On Labryinth

Directed by Jim Henson (Follow That Bird, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Farscape), and executive-produced by George Lucas (Jurassic Park), Labyrinth in an adventure musical fantasy film featuring Jennifer Connelly (Dark CityThe Day the Earth Stood Still). According to The Atlantic article, “Labyrinth and the Dark Heart of Childhood“:

When Labyrinth was first released, critics were overwhelmingly negative, bordering on hostile. Variety called the 1986 film starring David Bowie “silly and flat,” while Gene Siskel said it was “quite awful.” Audiences at the time largely agreed: The movie grossed $12.7 million domestically—hardly half its budget—and Tri-Star Pictures pulled it from theaters after less than a month. Because Jim Henson was the director, many people, including reporters, had gone into the film expecting Muppets. Instead, they got something much darker.

The last feature film that Henson would direct, Labyrinth is about a teenage girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) whose baby brother is kidnapped by Bowie’s Goblin King, Jareth. Sarah has to rescue her brother from the goblins’ castle at the center of a curiously populated maze before midnight, or he’ll be turned into a goblin. (Or something—the plot meanders and at times disappears entirely, but the whole quest may simply be a ploy for the Goblin King to win Sarah’s love.) Why then has Labyrinth—101 minutes of Bowie rock opera and Hensonian spectacle—become so beloved that it’s now a mainstream cult favorite, and what keeps people watching 30 years on?

For all its flaws and superficial delights, Labyrinth reacquainted audiences with an old idea that Hollywood had long neglected: Childhood is a scary and dangerous place, an inherently strange time filled with dead-ends, wrong turns, lies, and traps. In other words: It’s not the Muppets.

Goblins’ eyes snap open in the audience’s first glimpse of them, a dimly lit shot crowded with teeth, white-rolling eyes, green flesh, and horns. It’s a strange moment, juxtaposed with Sarah in her baby brother’s bedroom, trying to get the screaming toddler to sleep. Then the wall-to-wall goblins come out of nowhere. Are they in Sarah’s head? the audience wonders. Have goblins always been there, waiting in the corners, holding their breath, or sleeping until we say the magic words?

To access art is to access darkness, and to dwell in childhood is to dwell in a place of death, the potential deepest darkness. For those who are parents, the shadow of death is always with us. When my son was born after 24 hours of labor, the midwives informed us that I had suffered a partial placental abruption. Had the placenta fully detached too soon, my baby likely would have suffered brain damage, and I could have bled to death. Consider the terror new parents are meant to feel abut SIDS, and the alarming and ever-changing information of how parents should do the most basic of tasks: put their baby to sleep.

It’s significant that Henson’s goblins arrive in Labyrinth exactly when Sarah is attempting to do just that: put the baby to bed. When she flicks off the light and the baby goes silent, she knows instantly, instinctively, that something is wrong. Jareth enters Sarah’s brother’s bedroom in a flurry of boots and cape, snowy owl wings bating, and French doors thrown open wide. He’s stolen her brother (didn’t Sarah ask him to take the baby, pleading and desperate, not realizing he was listening?), but if Sarah can find her brother in the labyrinth before 13 hours are up, she can have him back. Under a blood-red sky, Jareth shows Sarah his maze, goblin castle at the center. Her backyard has seemingly peeled away to reveal the goblin kingdom.

Jareth’s land, an eerie expanse of bullies, traps, and two-faced allies, is pretty much an exaggerated blueprint of childhood. In Labyrinth, as in childhood, everything is magnified and inexplicable. Things are kept from children in the interest of protecting them, but in the absence of knowing, kids supply their own answers, which are usually awful. Much of what I remember about my youth involves worrying: that there was a man staring at me from the air-conditioner vents above my bed, that a tornado would come in the night, that robbers would come in the night, that wolves would come in the night. Childhood is full of such demons. Or goblins.

