school, while in Fantasia Atreyu and his new friend Fly Girl try to find the Southern Oracle, which they hope will tell Atreyu how to heal the Childlike Empress.
Reason for Beginning: I know, I know I said I wouldn’t watch any more of these after the catastrophe that was the first episode, but I saw that my On-Demand service had replaced Episodes 1-4 with 5-8, and I decided to try again. Which does mean that I have not seen episodes 2, 3, and 4. So in lieu of the fact that I cannot judge how the story has developed thus far, I will try to go a little easier on this episode.
Reason for Finishing: I think I finally learned to grin and laugh at the campiness this time around. It’s still terribly made, terribly acted, and just plain terrible on so many levels, but I have to admit that some parts were distinctly enjoyable in spite of themselves.
Episode Re-viewability: Maybe a little, for the entertaining overacting of two of the side characters.
Recommendation: Meh…only if you watched some of the previous episodes and found them enjoyable in their campiness. Otherwise, still no. I’m going to try to watch more of the series because it’s veering into “so bad it’s good” territory, but that’s hardly a recommendation.
“You double-crossing bamboozling flim-flamming humbug liar!”
– Fly Girl, furious at Weasel-Faced Wexlerian
I wish I’d seen at least Episode 4, because that one introduced the character of Fly Girl (Stéfanie Buxton). Dressed like Amelia Earhart via PeeWee Herman, she pilots a clunky metal Flying Machine that on the inside looks like every kid’s dream hideout, and on the outside is made up to look like Falcor, the famed luckdragon. A previous episode seems to have explained that Falcor has gone missing, and Fly Girl has made it her mission to find him. She crossed paths with Atreyu, and amidst much obligatory bickering (aww, true love!) they fly together in search of the Southern Oracle, which Atreyu hopes will tell him how to heal the Childlike Empress. It’s pointless to say that Buxton’s acting lacks subtlety, especially in this particularly anvilicious show, but what she does have is just what the part needs: energy, spunk, and a magnetically cute face sprinkled with freckles. Combine that with her tomboyish aptitude for mechanics, and you’ve got a boy’s perfect adventure companion. What the heck she’s supposed to see in this boring version of Atreyu, I don’t know, but the show would prefer we not think too hard about such developments. They bicker, overcome obstacles, and fall in love pretty quickly – there are even a few stolen kisses.
Anyway, their Flying Machine crashes in a lush forest, and our young heroes quickly meet two eccentric salesmen. Rip Rowdy and Weasel-Faced Wexlerian claim knowledge not only of the Southern Oracle’s location, but also of the best ways to get past the deadly Riddle Gate and reach it – knowledge which they are happy to teach in a specially-designed class, provided our heroes can pay. “A 12-Step Heroic Course!” declares Weasel-Face, and I chuckle at the Joseph Campbell reference. These two fellows, prancing around like PeeWee Herman rejects, are also fairly entertaining, mostly because the two actors are adults who know how to embrace the campiness of their roles. They run a queer campsite in the middle of the tropical forest, apparently earning a living purely by giving classes to the numerous heroes that come by wanting to get past the Riddle Gate. The campsite is littered with suitcases, metal kitchenware, and other decidedly modern paraphernalia you would not likely find in the Fantasia of the book or 1984 movie. When Atreyu agrees to take their course, they begin testing him with the obvious and famous riddles we’ve all heard of before, which he has trouble guessing. It was beginning to irritate me, until Fly Girl herself finally exclaimed in irritation that the riddles were so easy “only a moron” wouldn’t get them. Another reason to like her, eh?
Which brings me again to how much I dislike this version of Atreyu. Aside from the lifeless acting by Tyler Hynes, he’s written completely differently from the previous versions. Whereas Atreyu is supposed to be brave, noble-hearted, resourceful, confident, and compassionate, here he is bumbling, thick-headed, and superficial. He means well, but displays none of the competence that would mark him as the right choice for a quest like this. Can you imagine him hunting the great Purple Buffalo? Compare to the scene of Atreyu’s introduction in the 1984 movie, where he’s played by Noah Hathaway. (Start watching the video at 2:05) There, the character’s quiet nature comes across as thoughtfulness and patience. But when Hynes is silent, it just feels like he’s waiting for his next cue. He scrunches his forehead to show us he is thinking, but not much appears to be going on inside.
