"The NeverEnding Story" would have been wise to call it quits after 1984's sterling film adaptation of the best-selling fantasy by Michael Ende. That film kept to the spirit, if not the letter, of Ende's celebration of literary imagination and was, surprisingly, rewarded with a $100 million box office, which, unfortunately, all but assured "The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter."
This clunky title is typical of "II" as a whole. Although Ende's central characters reappear, they do so in an uninspired story by Karin Howard, who's apparently seen "The Wizard of Oz" a few too many times.
Young Bastian Bux seems not to have learned much from his first journey to Fantasia, a world accessed through the pages of a magical book found in an antiquarian shop. Out of sync with schoolmates and his widowed father, Bastian once again turns to the book, from which he hears the pleas of the imprisoned Childlike Princess, who insists that Bastian alone can save the world of imagination.
Sure enough, he returns to Fantasia, teaming up again with Atreyu, the Boy Warrior, and Falkor, the flying Luck Dragon. Rock Biter, one of the marvels of the first film, makes a brief and sedentary appearance, along with the clumsy Rock Biter Junior. This last is indicative of the sequel's very young target audience, as is the choice of former child models Jonathan Brandis and Kenny Morrison as Bastian and Atreyu respectively. Both are unconvincing actors with pretty faces.
There are new foils: Nimbly, who looks like Big Bird's very distant cousin; the sorceress Xayide (played by another recent model, Clarissa Burt), whose nastiness is all Cruella De Vil and whose fashion sensibility is clearly derived from Patti LaBelle; clumsy mechanical giants who drill themselves out of the earth. Seems Xayide has dastardly plans for Fantasia involving the elimination of memory and imagination. Unfortunately, she already seems to have had an effect on the script, which is so simple-minded it feels like a long Hallmark card.
It's also hard to see where the filmmakers spent a reported $35 million: Unlike its predecessor, there are few effects in "II" worthy of being called special, and events unfold with uniform flatness. Silver City feels like Diet Oz, the sorceress's castle is more hinted at than realized and several new creatures are right out of late-night comedy sketches.
Part of the fault must lie with Australian director George Miller, who may be the wrong Australian George Miller for the job. This Miller did the delightful "Man From Snowy River," but what the film desperately needs is the Miller who did the manic "Mad Max" films. He at least might have breathed some life into this affair; instead, "Never Ending Story II" is as flat as the pages of its script.
Only a little better is the accompanying "Box-Office Bunny," the first new Bugs short in 26 years and one that teams him with his old pals Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. It marks the debut of comedian Jeff Bergman, who re-creates the vocal characterizations of the late Mel Blanc with appropriate reverence.
The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, at area theaters, is rated G.