I’m a child of the ’80s. I grew up watching all the kid-centric fantasy films of that era. To be fair, I watched all the action and fantasy films from that time, regardless of rating or main characters. Conan the Barbarian, Goonies, Willow, and Labyrinth were staples in my home. I spent countless hours watching these classics, but my favorite by far was always Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. Melding the wonder of an epic fantasy with Jim Henson’s perfect creations and the wish fulfillment of every kid everywhere, this nearly flawless film stands the test of time because it is everything we wish the world was.
Heroes are flawed but virtuous and brave. Villains are clearly defined and always eventually defeated, and the world can and is saved by a sweet kid and an adorable giant muppet dragon. Before all the high-fiving can commence, though, is a slog through some of the most emotional, heavy subject matter to grace a kid’s movie.
Fantasia is being devoured by The Nothing, a terrible force that destroys the once-glorious place and leaves nothing but a void in its place. The ruler, a child Empress, is dying, and only a young hero, preteen cutie Atreyu, can save her. He and his glorious white horse, Artax, are tasked with finding a cure before it is too late. Simultaneously, Bastian, another young boy living in the real world, is grieving the death of his mother with very little help from his father and is being relentlessly bullied. He finds a book and begins reading Atreyu, Artax, and Fantasia’s story. Little by little, he begins to realize he isn’t just reading the story. He has become an integral part and may be the only way to save the once magical space from The Nothing.
Depression and grief in The Neverending Story
Perhaps the single most devastating death scene in any movie ever, Atreyu’s beloved horse Artax slowly gives up and drowns in the Swamps of Sadness. I sobbed as a child watching this scene. It didn’t matter how many times I watched the movie; I couldn’t remain stoic. I knew what was coming, yet I cried and begged like Atreyu did. These two had been through so much together, and Atreyu, despite being so courageous, was just a child. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Heroes should always win, and everyone knows animals are sacred.
It’s such a devastating scene because it represents the loss of hope and shows in a very real way that kids could be depressed. Atreyu loses his best friend and only companion on this seemingly impossible journey. It almost overwhelms him, but he finds the strength to continue alone. As tough as it is, the scene is necessary in Atreyu’s journey. Diamonds are made under pressure, and steel is forged in fire. Atreyu had to endure that tragedy to become the hero he needed to be. We, as witnesses, needed to go through the emotional journey with him for the payoff to be so great.
Bastian Bux, who is reading the story that runs parallel to his own hero’s journey, also knows loss. His mother died at some point before the movie’s events, and the sweet boy is lonely, sad, and constantly bullied. Atreyu’s loss is just as profound for him and allows the viewer to see it as the symbol of grief and depression that it is. Falkor rescues Atreyu just before he sinks into the swamp, just as he rescues Bastian from the bullies at the end of the film. Falkor is an adorable Luck Dragon that I guarantee everyone wanted with his white iridescent Golden Doodle head and wise words.
When Atreyu lost his horse, it bonded him with Bastian, who could relate. The boys’ shared grief is a turning point in the film. It is when Bastian and Atreyu first communicate, however briefly, and it is when the idea that friends and happiness can exist after death if you can find the courage to go on. That devastating scene was cathartic for the boys and for the viewer who could substitute any loss in Artax’s place. It wasn’t uncommon for cartoon characters to lose their parents. Dumbo and Bambi got the axe from Disney early in the story, but seeing live-action children displaying and struggling with profound grief was a rarity. The Nothing itself is a stand-in for depression, which takes and takes until nothing is left.
When you really dissect The Neverending Story, it is pretty grim. The world is overrun by sad, angry people with no imagination or hope. This leads the fantastical world of Fantasia that is fed on the real world’s children’s imagination to be erased. It is literally being consumed by a symptom of depression. The Nothing is a relentless, clawing, ruinous thing that can’t be outrun or fought. It just is. When was the last time a kid’s movie dealt with something so grown-up and raw?
The Rockbiter has survivor’s guilt in another deceptively powerful scene. Morla, the giant ancient turtle he was tasked with finding, says enigmatic, nihilistic things about the inevitability of death and not caring about anything. It is grim stuff. As harsh as it seems, though, it is empowering for children to allow them to see and feel things that are natural. As terrible as it is, kids get sad, they can be depressed, and they can know deep loss. The entire quest is about finding your inner strength to overcome insecurities, frailties, and fears.
What does The Nothing represent?
The Nothing is Bastian’s grief. He is so terrified by it that he is letting it consume him. Without his father’s guidance, he has no one to help him navigate his pain. Instead of offering comfort and allowing Bastian to grieve, his father ridicules him for getting lost in his imagination. The Nothing is what is left after a deep loss. The numbness can consume us, leaving inky, unavoidable emptiness in its wake.
Falkor, The Luck Dragon
Falkor is hope. He is a better outcome: a favorable fate, destiny, and resolution. One of the true beacons of light of The Neverending Story is the embodiment of lightheartedness and optimism. His purpose is to bring good luck. Falkor doesn’t bring a Monkey Paw transactional good fortune, either. He brings bonafide help to those who need it. As Atreyu began to sink into the Swamps of Sadness, succumbing to the same pain that Artax felt, Falkor found him and rescued him from himself. There is not a child anywhere who didn’t want one of the fantastic flying dog dragons. Falkor is not the only Luck Dragon in Fantasia. Five are mentioned, even if they aren’t ever seen. They are a very rare creature; however, now that Bastian can make anything he imagined exist, he could repopulate Fantasia with as many as we wished.
Falkor stands in opposition to the bleakness of The Nothing. He is critical to Atreyu getting to the Childlike Empress and helping Atreyu find his inner strength. Like a treasured pet, confidant, therapist, friend, or family member, he is the thing that can help someone in pain find a way out of the darkness. Falkor, in the novel by Michael Ende, isn’t as cute as he is in the film. Ende’s version is more reptilian, has slimy scales, and occasionally appears more lionlike than doglike. Henson’s creation in The Neverending Story breathes soft, sweet puppiness to the gregarious and intelligent companion.
Without the comic relief and lighthearted positivity of Falkor, both the fictional characters of Atreyu and Bastian would not be able to complete their tasks, and the reader and viewer would not be able to sustain the story. It is a somber story where children face incomprehensible trauma, and life isn’t fair. He is redemption, hope, and life after tragedy. The fact that he is adorable and looks like the best family pet in the world makes that even more apparent.
Love live Bastian, Atreyu, Artax, and most importantly, Falkor, without whom we would always crap out, never pick a winner, and never be able to process our pain. The Neverending Story can be found to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Disney+, and VUDU.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.