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!
After Atreyu loses Falkor he wanders through the broken remnants of Fantasia without purpose, and ends up coming across the man-mountain known as The Rock Biter. Buuuuuuuuut unlike the jovial stone man from earlier in the movie, The Rock Biter has become a real downer. Before, The Rock Biter's biggest worry was that his snacks were not as tasty as they used to be (losing interest in things you once enjoyed is a classic symptom of depression and the passing of The Nothing). But by the time Atreyu catches up with him, Ol' RB sounds like that one Bukowski-lite philosophy major friend of yours who always asks you to punch him when he gets drunk.
The Rock Biter is literally just sitting on the beach staring at his hands, lamenting that they were not strong enough to save his friends from The Nothing. "Such strong hands..." he keeps intoning, while his giant rock tricycle sits next to him, like the memory of a childhood lost. Maybe in another movie, Atreyu would have given him a rousing speech about determination and never giving up hope, but The Neverending Story don't play that. Instead The Rock Biter just straight up admits that he is going to sit there and wait to die, spending his final moments regretting the futility of his life. Why is this happening? In a movie for children!?
Where other fantasy movies could have pitted out heroes against an evil wizard, or an army of orcs, but The Neverending Story just really goes for it and throws the boys up against the eternal, and very real terror of non-existence. Pondering the questions of what happens when we die and the true nature of being, is generally left to insufferable college students, but the makers of The Neverending Story clearly thought the kids could take it. I'm not sure we could.
Calling it "The Nothing" makes the existential horrors of entropy and non-existence certainly seem much more like a fantasy beast to be vanquished. But in the end, all of Fantasia spends the entire movie running from the inevitability the void. It even tries to gussy it up as a bunch of beautiful, colorful clouds, but as just about every character in the movie points out, The Nothing is simply a wave of despair that drains life of all joy before rendering it meaningless by simply wiping it from reality. Never before has the concept of a genocidal warlock, or rampaging army seemed so pleasant. At least at the end of the day, they can be defeated. The Neverending Story made sure that a whole generation of children were ultra-aware that each day is just one closer to death. No wonder antidepressant use has been on the rise for decades.
In the end, to save all of Fantasia, Bastian simply has to give the Childlike Empress a new name, despite the fact that it seems like she never had one to begin with. As all of Fantasia succumbs to the unstoppable roll of entropy, Bastian, who has just had a deeply surreal and psychologically questionable quest through a dying world, just seems to shout out the first thing that comes to mind. Rushing to the attic window in a fit of dramatic (if nonsensical) fever, Bastian shouts the name out to the world:
Why giving the Childlike Empress a name could save Fantasia is not very clear, but why Bastian decides to name her something he must have read off the back of a bitchin' van is even more mysterious. C'mon, even by geek standards, Moonchild is a pretty embarrassing name. It's easy to think that maybe Bastian is just a lovable, but misunderstood nerd who would get along with his bullies if they'd give him the chance, but man, he has the opportunity to name his own demigod, and he totally biffs it. It's possible that this was his deceased mother's nickname back in the 70s or that it was more of a word salad situation like when someone has a stroke. But far more likely, Bastian is simply a deeply disturbed, deeply dorky young man.
In addition to the oppressive sadness that is the foundation of The Neverending Story, it is also incredibly meta. A couple of times during the nested narratives, Atreyu makes contact with Bastian, the child-god whose imagination is bringing Fantasia to unbelievably despairing life. But during the final moments of the film the Childlike Empress flatly explains to Atreyu that his whole life is just a story being read by boy in another dimension, and even more alarmingly, he is in turn simply the fiction of even greater watchers: us, the audience. It's turtles all the way down.
Of course Atreyu is rightly horrified by this revelation, and Bastian, who is also reading all of this, is equally confused, and the children, who are watching Bastian watch Atreyu, who have also just been referenced by the character within the story within the movie, are all dead from blown minds. This is also where it becomes clear that all of Fantasia may just be in Bastian's head, despite some earlier implications that it was a separate universe that he was accessing. Of course this means that all of the bleak destruction and scenes of dead horses are in Bastian's lonely, broken mind. Uh-oh.
So after all the sturm and drang of Fantasia's demise, giving the Childlike Empress a far out new name, ya dig, thereby returning Fantasia to all of its splendor, Bastian is granted infinite wishes. His first wish? REVENGE. He could have wished his mother back to life, or maybe for a nicer dad, or maybe to return that book he stole, but no. The first thing on Bastian's agenda? Bring a dragon into the real world and take vengeance of those who would put him in a dumpster. As the movie shows, Bastian gleefully runs down his bullies from the back of his new luck dragon, and as a grandfatherly voice-over lets us know, he goes to on have many more adventures.
But after staring down death and despair from Bastian's eyes for an hour and a half, it seems more likely that this ending is simply how Bastian saw things. Given that this whole adventure played out in Bastian's troubled mind, it's not likely that a dragon came roaring out of a book just to harass some kids. What's more likely is that from the outside Bastian hid in the school attic all night, slowly going out of his mind, only to emerge as some sort of totally cracked-out psychopath. The kids and even other bystanders looked reasonably shocked in those final images, but was it because they were witnessing the birth of a fantasy creature, or a serial killer? The Neverending Story is Rated PG for Please Godmakeitstop.