With Labyrinth, Henson sought to illuminate an old notion: Childhood is notoriously dark in the traditional fairy tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid basically commits suicide and turns into sea foam. A rich man promises he will only remarry someone whose beauty rivals his dead wife, so he pursues his own daughter. A young girl’s husband turns daily into a hedgehog. (Henson would later mine some of this classic fairy-tale territory in his acclaimed but low-rated 1988 TV series The Storyteller, including the episodes “Sapsorrow” and “Hans, My Hedgehog”). Not only were these stories read to children, but they also feature children—getting eaten or starving to death, or being married off far too young to monsters.

This kind of heavy view of childhood had been distant in kids’ films from the 1970s, the era of The Bad News Bears and the Herbie series, The Shaggy DA, and Mountain Family Robinson. Children’s movies were largely saccharine and low stakes, a trend that continued in the early ’80s with movies like Popeye, Annie, and Heidi’s Song.

But childhood involves a kind of wonder that’s anything but simple. In Labyrinth, the stakes are high, but it’s hard to know who or what to trust. Most of the characters Sarah encounters in the maze are ambivalent and borderline passive-aggressive. The first creature she meets (a worm) accidentally sends her exactly the wrong way. Others won’t help her unless she solves a riddle or pays them. They offer advice that is confusing and unhelpful. Even the core group of characters who eventually become her traveling companions have mixed loyalties: There’s Sir Didymus, an oblivious fox knight, and the dwarf-like creature Hoggle who loves Sarah, yet misleads her and poisons her after Jareth bullies him into it.

The world is larger than life when you’re a child, odd and suspicious. Everything is new. There is this strange confusion of language, the rules at school, school itself. And just when you learn the rules, they change on you. Once you hit the teenage years, everything is turned upside down all over again, much like the changing staircases in one of the last scenes in Labyrinth (and in Harry Potter, which followed much later). It’s why adolescence lends itself so well to horror.

And as Labyrinth shows, there’s particular danger in being a teenage girl.Connelly’s Sarah is 16, and Jareth, we learn, doesn’t just want a new baby to be reborn as a goblin, which is disturbing enough. He wants Sarah. He wants her to love him, and his longing increases, becoming more and more creepily clear, as the movie progresses. There’s both a paternal appeal and stranger-danger in Jareth, a confusing and unnerving quality given Bowie’s alleged statutory rape of two young fans in the ’70s (reports that only intensified after the singer’s death earlier this year). Frankly, it makes Labyrinth difficult at times to rewatch as an adult.

Labyrinth is a world of men: Almost all the creatures Sarah encounters in the maze—with the exception of the Junk Lady, who tries to make Sarah remain a child forever by piling toys onto her back, and a faerie that Hoggle tries to kill—are male. Many women have half-joked that Labyrinth was their sexual awakening, and it troubled me even as a child that I too was attracted to Bowie’s Jareth. I was drawn to the danger in him. I felt the pull of the magical world he promised, a dream world of pretty ball gowns and parties and masks and music when Sarah, after eating a poisoned peach given to her by Hoggle, fantasizes that she’s carried away in a bubble to a rollicking, fancy, and very adult masquerade party. A masked man fights his way through the crowd to her. It’s Jareth, of course. He takes off his Venetian mask, their eyes lock, and they dance in a scene with parallels to sequences from Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.

Sarah throws a chair through a window, ending the masquerade. She and her companions make their way to the Goblin City at the center of the maze. There’s a climatic fight scene won with rocks. Jareth sings a largely inappropriate song called “Within You” while Sarah tries to track him and her baby brother down. She finally defeats the Goblin King, winning her brother back and returning to the real world, with a simple line, a line of the triumph of youth, a line thrown at Jareth like a Molotov cocktail: You have no power over me.

Perhaps Labyrinth was preparing its audience for the explosion of YA, the teen as self-possessed heroine inheriting the Earth, scorched though it may be. Sarah does the right thing, as the Katnisses and Bellas and Hermiones do the right thing: Though their audience screams at them to choose fantasy, choose adventure, choose yourself, they go back to family and home and responsibilities every time. Just as I never understood why Dorothy Gale left the wonderful world of Oz and returned to flat, hot Kansas, I didn’t understand why Sarah went back from the Goblin City, to be a babysitter, an ordinary teenager. And I don’t think I ever forgave her.

