Bastian Balthazar (English dialogue)
The Neverending Story” lives up to its title in the worst way possible with this third outing, a charmless, desperate reworking of the franchise that might just as well be subtitled “Bastian Goes to High School.” Clearly aimed at a generation of moppets with one finger on the fast-forward button, this lame effort throws over the magical charm of the 1984 original and darker fantasy of the 1990 sequel for a semi-hip yarn patched together by a marketing committee.
Pic, which has no U.S. distributor, has taken in a middling $ 5 million in Germany since its late October release, and looks set to garner reasonable biz on ancillary worldwide. Theatrically, however, this every-which-way mishmash looks unlikely to scale the major peaks of its two predecessors, which have grossed a combined $ 150 million-plus worldwide to date.
Central character, Bastian (Jason James Richter, from “Free Willy”), is now on the edge of puberty and moved home with his father. Dad’s new wife, Jane (Tracey Ellis), is an eager-to-please, happy homemaker with a sharp-tongued pubescent daughter, Nicole (Melody Kay), who reckons her fresh-faced stepbrother is just “weird.”
At school, Bastian is bullied by a bunch of senior punks called the Nasties. Bastian takes refuge in the school library, coincidentally run by Mr. Coreander (Freddie Jones, taking over Thomas Hill’s role in the first two pix), the antiquarian bookseller who first intro’d the kid to the wonders of the “Neverending Story” tome, which automatically writes the dreams of whoever is reading it.
Turning its pages, Bastian wishes himself back into the dream world of Fantasia, courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But when the Nasties get a hold of the tome and start filling it with their own warped imagination, Fantasia starts to crumble. Bastian locates Fantasia’s child empress (now blossomed into the shapely Julie Cox), who begs him to get the book back from the bad guys.
First he has to track down a variety of Fantasians who accidentally beamed back to the real world with him and are wandering round the U.S. in total confusion.
The magic of the original pic is in its gossamer-light creation of a dream world entirely constructed from the imagination of a lonely, motherless kid living in Washington state. Though considerably darker in tone, and kitted out with a “Star Wars”-type score, the sequel maintained the fiction while directly involving the growing kid in the adventures.
This latest installment tries to have it all ways, thoroughly Americanizing the modern setting (of minor importance in the previous pix), stirring in a heap of hip, high school dialogue, and relegating the Fantasia sequences to little more than a collection of cuddly toys.
Originality is in short supply. The Fantasian walking tree, Bark Troll, is an arboreal version of “Oz’s” Tin Man and the rock-chewers, whose appeal fades fast , behave like lapidary clones of Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
Helmer Peter Macdonald (“Rambo III”) does a pro job, and effects (supervised by Brit veteran Derek Meddings) are generally good.
On the performance side, 14-year-old Richter is OK in a largely reactive role , Ellis is mostly restricted to double-takes as his mom, and Jack Black is good as a high school heavy straight out of an ’80s John Hughes pic. Stealing most of the best lines as a snooty mall-princess is Kay, also 14.
Other tech credits are up to scratch, though Peter Wolf’s music fails to impart any consistent atmosphere.