I think I actually felt tears running down my cheeks when I watched this as a kid. It was when I was watching it alone and in my own home obviously, since boys weren’t allowed to cry at that age without being ranked out to the dogs and back. But when Artax starts sinking into the muck you can’t help but feel as though you’re losing your own best friend. When Atreyu starts yanking on his reins and yelling at him you don’t know how to react, what to do, or even why your heart is breaking in two. It’s such a painful, poignant moment that kids might actually realize what it is to lose someone at this point that they really care about.
The odd part you realize when you get older and possibly watch this movie again, I’d recommend it, is that Artax was not really a well-developed character in the movie. At the risk of sounding dismissive he’s a horse, and Atreyu’s friend but also his mode of transportation. In the book Artax might actually be a well-developed character, but in the movie he is unfortunately just another horse, albeit Atreyu’s most trusted friend. The issue however is that Atreyu understands the danger of the mission he’s been sent on, or thinks he does. Soon enough the young warrior learns that the quest he’s been sent on is far more serious than he realizes. Losing Artax is only the beginning, as he must eventually find and speak to the ancient tortoise, Morla. And of course she isn’t much help since she’s so dismissive that all hope seems to flee the moment she’s finished speaking.
Atreyu does not have an easy mission and going it alone is even harder when you’re slogging through a place known as Swamps of Sadness. Eventually without Artax he begins to falter, tripping through mud and muck with each step as the dreaded enemy known as the Gmork continues to hound him, gaining ground with each stride and hungrily making his way towards Atreyu. The Gmork is the servant of the all-consuming Nothing that Atreyu must find a way to defeat, and is bent on making certain that the young warrior does not reach the Southern Oracle, or find a way to help the Child Empress save their world.
Losing Artax is really just the beginning of his problems.
He has a brief respite when he meets Falkor, Urgl, and Engywook, but not for too long. His impetuous nature becomes his worst enemy and he goes running towards the twin sphinxes that guard the passage towards the Southern Oracle, thinking that he can pass by the guardians and make his way forward. Thankfully his youth and his quickness save him, but upon reaching the Southern Oracle he finds that Engywook’s last warning to him about the Southern Oracle proves true, and he comes face to face with Bastian, who suddenly realizes too late that he is in fact now a part of the Neverending Story.
See? Losing Artax is just the beginning.