At the climax of The Neverending Story (1984), as the walls of her Ivory Tower are devoured by a malevolent force called The Nothing, the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) tries to assure the hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) that he hasn’t failed at saving Fantasia, as he believes. Instead he has unknowingly brought the earthling child Bastian (Barret Oliver) with him, and that by following Atreyu’s journey and intense personal losses through the book he’s reading, Bastian has not only become part of the neverending story himself, but is the one who must give the Empress her new name and ultimately save Fantasia. She goes on to explain that just as Bastian observed Atreyu’s journey through the book, so we the viewer who “were with him when he hid from the boys in the bookstore”, watched his. The emphasis on with demonstrates the bond between the child characters and the viewers. It's pretty meta for a kid’s film, proving The Neverending Story is much more than a bog-standard children’s quest fantasy, perhaps because it was based on a novel and explored complex themes of grief, loss and childhood trauma; adult cynicism and apathy; the power of imagination; faith in the competence of children; the cyclical nature of life and loss, and the innate power of names.
The film did well at the box office, grossing US$100 million worldwide against a production budget of approximately US$27 million, proving audiences were captivated, whether falling in love with at least one character, (try Googling Atreyu first crush) or having their hearts shattered by another. The Neverending Story is perhaps most famous among fans for the extremely traumatic scene where Artax, Atreyu’s beloved horse, gives in to the swamp of sadness and slowly drowns. The scene is so devastating that it has spawned listicles and memes like this and this, and even its own merch. It was even the first thing that sprang to mind for actress Maya Hawke from Stranger things, saying, “The NeverEnding Story is one of my favorite movies of all time, I mean, that scene when the horse Artax sinks into the Swamp of Sadness? I could cry just thinking about it right now.”
Talking about the inclusion of the film’s theme song in the finale of Stranger Things season three, when characters Dustin and Suzie sing the ballad by Limahl over two-way radios at a pivotal moment, Maya continued, “The hopefulness of that song and that movie at large was a perfect way to end Stranger Things season three, because it was this collision of all this drama, fear, and scariness on the outside, but all these really human moments and these relationships existing and blooming in the context of all this madness." Stranger Things has introduced a whole new generation to the film, helped by the series’ star Millie Bobby Brown posting a video of herself dancing to the song on Instagram and birthing the Neverending Challenge, with responses from celebrities like Steven Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, and even a video by the Childlike Empress herself, Tami Stronach. Hawke’s comment on the juxtaposition of darkness and beauty in Stranger Things also seems a fitting assessment of why The Neverending Story has proven so popular for almost 40 years – it reminds its audience that despite the heartbreak and devastation of certain moments, hope and imagination can get us through even the darkest of times.
– Candice D’Arcy