Directed by: Jim Henson.
Music by: Trevor Jones.
Starring: Jennifer Connolly, David Bowie, Brian Henson, Frank Oz.

Originality carries great risk, and the 1980s were a perfect display of what that entails. For every New Line Cinema there is a Carolco, and for every Neverending Story there is a Labyrinth.

Jim Henson, in conjunction with the great fantasy Illustrator Brian Froud, screenwriter Terry Jones (around Time Bandits) and David Bowie sounds like a creative tour-de-force that was un-paralleled elsewhere at the time. To be fair, it was – Labyrinth was completely like anything else that has existed before or since. You can certainly see it’s fingerprint in the more fantastical moments of Guillmero Del Toro or Christophe Gans.

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It was a spiritual sequel in many ways to the stupendous and decent box office success of The Dark Crystal in 1982. Many of the same core team returned, and you can understand the studio giving them carte blanche to do as they wished – Henson’s pedigree was and is well-respected (to this day, Muppet movies and series are created, as are Archaia’s run of fantastic Graphic Novels based around his creations).

Despite being a sumptuous work, it was a flop. It is difficult to nail down the precise reason why, but the themes are strong and presented in a stark manner at times. Like its obvious influence ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it is about difficult awakenings – responsibility, emotional maturation and even some sexual longing. Compared to the simple good-vs-evil journey of ‘the Dark Crystal’, it may have been too dark and posed too many awkward questions of a young audience (or their worried parents) to find much purchase in the heady time it was released.

Today, ‘Labyrinth’ retains a powerful following, most obviously illustrated by the rabid response to recent news of a mini-series based on it, and the solid sales of Brian Froud’s illustrated books about his goblins and fairies (which feature heavily in this film’s production design).

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Here is a brief plot overview, but if you wish to be unspoiled please skip past the italics:

Sarah is 16 years old, and consumed by fantasies while rehearsing for fantastical play, while watched by an owl. She suddenly remembers that has to babysit her infant brother Toby, and rushes home.

Upon wishing the baby would disappear due to his persistent cries, Jareth, the Goblin King from her play takes Toby away, whisking them all away to his kingdom. Pleading with him for the baby’s return, she is promised that if she can reach the King’s castle in the middle of vast stone maze Toby can return with her to the real world.

Entering into the labyrinth, she soon befriends the dwarf Hoggle, who aids her through despite numerous wrong turns and the King’s warning – He must not help Sarah to reach the castle, or face the Bog of Eternal Stench.

Along with new friends, such as the fuzzy beast Ludo, Sarah makes her way toward the castle – unsure if she can resist Jareth’s tricks and temptations in time to rescue her brother.

 

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The whole film has a madcap pace and dizzying array of sets and puppets. Bowie is at the height of his screen-swallowing powers, delivering self-penned songs, such as ‘Magic Dance’ while gyrating among goblins and swinging around gravity-bending corners. He is a big part of the magic imprinted on ‘Labyrinth’, his almost inhuman crystal ball tricks and incredible look present the right degrees of otherworldliness, menace and temptation.

Jennifer Connolly fares less well by comparison, but shortcomings in acting ability are offset by her natural sweetness and warmth. In fact, it would be hard to think of a young actress in her time who would have filled the part and also dealt with the madness occupying almost every frame.

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Puppets were always sure to feature in a Henson production, and the sheer variety here might even raise the bar over ‘The Dark Crystal’. Every scene is guaranteed new characters and situations, from trap-filled tunnels with a cockney worm, to discouraging faces in the walls, to faces created from grey rocky hands and giant goblin robots. I truly believe that it would cost into the many hundreds of millions of dollars to produce today, such is the rarity of the skills and technical knowledge in this area now.

Such a frantic pace was a step up from their previous film’s more sprawling feel, echoing Sarah’s panic and rat-run journey through a pressured environment. Vague allusions to longing are made, and thought it is a powerful motif, it was natural if awkward ground then – and it has only gotten a little more challenging as time has gone on, though now for the connotations of an older being trying to seduce a young girl bring.

Strangely, such things don’t dent the power of this film, surprising that it yields more subtle and pervasive horror as the original audience ages. Parents might feel those pangs as a toddler is put in terrible danger, and a young girl is manipulated/confused should harken back to memories of a messy adolescence.

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Now, that’s not to say its flaws are hidden away behind a haze of nostalgia, upsetting though it may be for long-time fans to hear. Bowie’s songs, though great in themselves, are very rooted in the style of electronica-flavoured pop from that time period. While that works for the slower, ethereal numbers that do add to dream-like scenes, the more upbeat tracks like ‘Magic Dance’ don’t gel all that well with the dark fantasy setting. It comes over as if Bowie was in the middle of a coke and mescaline binge while making a music video and, the production went down as a Spinal Tap-esque comedy of escalating oddity.

Also of note is the creaking execution in later battle scenes. Despite the joyful abandon of puppets at war, Henson with his team couldn’t quite do enough to stop us being pulled out of the immersion here. Even being a kid you could see that obvious stage in front of a matte painting backdrop, with some larger puppets such as the ‘goblin mech’ slightly buckling under the sheer size of their own production, as the obvious man inside struggles to move cleanly.

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With ‘Labyrinth’, Henson truly reached the limit of what it was possible to do with visual and special effects of the time. That isn’t a glaring flaw, just a little window into the questing desire to push boundaries, and finally reaching a point where imagination outstrips the ability of physical constructs to do those freer thoughts complete justice.

In an age of CGI making limitless visual possibilities a daily occurrence, it is actually refreshing see such obvious love and sweat poured into frame, every hand-operated movement. If you haven’t seen it, but you are lover of film’s ability to transport you to utterly alien and richly detailed realms, ‘Labyrinth’ is an absolute must. For those returning to it, you may find a touchstone for your life that is, in the very best moments, even more affecting than you remember.

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