Maybe it is just because I'm a contrarian at heart, but I have never accepted the common claim that "sequels are never as good as the original." Whenever I hear that I want to argue about how Terminator 2 is so much more fully realized than The Terminator, or about how Evil Dead 2 has as many good scares as its predecessor but is also a lot funnier. And of course the Harry Potter franchise didn't get good until the third one...
But while I'm a contrarian I'm not an idiot - I fully recognize that a lot of follow-ups are garbage. For example, the second Neverending Story is the sort of half-assed rehash that gives sequels a bad name. It copies everything from the original Neverending Story from its characters to its plot to its themes - but then it executed all of those elements a lot less skillfully.
Lets start with the characters. Both movies are about a ten year old bookish boy named Bastian, but the first movie gives him a much more compelling character arc. Bastian's problem in part one is that he's being harassed by some bullies and he needs to learn how to stand up for himself. He ends up immersing himself in an epic adventure set in the land of Fantasia, and every time a new threat is conquered in this fantasy land he gets closer to discovering his inner warrior on Earth. Sure, the whole "timid kid learns to be brave" storyline is slightly overused, but it has been used so much for a reason - every child needs to learn how to deal with aggressive jerks.
The second movie also makes Bastian face his fears, but this time around he isn't dealing with bullies, he is dealing with a gym coach wants to make him jump off the high dive into the school's pool even though he is clearly afraid of heights. Uhh.... WTF?
First of all, why is Bastian a coward again? He became a bad ass at the end of the first one, remember? Secondly, Bastian shouldn't have to conquer his fear of diving - he should be able to turn to his asshole coach and say "who cares if I can't do a half gainer from that height? When I'm an adult it will be very easy for me to avoid going into public pools" and his coach should be legally required to say "ok, just goof around in the shallow end for half an hour." But even if we accept the idea that Bastian needs to rediscover his boldness, it seems like overkill to assume that the best way to teach him how to be brave enough to jump fifteen feet is by sending him on an epic fantasy adventure where he has to fight giant robots, dragons and witches.
Speaking of witches, I have a real bone to pick with the way that part two portrays Xayide, the red-clad conjurer who is hell bent on corrupting young Bastian. The main villain in the first Neverending Story was a talking wolf named Gmork, and he was a pretty good villain as far as these things go. He loved to stalk the heroes from the darkness, and every time I saw his bright green eyes popping up in the corner of the screen a chill would go up my spine - Gmork's presence tapped into the lizard part of my brain that is always worried that fanged beasts might be lurking just past the edge of darkness. But Xayide doesn't tap into primal fears in that same way. No, she taps into misogynistic stereotypes that are more frustrating than frightening.
Xayide's main goal is to erase all of existence - apparently she "likes order" and she thinks that voids are the ultimate in orderliness. That is a pretty insane bit of backstory but I won't quibble with it; I am all perfectly willing to accept that an all powerful sorcerer was just born crazy and evil. I will, however, quibble with how she goes about being trying to negate all of life.
You see, before Xayide can erase all of Fantasia she has to corrupt Bastian by getting into his head and making him forget everyone he's ever known. Thus her character taps into both your traditional fairy-tale misogyny about how powerful women are always evil and also into more generalized misogyny about how women always want to manipulate men. (I would say that it taps into myths about how women want to cut their husbands off from the outside world so they can mold them into pliable servants... But Xayide is probably thirty while Bastian is ten, so I don't want to make this too sexual. But I will say this: if you do look at their relationship from a romantic perspective it gets very creepy very quickly.)
Again, to reiterate: I would be fine with the Xayide character if she merely wanted to destroy the world. I have learned to live with the fact that in every epic fantasy some malevolent person will pose an unthinkably vast threat to all of existence for reasons that barely make any sense. However, making it so that Xayide could only feel joy when she was controlling all of the men around her - well, that is taking it a step too far, especially since the only other female in the entire movie is a personality-free Princess who is merely waiting for Bastian to come and save her.
The most galling difference between the two movies, however, is their approach to symbolism. The underlying threat to all of Fantasia in the first movie is an encroaching Nothing which is trying to erase all of the ideas that mankind has ever dreamed up. There is something existentially frightening about the idea of the Nothing - the visual of an all encompassing blackness slowly encroaching on the world as we know it speaks to some of mankind's deepest rooted fears. Furthermore, the Neverending Story uses the Nothing to great poetic effect, because the movie's ultimate goal is explain why it is good that humanity has a primal need to create art - it wants to spin that nihilistic imagery into a positive argument for creativity.
The second Neverending Story doesn't re-use the Nothing - instead it has the Emptiness, which is basically a more disappointing version of the Nothing. The Emptiness is underwhelming for three reasons. One, it feels like a lazy storytelling choice - like the scriptwriters just used a thesaurus to cover up the fact that they were out of good ideas. Two, the Emptiness is almost impossible to illustrate in a visual medium - showing us a few shots of soil that have supposedly been drained of all nutrients is not as powerful as showing us a rolling void of pure blackness. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Emptiness' ultimate payoff isn't particularly poignant. Yes, it is important to teach kids that art should be meaningful - but the argument that "art should not be hollow" is a lot less primally engaging than the argument that "art should exist."
The Neverending Story 2 doesn't live up to the original's legacy, but I don't think that was for lack of trying. Director George Miller clearly tried to walk a fine line between reusing some of part one's ideas (and thus demonstrating that he understood why the original worked) and between creating new ideas (and thus making it feel like a stand-alone endeavor and not a creatively bankrupt cash-grab.) Unfortunately, this film fails on both counts - the characters and themes that reoccur here feel like washed out photocopies and none of the new additions make good impressions.
But you know, while this movie failed pretty hard, it did not fail hard enough to turn me into anti-sequel cynic. After all, the Fast and Furious started strong and then stumbled before regaining their mojo with Fast Five... Maybe this franchise just needs a few more sequels before it really finds its feet. You've got to admit that a movie where the Rock teams up with a young boy who is too cowardly to get his blood drawn at the doctor's office to help defeat The Vacuum could be pretty awesome....
Winner: The Cat