Neverending Story, The (UK - BD)
Chris takes a look at the classic fantasy movie from the eighties on Blu-ray Disc
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"Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, 'The Neverending Story'." - Lionel Hutz, attorney-at-law.
Bastian (Barret Oliver) is an intelligent young boy who often finds himself accosted by bullies on his way to school. One day, while seeking refuge from the bullies in an old book store, he encounters a grumpy old man by the name of Mr. Koreander (Thomas Hill). When Bastian asks about a particularly strange looking book with mysterious symbol on the cover Mr. Koreander warns him that it is unsafe, so Bastian 'borrows' the book without Koreander's knowledge and races to school. When he discovers that he's late for a test Bastien hides in the school's attic and begins reading the book, which is entitled 'The Neverending Story'.
The book describes the magical world of Fantasia, which is being threatened by an evil force called the Nothing, an endless dark void that consumes everything it encounters. The creatures of Fantasia turn to their Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) for help, but the presence of the Nothing has caused her to become gravely ill. In her absence it falls to a young warrior from the Plains People, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), to put an end to the Nothing. Armed with a magical medallion called the Auryn that acts as a guide, Atreyu sets off on a quest to find a human child with his horse, Artax, pursued by the Nothing's sinister wolf-like agent, Gmork (Alan Oppenheimer). As Atreyu's adventures continue, Bastien comes to realise that there may be more to the book than he first thought. Could it be that he is the human child Atreyu is seeking?
There are certain films that made an indelible impression on me in my childhood. You know the type; the ones that everyone at school anxiously awaited and talked about endlessly. Back in the pre-Internet days we got most of our information from comics and televised making-ofs (which were way more substantial than the ones we have today), and films' success or failure relied more on positive word-of-mouth than flashy ad campaigns. I don't remember the events surrounding my first viewing of The Neverending Story as clearly as I do those of films such as Superman II, Ghostbusters, or TRON, but I do remember being very fond of the movie. Maybe it's because it dealt with issues that bullying and feelings of isolation, which are things that most children have to deal with at one time or another, or perhaps it was the fantastical creatures capturing my youthful imagination (Falcor the Luck Dragon was a particular favourite). Whatever the reason, it was a real favourite and something I was glad to have the opportunity to watch in high-definition many years after my last viewing.
Warner delivers yet another competent 1080/24p VC-1 encoded transfer at the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, although it's not without its controversies. In the time between the release of this Blu-ray Disc and actually getting my hands on a copy I have read various reviews and numerous forum posts on the quality of the transfer. Many of these posts compare the disc to the Dutch Blu-ray, which has been available for some time. The thing that really seems to have the videophiles up in arms is the perceived alteration of the film's colour timing and contrast. From what I've been able to learn by comparing static screen captures Warner has chosen to alter the colour timing in a number of key scenes, pushing the palette towards the warmer end of the spectrum with lots of golds, oranges and browns. It’s also true that they also appear to have boosted the contrast a bit, resulting in black crush and a gloomier overall appearance.
Now the problem with doing something like the aforementioned tweaking without involvement from the director or DP is that a lot of rabid people on various A/V forums will cry foul. However, having actually watched the BD I can see why the alterations were made, or at least what the intention was. The colour timing is only wildly different in a few scenes, which all appear to take place either at dawn or dusk, or in the presence of low ambient light. A prime example of this is the first visit to the Ivory Tower, where everything is bathed in a warm glow that dramatically alters the look of the picture when compared to the old DVD. However, it’s worth noting that there’s an eerie light emanating from a chamber in front of the assembled characters, which is probably what Warner were trying to represent with the change. The same goes for a shot of several characters gathered around a campfire and Bastian reading the book by candlelight. Elsewhere the palette is closer to the DVD release, but both the DVD and Warner’s effort appear to have different colour timing to the Dutch Blu-ray, so which is right? To be perfectly honest, if you have never seen the film before or you’re not a die-hard fan you probably won’t see anything wrong with the palette, but just be warned that it does look different to previous versions.