The late ’80s and early ’90s saw more films exploring the bleakest territory of childhood. There was the Henson-produced adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and the weird and morbid All Dogs Go to Heaven. Darkness even became a subgenre with certain kids’ films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and the creepy film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (button eyes, anyone?).

More grown-up themes became acceptable in films for kids, present even in the background of otherwise light-hearted narratives. There is mental disability and drowning in The Wizard, a young boy’s death in My Girl, child neglect and panic attacks in North. Even the slapstick comedy of Home Alone relied on the premise of a young child being accidentally abandoned (and then finding elaborate ways to torture would-be burglars). Some movies for children always had an edge to them—Savannah Smiles was an early favorite of mine, with its “happy” kidnapping of a young girl, and the 1980s also saw The Last Unicorn with its murderous red bull. But Labyrinth, more than any other film, seemed to greenlight the grotesque childhood.

Nowhere is this vision more present than in the works of the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. His first English-language film was for children: 1995’s A Little Princess. Cuarón’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book is lush, aching, and deeply lonely. The poverty and hunger here feels very real, and the antagonist Miss Minchin is a borderline sadist who delights in the misfortune of the film’s heroine, Sara Crewe. In one memorable scene, Sara places a white rose through a neighbor’s barred door, her only way to reach out.

Cuarón has alternated grownup films with kids’ fare, helming what many consider the best of the Potter films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—and was J.K. Rowling’s top choice for a director. Rowling writes in a lineage seemingly straight from Henson with her child characters in constant, magical peril, battling multi-headed dogs and basilisks, Death Eaters, and the soul-split, snake-faced Voldemort. While still very young, her characters learn of the worst that can happen; they experience it themselves. It’s fitting then, that Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels are the best-selling book series in history, won the inaugural Henson Award in 2005 for “reflect[ing] the core values and philosophy of Jim Henson and the company he founded.”

With Labyrinth, perhaps Henson was reminding us: This is where we come from. This is the origin of our nights and night-fearing stories. Thirty years later, the complex and confusing Labyrinth doesn’t feel edgy as much as classic. It’s not an advance so much as a return. Childhood has been this way forever: wonderful and hard and full of horror. Labyrinth just helps us remember what, deep down, in the dark, we’ve always known.

Additionally, according to the Mental Floss article, “16 Dizzying Facts About Labyrinth“:

The story of a teenage girl losing her baby brother to a Goblin King resembling a rock star didn’t intrigue a lot of people when it first came out in theaters in 1986. While Labyrinth initially only made back about half of its $25 million budget, a strong cult following that marveled at its storytelling and (then) impressive technical work had its say over time. Here are some facts that will remind you of the babe with the voodoo.

1. THERE WERE 25 TREATMENTS AND VERSIONS OF SCRIPTS WRITTEN.

There were a lot of chefs in the Labyrinth kitchen. Illustrator Brian Froud first pitched Jim Henson his vision of a baby surrounded by goblins after a screening of The Dark Crystal. Using a story written by Henson and Dennis Lee as a jumping off point, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Fraggle Rock writer Laura Phillips each wrote a script. Comedy legend and accomplished scriptwriter Elaine May did some revisions that helped humanize the characters. While Jones ended up credited as the lone screenwriter, because his version and the final version are so different, he didn’t feel “very close” to it.

2. A LOT OF NOW-FAMOUS ACTRESSES AUDITIONED FOR SARAH.

Jane Krakowski, Yasmine Bleeth, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson, Laura Dern, Lili Taylor, Laura San Giacomo, Ally Sheedy, and Mia Sara all auditioned. Krakowski, Sheedy, and Maddie Corman were the top candidates until Jennifer Connelly won Henson over.

