The Neverending Story is one of those movies that always gets brought up as a timeless fantasy classic when 80s and 90s kids get all wistful about the childhood they are trying to relive. But seriously, it's one incredibly fucked up movie, and not just because of the horse.
Right out of the gate, The Neverending Story hits us with a nice dose of sobering sadness, as we're introduced to Bastian over the most depressing breakfast in film history. During the first scene Bastion (full name: Bastian Balthazar Bux; which might explain a lot of his problems), looking more morose than a Hot Topic swing shift cashier, sits down to breakfast. His dad (Hi, Major Dad!) then comes out and almost immediately starts nagging Bastian to get over his dead mom. Like any normal, stable child who has lost a parent, Bastian has taken to drawing unicorns with such fervor and regularity that his school called his dad to complain. And if it's one thing dads hate, it's nerdy coping methods, so of course Daddy Bux's response to this is to humiliate his kid a little.
He starts out with some pretty normal questions about Bastian's lack of interest in his old hobbies, and then finishes up with a catty dig about how strange it is that Bastion loves drawing horses, but is too scared to ride a real one. Someone get this guy a "World's Greatest Dad" mug, STAT. Bastion's relationship with his parents is an important part of the book (and sequel movie), but in The Neverending Story, Bastian's dead mother is never mentioned again, making this bleak scene seem like it was added just in case the previews made the movie look fun.
Before the story really gets going, Bastian's Kafkaesque existence is driven home by an encounter with a trio of bullies who seem to have devoted their lives to ruining his. When Bastian runs into his bullies on the way to school, they are just chilling on the street, like hoodlums do. They don't even bother making fun of the kid who is obsessed with drawing unicorns, no, instead they just immediately decide to rob him, shaking him down for any money he might have. Of course Bastian tries to escape, through a alley that looks like the place where all drug deals go bad, and his bullies force him to get in a dumpster. Classic.
The disconcerting part is that when Bastian pulls himself out of the dumpster (which was filled with hay for some reason?) some indeterminate time later, the bullies are still waiting for him. There is whole city to harass, but these three kids have instead decided to post up outside the alley, and make sure that their bullying sticks, and Bastian stays in that damn dumpster. Most people can't commit themselves to a project for more than fifteen minutes, but these kids made it their mission in life just to destroy Bastian's already-pretty-depressing existence. This may explain why Bastian's reaction is not to go to the police or a teacher, but to steal an expensive looking book from an independent bookseller and hide in the school attic all day like a lunatic shut-in.
Once Bastian starts reading The Neverending Story, alone, in an elementary school attic full of human bones, things seem like they might just begin to progress like a normal fantasy story. A world in peril. A dying princess. A chosen boy hero who must quest across the land to save Fantasia. The unforgettably strange production design, and Bastian's questionable mental state aside, it looks like things are going to be just fine. Then the horse dies. Start screaming, kids.
It's really not just that Artax the Horse dies, so much as how he dies and the way it's shown. First off, it's not like he just sprains his ankle and has to be sent to the glue factory, no, Artax dies because he is so very sad that he just decides to give up and perish. Jesus. And it's not like this is a quick way to go. Instead the scene just drags on and on, cutting to a wailing pre-teen Atreyu, and a horse that looks very seriously, actually afraid of drowning on that movie set in real-life. Don't close your eyes! Death is real and there is no amount of crying and screaming that will ever prevent our slowly guttering flames. See you in the sequel!