More problematic than the colour changes is the contrast boosting, which definitely results in crushed blacks and blooming whites in a number of scenes. Again I can see what they were going for, but I think Warner went a little too far in this area. Other releases have suffered contrast issues, but this isn’t the best way to go about solving them and I would have favoured a more balanced approach. Other than that those criticisms there’s actually much to like about this release. Grain-haters might be in for a rough ride, because there's plenty on show, but it's entirely consistent with the look of many eighties features and I never found it distracting. Detail is a considerable step up from the DVD release and a few very minor specks aside there are no particularly heinous film or digital artefacts to report. This would appear to be a plus point for the Warner disc, as the Dutch BD is reportedly littered with dirt and scratches, has issues with banding, and the screen caps I’ve seen indicate that it is slightly less detailed.
While this Warner Blu-ray clearly offers some major advantages over the other releases, I can understand why some people would be put off by the issues I’ve mentioned. To be perfectly honest I think we’re still waiting for a definitive release of the film, so there’s always going to be some degree of compromise and buyers will have to decide which ‘flaw’ is the lesser of two evils. Me, well I’m pretty happy with Warner’s effort, caveats about colour and contrast notwithstanding. It's certainly the best looking version of the film I've personally seen.
Okay, I promise that this section won’t be quite as long-winded as the last! For this new Blu-ray release Warner has furnished The Neverending Story with a lossless audio upgrade in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This is apparently the first time that the film has included a 5.1 track (at least in the UK), which is all well and good, but the film's original two-channel stereo track is not included. This is a bit of an oversight and something that’s sure to annoy the hard-core audio purists.
As for the track itself, can anyone say ‘overcooked bass in the opening credits’? Well I certainly can, at least now. The opening Limahl track packs way too much bass for my liking, and it’s not even quality LFE. It actually sounded out of sync with the song to my ears, which was very odd indeed. The title track is also very harsh and tinny, and to be frank I was actually quite worried for the first few minutes. Thankfully the track settled down after the credits, becoming far more balanced and restrained. Although it’s been remixed into 5.1 there’s very little (if any) truly discrete action, but all five channels are employed to bring a reasonable level of ambiance to the proceedings. Rockbiter's arrival sparks the rears into life early-on, and while there’s never any danger of mistaking it for a modern soundtrack I was happy enough with the occasional mirroring of the frontal array in the rear channels, even if a ‘proper’ 5.1 remix would have been preferable.
Although overpowering early on, the bass is presented at more sensible levels throughout the rest of the film and actually adds quite a lot of weight to certain scenes. Again Rockbiter is a prime example, with his arrival eliciting plenty of ‘oomph’ from the sub in the form of his giant stone cycle and earth-trembling footsteps. Even his casual munching on limestone gives the sub a decent workout! The Nothing is also given more substance through the use of the LFE channel, especially later in the film when it is literally ripping Fantasia to pieces. Dialogue is generally a tad quieter than most films and has a definite 'eighties' quality to it. By this I mean that it's not quite as crisp as contemporary films, but it does have a ‘fuzzy’ warmth that modern features sometimes lack. The score has quite a large presence in the mix, occupying both the front and the rear of the soundstage equally, and it brought memories of my childhood flooding back. A first-time observation was that parts of it reminded me of the The Goonies score—it’s odd how you sometimes notice these things after many years. While it’s certainly not the most impressive remix of a classic eighties film that I’ve heard, The Neverending Story’s DTS-HD track does a fairly decent job of immersing the viewer in the magical world of Fantasia.
Well this isn't going to take long. As with many of their catalogue titles, Warner has opted not to include any bonus material for this release of The Neverending Story. Granted none of the other Blu-ray releases (including the Dutch disc) have any extras, but the various DVD sets have featured a modest collection of bonus material over the years. Would it have been too much trouble to include these?
For my money The Neverending Story hasn't aged as well as some of my other childhood favourites ( Labyrinth, TRON, E.T., Krull), but it's still an enjoyable ride that should both delight and scare younger audiences in equal measure. This Blu-ray release represents a marked improvement over the DVD releases both aurally and visually, although as previously mentioned the lack of the original stereo track is regrettable. There will also be those who find the alterations to the film’s visuals entirely unacceptable, even if ultimately there’s just as much to enjoy as there is to revile. The Blu-ray is definitely a worthy purchase for parents looking to introduce their children to the films that sparked their own childhood imaginations, or even for the young-at-heart looking to take a solo trip down memory lane.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
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Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 22nd March 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 French, Dolby Digital 1.0 Portuguese
Subtitles: English, Danish, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Alan Oppenheimer, Tami Stronach
Length: 94 minutes
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