3. MICHAEL JACKSON WAS ALSO CONSIDERED TO PLAY JARETH.

In the early stages, The Goblin King was just going to be another non-human creature, and off of that, Terry Jones wrote a script where Jareth doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie. He got a note from Henson that said Michael Jackson or David Bowie was now going to play Jareth, so he had to appear throughout the movie, singing. Henson outlined the movie with Bowie and met with him a couple of times over two years to give him updates on the development of the film before Bowie agreed to the part.

4. MAURICE SENDAK WASN’T PLEASED WITH THE SIMILARITIES TO HIS WORK.

The plot of Labyrinth was close to the one in Sendak’s Outside Over There, and some creatures were going to be referred to as Wild Things (Sendak was the author of Where the Wild Things Are). Sendak’s lawyers advised Henson to stop production and threatened consequences. In the movie’s credits, it reads that “Jim Henson acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak.” Sendak withdrew his objection, but apparently complained for years afterward.

5. IT WAS FILMED IN ENGLAND AND NEW YORK.

The opening scene was shot in Memorial Park in Nyack, New York. Most of the shooting took place at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England.

6. DARTH VADER WAS ON THE SET.

Executive producer George Lucas was on hand for the first day of filming, and surprised the cast and crew by arranging for Darth Vader to hand Jim Henson a good luck card.

7. IT WAS A HENSON FAMILY AFFAIR.

Jim’s son Brian Henson was the voice of Hoggle; his daughter Cheryl was a puppeteer for one of the Fireys.

8. JARETH’S “MAGIC DANCE” REFERS TO A CARY GRANT/SHIRLEY TEMPLE MOVIE.

In 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxerthere’s a scene in which Grant tells Temple, “Hey, you remind me of a man.” Temple asked, “What man?” “Man with the power,” Grant replied. “What power?” “Power of the hoodoo.” “Hoodoo?” “You do.” “Do what?” “Remind me of a man.” In “Magic Dance,” Bowie replaced “man” with “babe” and “hoodoo” for “voodoo” in the intro.

9. BOWIE DID HIS OWN BABY GURGLE STUNTS.

In “Magic Dance,” the baby in the recording studio was unwilling to gurgle more than once at a time, so Bowie had to do it himself.

10. BOWIE DID NOT DO HIS OWN CRYSTAL BALL JUGGLING STUNTS.

Choreographer Michael Moschen actually juggled the crystal balls without looking, hidden directly behind Bowie, sticking his arm underneath Bowie’s armpit.

11. TOBY DIDN’T MAKE A GREAT FIRST IMPRESSION WITH JARETH.

Toby the baby was played by Brian Froud’s son, Toby. Now a puppeteer himself, in a 2014 interview with Portland Monthly, Froud admitted that he remembers very little about his experience on Labyrinth—except that he may have peed on Bowie the first time he met him.

12. THE GOBLINS DIDN’T SPEAK FROM THEIR MOUTHS.

Bowie was thrown off because all of the goblin words came from behind him or from the side of the set.

13. THE SHAFT OF HANDS SCENE WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT TO FILM.

Jennifer Connelly was on a harness 40 feet up, with nothing to hold on to. She was told that if she tried to touch the back of the shaft, her fingers would be chopped off by the hinges. Henson remembered having about 100 performers up a rig.

14. GEORGE LUCAS CO-EDITED THE MOVIE.

Henson did the first cut before Lucas got in there. Then Henson looked it over and did the post-production and audio. Henson said Lucas cuts dialogue tightly, whereas he is the opposite.

15. HOGGLE IS CURRENTLY IN ALABAMA.

At the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, a worker unpacking a large wooden crate got a scare when he unexpectedly came face-to-face with Hoggle. He has remained in that unclaimed baggage museum ever since.

16. JIM HENSON WAS “DEVASTATED” BY THE FILM’S BOX OFFICE FAILURE.

Henson’s wife Jane said it felt to her husband like he was being personally rejected by audiences. But before his passing in 1990, Henson was made aware of—and very pleased about—the cult following that was forming around the movie.