Then again, very little in this show follows Michael Ende’s story at all. That’s become quite clear to me indeed. Pretences have been dropped, I think – this is a totally new story that just uses some basic names and plot elements from the original story. For example, do you remember Morla the Ancient One, the giant turtle whom Atreyu seeks out for his wisdom? I remember the movie having some impressively atmospheric buildup to his reveal. Five minutes into this episode, Atreyu stumbles across him randomly, having no idea who or what Morla is, and is told that “The Childlike Empress’ age is not measured in years, but in names. A new name for a new Empress, and a new Empress for a new name.” He also deals a blow to Atreyu’s pride by telling him “Who said the AURYN would work for you?”, thus implying that Atreyu is not the actual hero who will save the Empress. For such an important character and information, it seems the show could have given Morla’s appearance some more weight and respect. He’s onscreen for about five minutes before retreating into his shell, and is never actually named. And beyond a flashback in which Atreyu recalls his words, he’s never mentioned again in the episode.
Parallel to all this, there are Bastian’s struggles in the real world. They are not very interesting. Bastian brings $63 to school, which he plans to use to buy his dad a birthday gift, but foolishly says his locker combination out loud as he secures it inside. Naturally, the bully Connor overhears it and steals the money, which he then uses to buy a football jacket off of a jock to give to Bastian’s sister’s best friend, whom he likes. Bastian guesses that Connor is the thief and tries to find a way to confront him about it that won’t get his head banged in. Bastian’s two friends argue against the risk. Bastian persists, though, causing Connor to angrily make some Suspiciously Specific Denials, and…Are you following this? Do you care? Because honestly, I wasn’t really. This is a problem inherent in running a storyline in the mundane world about mundane problems parallel to a storyline in a fantastic world about fantastic problems. While the actual birthday of Bastian’s father at the end of the episode is actually pretty sweet – the two of them bond over a cupcake in the kitchen – the rest of his scenes fail to tap into either the emotion or the magic that they should. They shouldn’t be as over-the-top crazy as the Fantasia scenes, but too often the conflicts in the “real world” just feel petty and irrelevant. Neither Bastian nor his adventures are very interesting. Atreyu himself may not be an interesting person, but at least he faces death-dealing Oracles, crazy forest-dwelling conmen, and cute, spunky pilot girls.
Before I finish up here, I’ll just mention the other Fantasia subplot. The series’ main villain is the sorceress Xayide, who is here made out to be the Childlike Empress’ evil sister. Her campiness is more annoying than fun, and every scene with her and her minions is filled with stupefying plotholes. Here, she actually invades the Ivory Tower with a handful of Dark Knights and surrounds the Empress. The Empress, reclining sickly on her couch, finally displays a bit of powerful magic (though still looking far too much like Inara) by waving her hand and causing the floor between her and the Dark Knights to fall away. However, weak as she is, she cannot hold up the spell for long, and the episode periodically returns to the standoff as the floor slowly puts itself back together, and the Dark Knights step closer to the Empress. Why this is important is unexplained. I mean, Xayide has seized the entire Ivory Tower without a fight, so why does the Childlike Empress’ couch matter? And why can’t the Dark Knights just jump over the remaining three feet of open space to get to the Empress? Plot railroading, I guess. Anyway, this subplot accomplishes nothing and serves only to remind the viewer that the Childlike Empress exists and is in danger. Because with all the other random stuff going on, it would be easy to forget.
I’ll review other episodes of Tales from the Neverending Story as I get the chance. Meanwhile, look out for reviews of Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead, the Lackadaisy Cats webcomic by Tracy Butler, and the Dr. Horrible & Other Stories graphic novel collection!