However, critics complain that although the creatures created are fascinating as will be discussed later, the merging of special effects with the film itself is far from seamless. "Alas much of the effects work is considerably underset by thick matte lines - uncharacteristically poor work from Brian Johnson" (Scheib). Those thick matte lines are very visible at times during the film, particularly during the flying sequences when Flagor flies the young warrior on his journeys to save the besieged Fantasia.
This could be seen as a valid criticism of the special effects. However, it could also be seen as a way for the special effects team to underscore the intention of the film. The intention is to create a world drawn out of people's imaginations. The imagination is a place of dreams, not perfection. It is a place of vivid images and creation, but not necessarily ones that are so firmly cemented that it cannot be changed. The thick lines do not detract from the overall images of the film if viewed from the perspective that the images are constantly being created and re-created by the imagination.
Many critics do not see the flaws in Petersen and Johnson's film. Instead, they point to the refreshing use of special effects for the time period. As Robert Ebert points out in his book, other movies with special effects of the time were simply rip offs of Star Wars. Specifically he names movies such as The Last Starfighter as one that lacks originality in its effects (Ebert 511). What sets The Neverending Story off from other special effects-based films of its day is the use of various creatures and the background animation that is used to establish the imaginative world of Fantasia.
Many interesting characters are introduced to the audience as the young Bastian begins to read the special book. First, the audience meets a combination of characters inspired by Alice in Wonderland such as the little man who rides a snail and the character who flies on the wings of a bat (Ebert 511). These characters are interrupted during their rest by one of the more interesting creations for the film - a giant moving rock formation who eats rocks and rides a massive stone age tricycle. This unique and friendly creature soon captures the audience's hearts and sympathy in both this early scene and one near the end of the film when it regrets its inability to help the other creatures. Endowing such creatures with human emotions and attitudes helps make them more lifelike and understandable to the audience.
It is the three-dimensional existence of these creations that gives them the depth that the audience expects from the human characters (Ebert 511). Johnson continues creating this depth in the creatures such as the Ancient One who takes on the shape of a giant turtle. Although she is not very helpful to Atreyu when he seeks answers from her, she is given very human qualities that make her appealing. First, her eyes are soft and shining as she looks at Atreyu. Her age and loneliness are suggested through her appearance and also through her other attributes as the audience sees her talk to herself. Her sneezing creates moments of humor plus again ties her to human characteristics. The Ancient One and the rock formation creature move their cumbersome bodies in predictably human ways and their facial expressions are what the audience would expect from human characters.
No creature conveys a sense of warmth and friendliness greater than the luck dragon named Falgor. In appearance, Falgor looks like a classic muppet-like creation. He seems to be a blend of puppy dog and dragon with his mix of soft fur and scales. After saving Atreyu from the Swamp of Sadness, the audience sees Falgor's full body as it is enfolding and comforting Atreyu.
Falgor conveys protection and love for Atreyu throughout the rest of the film. Perhaps, it is his eyes and facial expressions that best show how the audience is expected to perceive this dragon. His face is ever wise and comforting, but it is his eyes that linger in the imagination as something wise, ageless, and soft. Johnson gives Falgor the eyes of something or someone that is great. Just as much as Atreyu finds companionship and comfort in Falgor so does the audience as he is projected as a kind of guide for the young warrior. He reassures the characters and the audience of the presence of good in this created world with his convivial mannerism and positive attitude.
The three-dimensional and human-like characteristics of these created characters "helps reinforce the more conventional effects like animation, back projection, and so on" (Ebert 511). Like the creatures, the animation is a vital part of this movie. Ebert and Scheib agree that the animation creates a world that "looks like a very particular place" (Ebert 511). The audience is expected to connect to the imaginative world created here as part of their own imaginations. Johnson supplies the visual for us. In a sense giving the audience this specific animation delivers to us what is in our imaginations and projects it onto the common screen for all to indulge in. The specific images also detail for the audience what it is that the great battle is for. The world of Fantasia is both beautiful and surreal just as the imagination is. Plus, the animation helps to establish the different worlds of Fantasia that Bastian travels to as he reads the book.
The way that Johnson and the special effects team addressed the most powerful force in the movie is quite interesting. The Nothing that is sweeping across Fantasia is supposed to be simultaneously the symbol for the loss of imagination and for the great despair that results (Allon 420). The Nothing is suggested by darkness, thunderclouds, and, at the end of the film, cataclysmic wind that threatens to destroy all of Fantasia. Although this may seem like an easy way to portray such a powerful force from a special effects point-of-view, there are advantages to not tying the Nothing to a specific face or image. The audience is allowed to perceive the Nothing on their own terms. Generally, however, storms portend something terrible and nearly all audiences will understand the concept of a great storm sweeping over and destroying this imagined land. Storms or wind are also a standard choice for evil forces as seen in the classic The Wizard of Oz.
As previously mentioned, much of the special effects from the late 1970s and early 1980s derived from science fiction type movies with the original Star Wars leading the way. Although The Neverending Story is far removed from space, it does have similarities with other films made at the time, particularly with its use of muppet-like creatures. From Star Wars alone, Yoda and Jabba the Hut are examples of creatures that are meant to be unique as they interact with human characters, but they also retain basic human characteristics, both positive and negative, which allows the audience to understand them.
Furthermore, the creatures are made and filmed in similar ways.
A film of the time such as 1982's The Dark Crystal directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz is another example of a fantasy film in which good must battle evil. This film is similar in plot to The Neverending Story as the good forces, known as the Gelfings, must restore order to their planet by engaging in a great quest (henson.com) As could be expected from the directors, all of the characters are muppets that were uniquely created for this film. The Gelfings look like a type of pixie-human combination yet, they are clearly not human in their expressions. The use of puppetry is amazing; this is no surprise with Henson and Oz at the helm. However, without the presence of any human characters and without the charisma of Falgor, the creatures in The Dark Crystal lack the substance to connect with the human audience.
Another film from 1984 that blends the human with the fake is Joe Dante's Gremlins. The creatures when first introduced to the audience are a bizarre, but highly likeable blend of "a Pekingese, Yoda from Empire, the Ewoks from Jedi, and kittens" (Ebert 291). Like Falgor they are created to be enduring to the audience and their human counterparts. However, in the presence of their triggers, they become monstrous and despicable creatures. Yet, it is the establishment of the Gremlins as something desirable through the use of three-dimensional puppetry that captures the hearts of the audience and heightens the impact when the creatures turn evil.
An early Tom Cruise fantasy movie from 1985, Legend, directed by Ridley Scott attempts to blend the use of special effects with human characters to create a fantasy world that is again the setting for good vs. evil. Although the special effects have been described as "cheesy" and the plot "goofy" (Null), the film…