Finally, according to the Den of Geek article, “Labyrinth: looking back at an 80s fantasy classic“:

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back.

The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff.

He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Street and Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories.

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back.

The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff.

He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Street and Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories.

But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood.

For almost thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release approaches, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

I’ve brought you a gift

A good proportion of the fuss about Labyrinth is down to one man: thin, white diamond dog from Mars, David Bowie. To be fair, it’s his leggings that spark the great majority of fuss, but we’ll come to those.

Bowie wasn’t always a cert for the role of Jareth the Goblin King, but like all the best casting decisions, it’s now impossible to imagine it otherwise. Sting was apparently discussed for the part, as was Michael Jackson. One thing’s certain, had Jackson been cast in a role requiring him to kidnap a baby boy then spend the rest of the movie thrusting his pelvis at a fourteen-year-old, we’d be watching Labyrinth with expressions of wide-eyed horror, rather than teary-eyed nostalgia nowadays.

Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and the part went to Bowie. He cites his love of Henson’s The Dark Crystal as the reason he accepted the role, but I prefer to imagine that, still relatively fresh from the excesses of the seventies, his manager just dressed him in that get-up and pushed onto set without him ever noticing he was in a film. “Castle, little goblin men, kidnapped baby?” thinks Bowie, looking around, “That’ll be Tuesday, then.”

The Jareth costume he wears in Labyrinth is more or less full-on panto, from the tights to the pointy collar and pointier eyebrows. Bowie’s dressed in a wig that looks as if someone put T’Pau through the tumble dryer and a Regency cut jacket which proudly displays his wares like a campy 80s Mr Darcy.

Much like the contents of Bowie’s leggings, the problematic nature of Jareth’s relationship with Jennifer Connelly’s young lead Sarah hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention. Since we’re not familiar with how social sexual mores work in the goblin kingdom, perhaps we shouldn’t judge. Except, yes, we should. Jareth’s pushing forty, Sarah’s fourteen and he clearly wants to, ahem, live within her.

You remind me of the babe

When Sarah first meets Jareth, he performs some lacklustre close-up magic and fiddles with his balls a lot. Anyone will tell you that’s not a stellar beginning to a courtship. The Goblin King then gives our heroine thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth, before spending the rest of his time sabotaging her progress and distracting her from the task in hand, like the Internet in obscene tights.

When Jareth’s not spying on Sarah in the guise of a pervy owl, slipping her Rohypnol-laced peaches or nicking her baby brother, he’s singing jaunty pop songs about his life, a bit like Glee, but surrounded by lifeless puppets instead of human beings. What’s that you say? Shame on you.

While the rational bit of my brain tells me that the songs on Labyrinth aren’t much cop, the other ninety percent tells me they’re all masterpieces (except for the one about getting down with the Firies, which has always been rubbish). I defy anyone who has a relationship with this film not to smile involuntarily when they hear the jingly synths, big drums, slap bass and Bowie croon, which signal the start of a Labyrinth song. They’re smile-making sounds.

Lyrically, however, the songs do present a few more problems. Magic Dance, for one, offers some very questionable parenting advice. You don’t have to be Dr Tanya Byron to know that slapping babies to make them free will get you into all kinds of trouble. Within You is as good a hymn to a sadomasochistic relationship as there’s ever been, and the cheerily upbeat Underground reads like it’s been written from the perspective of Joseph Fritzl. Let’s not even mention the line about the love injection. Gulp.

I think I’m getting smarter

Songs aside, let’s move over to our heroine. I’ll insert a quick warning before we start. If you’d like the actress Jennifer Connelly to remain undefiled as innocent Sarah in your memory, then I strongly urge you not to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. Or at least turn it off about half an hour before the end. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Sarah, then. Like a lot of young eighties fantasy movie characters, she’s a romantic soul who prefers books, stories and her imagination to the real world. Kids’ fantasy films in this era seem fiercely protective of childhood creativity, showing their young protagonists battling for the right to use their imagination.

