The ‘80s brought us plenty of childhood nightmare fuel, like the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal and Pee Wee’s Large Marge. But one of the biggest offenders in the “Are you sure this is a children’s movie?” category is, hands-down, The Neverending Story. On its face, the story of a shy unicorn-loving nerd who experiences a magical adventure thanks to a mysterious book should be a slam dunk. Thanks to the extremely worrying imagination of author Michael Ende and a production team who had to figure out how to shoot a literal nothing, we ended up with a parade of crazy, horrifying childhood trauma that leaves us with some life lessons that make getting out of bed seem like a bad idea all around.
Your Horse Is Drowning (and Other Ham-Fisted Metaphors)
The Neverending Story is a parade of so many metaphors of mental illness it could be an article all on its own. The main villain of the piece, The Nothing, is a manifestation of the terror of oblivion, while Artax’s death at the hands of the Swamps of Sadness might as well have had a neon flashing sign hanging from the trees screaming “Depression!” Let’s not forget the Gmork, a nightmare monster constantly nipping at the heels of our protagonist – aka, anxiety. What does he tell Atreyu to do when he finally does catch up? Lie down and just wait for death. For a children’s book, it’s an utterly horrifying look into some of the worst things our brains can do to us and a really great reason why adulthood is the monster at the end of the book.
You’re Going to Treat Your Parents Like Crap
When I was a kid, I thought Bastian’s dad was an uncaring, unlistening jerk. I mean, how hard is it to tell apart horses and unicorns? As an adult, though, Major Dad does a lot in that breakfast to connect with his son. He ruffles his hair, he tries to give him advice on how to move past the death of his mother. We find out he encouraged his son’s hobbies by getting him horseback riding lessons. Considering he’s grieving his wife, it’s a solid effort. He appears to be doing what he can.
How does Bastian repay him? He ignores everything his father asks of him and vanishes off to a magical realm for who knows how long. Can you imagine papa Bux reporting his missing son to the police? Searching for Bastian? Wondering why him, why his son after the loss of his wife? In this whole parade of weird, I genuinely feel sorry for him.
Your Dragon (Dog?) Is a Better Companion Than the Humans in Your Life
Let’s face it: people suck. Even if you don’t have bullies chasing you into dumpsters that are seemingly full of shredded paper (recycling was totally a thing in the ‘80s, jerks) or the chest-seizing fear of walking into a classroom late, all eyes on you, to the scariest thing of all – a math test – people aren’t the greatest thing around. Imagine: you’re out hunting the purple buffalo, like you do, and some holy dude with a Fu Manchu sends you on a quest to save the universe. But hey, no pressure, right? In times like these, just hang out with your luck dragon and forget what a drag other people can be. At least Falcor helped Bastian out with his bullying problem.
Someone Is Watching You
The Neverending Story, as Bastian learns at the end of the film, is actually a neverending Russian nesting doll of storytelling proportions. While he was watching Atreyu, we were watching him – which begs the question: who is watching us? When are they watching us? Are they watching us right now, or earlier in the toilet? And is someone watching them in the toilet? Where does it end? Is there a god? I need to lie down.
Your Big Strong Hands Can’t Stop Death
Here’s the big finish, kids – we’re all going to die. Your mom is going to die. Your horse is going to die. Deep Roy is going to die. Even the larger-than-life friendly giant with the big, strong hands is going to die (and let’s face it, big, strong hands is hardly a good response to a disaster anyway. It’s certainly no stop drop and roll). Bastian brought Fantasia back in the end, but it wasn’t real – something we know because of all the resurrected characters in this movie, the one person we never see come back (that Bastian never uses his unending wishes to bring back) is his mom. He’s deeply affected by the death of his mother, to the point that dreaming about her is disturbing. Why wouldn’t he want her back? Why wouldn’t he ever try? Did she suffer a violent death, making his grief traumatic? Was she a villian in the Bux household? Or is The Neverending Story’s real punchline the finiteness of life? And why is a children’s movie making us think about this at all?