Sarah is much like The Neverending Story‘s Bastian and Return To Oz‘s Dorothy in this respect. All three characters have lost their mothers, are isolated from their peers and retreat into invented lands built from the stuff of their own damaged psyches. They’re a little bit messed up, these kids. I blame Ronald Reagan.

In Labyrinth, Sarah is told she’s too old for her toys and games, that it’s time for her to put away childish things. During her coming-of-age journey, she’s repeatedly faced with choices to make, left or right, up or down, but is given no information to assist her. She learns that fairness rarely plays a part in how things work out and you can’t always rely on what you see. Sarah’s route to adulthood is a convoluted trek through a magical world where normal logic doesn’t apply and nothing is what it seems, a bit like your first Glastonbury.

The labyrinth turns out to be a surprisingly bureaucratic place, a kind of live-action videogame text adventure where you have to ask precisely the right questions before you can get any useful info. During her time there, Sarah manages to shake off not one, but two drug-induced hallucinations. She’s given a basic introduction to extrapolated logic from some Scottish jesters, and finds that her potential helpers are more likely to start arguing with their hats than give her useful directions. Again, quite a lot like your first Glastonbury.

Things aren’t always what they seem in this place

Let’s not beat around the bush, nothing about Labyrinth‘s story is original, nor does it claim to be. Labyrinth isn’t one to hide its sources. It all but lists them in a travelling shot around Sarah’s bedroom at the start of the movie. Sarah is Wonderland’s Alice, she’s Snow White, she’s Max from Where The Wild Things Are, but most of all, she’s Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz.

Just as Labyrinth wears its influences on its sleeve, it’s hard to tally up everything the film has influenced in turn. At the end of Matt Smith’s first series as the Doctor, Who audiences saw a world created out of objects found in a young girl’s bedroom. It’s a germ of an idea that may well have grown out of Labyrinth.

Duncan Jones, son of Bowie, has recently admitted it was being on the set of Labyrinth as a kid that fired up his excitement about filmmaking. Logically, then, without Labyrinth, we mightn’t have had Moon. It’s a sobering thought for sci-fi fans.

I have turned the world upside down and I have done it all for you

If the plot isn’t, what certainly is both original and deeply wonderful is Brian Froud’s concept design, Terry Jones’ screenplay and Jim Henson’s puppet magic. I haven’t left myself nearly enough room to express everything that’s impressive about the film’s artistry (damn my indulgence for rubbish jokes about Bowie’s package). Suffice to say, the design, puppetry and script are imaginative, funny, intricate and just plain lovely.

Also, for anyone tempted to laugh at the CGI owl swooping around in the opening credits, we should all remember that this was 1986. We were practically still primordial soup in 1986, yet Lucasfilm and the Jim Henson Company were already making a decent fist at CGI owls in flight. Impressive doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you

Though I know it must be true, I find it difficult to accept that children of the nineties or noughties could feel for their childhood movies anything like the passion our lot feels for Labyrinth. My fanboy arrogance just won’t admit that Home Alone, Jumanji or The Princess Diaries could ever be to them what Labyrinth is to us. When they protest, I want to butcher a line from another 1986 classic, “That’s not a treasured childhood movie,” I’d say, pulling a VHS tape of Jim Henson’s goblin-fest out of my fringed leather jacket, “That’s a treasured childhood movie.”

It bloody is, too.

 

According to The New York Times review:

”LABYRINTH,” which opens today at the UA Gemini Twin and other theaters, is the product of an impressive collaboration between its executive producer, George Lucas, who created Chewbacca, Darth Vader and R2D2, and its director, Jim Henson, who created Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear and the irrepressible Miss Piggy. The result, a fabulous film about a young girl’s journey into womanhood that uses futuristic technology to illuminate a mythic-style tale, is in many ways a remarkable achievement.

As he did with less success in ”The Dark Crystal,” Mr. Henson uses the art of puppetry to create visual effects that until very recently were possible to attain only with animation. The result is really quite startling. It removes storyboard creations from the flat celluloid cartoon image and makes them three-dimensional, so that they actually come alive and interact with living people. The technique makes animation seem dull and old-fashioned by comparison, and, in fact, the more exciting fantasy sequences in recent films have been created through special effects and advanced puppetry rather than animation. Mr. Henson’s creations have put him in the forefront of a development that expands the possibilities of imaginative fantasy that can be transferred to the screen.

The puppets in ”Labyrinth,” inventively created from the drawings of the conceptual designer Brian Froud, are a long way from Jim Henson’s original Muppets, which used the traditional puppet box. Now they are complicated, highly technical creatures, each requiring about five people to operate, with many of the movements done by remote control. But one of Mr. Henson’s special gifts is producing puppets that are wonderfully human, eccentric and individualistic. As a result his new creations are not cold, automated electronic marvels, but fantastic humanoid creatures inhabiting a newly created world who mirror our own foibles, and so can move us and make us laugh.

The story of the film is a variation on a classic theme from children’s literature. Fifteen-year-old Sarah, in that twilight time when a girl begins to change into a woman, is staying home to care for her baby brother, whom she resents. A girl with an active imagination – her bookshelves are filled with the works of Lewis Carroll, Maurice Sendak and the brothers Grimm – she wishes her brother weren’t her responsibility. ”I wish the goblins would take you away right now,” she says aloud. And they do. The rest of the film is her journey to get him back – through the labyrinth of mazes, puzzles, magic and topsy-turvy twists of logic that must lead her to the center, where the goblin king is holding her brother. David Bowie is perfectly cast as the teasing, tempting seducer whom Sarah must both want and reject in order to learn the labyrinth’s lessons, and his songs add a driving, sensual appeal.

The books on Sarah’s shelves are appropriate. The story is very similar to ”Outside Over There” by Mr. Sendak, in which 9-year-old Ida’s baby sister is stolen by the goblins. Ida rescues her, learning in the process about love and responsibility. It also has elements of ”Alice in Wonderland” and ”The Wizard of Oz” – a plucky girl with a good head on her shoulders learns lessons about life she never found in books. But it is closest in spirit to the story of the Nutcracker – not the watered-down sugar-and-spice version that Tchaikovsky used for the famous ballet, but the original, darker story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, a new translation of which was recently illustrated by Mr. Sendak. Mr. Sendak’s sensibility is very close to the feeling of the film, and Mr. Henson has acknowledged his artistic debt to him. The Hoffmann tale is also about the voyage to womanhood, including the hint of sexual awakening, which Sarah experiences too in the presence of a goblin king.

Jennifer Connelly as Sarah is unfortunately disappointing. Perhaps Mr. Henson gave too much attention to his puppets and not enough to developing a compelling performance in his lead actress. She looks right, but she lacks conviction and seems to be reading rehearsed lines that are recited without belief in her goal or real need to accomplish it. Since the film has only five human characters – Sarah, her parents, who appear briefly at the beginning, baby Toby and Jareth, the goblin king – Sarah’s role is very important.

Most of the people who appear in the film work in teams of ”performers” who operate the puppets – a lessening in the need for actors that might interest the Screen Actors Guild. Some of these puppets create memorable characters, such as Hoggle, the ugly gnome who is a coward but conquers his worse nature for love of his friend Sarah. Others are Ludo, a huge, hairy oaf who becomes Sarah’s loyal friend, and Sir Didymus, a tiny hand puppet with the face of a dignified fox terrier who has a touch of Don Quixote in him. He’s a gallant little knight who says lines like ”Don’t worry, we’ve got them surrounded” when the goblins are closing in on him. The script, by Terry Jones, co-creator of ”Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” is witty and slightly zany – a good combination to entertain both children and adults.

 

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