Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Once Over Twice: Labyrinth

(1986) Directed by Jim Henson; Written by Terry Jones; Story by Dennis Lee and Jim Henson; Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Brian Henson, Dave Goelz and Toby Froud; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

“When I see a film, when I leave the theater, I like a few things: I like to be happier than I was when I went in, I like a film to leave me with an up feeling, and I like a picture to have a sense of substance. I like it to be about something, about life, about things that matter to me; and so, I think that’s what we were trying to do with this film…” – Jim Henson (from the documentary Inside the Labyrinth)

February, to put it mildly, has been one doozy of a month. Due to a series of stressful events that converged on my family and me, conspiring to turn my remaining hair silver, this review has been delayed for almost a week. Okay, but what the hell does this have to do with this month’s theme? Well, my dear friends, I’m here to put the Fantastic back in Fantastic February. The fantasy genre serves as a constant reminder that no matter how bad things get, I can always return to my cinematic equivalent of comfort food. A great fantasy flick, such as the one described below, never fails to inspire my sense of wonder, feed my wounded heart, and nourish my sense of wellbeing… or some such claptrap. Fantasy picks me up, okay?

If  lack of critical acclaim or box office success was any indicator of worth, Labyrinth should have been relegated to a footnote in Jim Henson’s career, rather than one of his shining moments. Instead of fading away into the annals of time as an ambitious but failed experiment, it’s now regarded by many as a modern classic. But why the shift? The Dark Crystal, its spiritual and chronological predecessor, was arguably the more ambitious production by virtue of the fact it made no concessions to human characters, creating a world populated entirely by puppets. But the former film also felt more distancing, lacking the humor and sense of fun present in Henson’s follow-up. Also, in terms of dialogue, The Dark Crystal doesn’t hold a candle to Labyrinth.

Jim Henson (in a rare collaboration with executive producer George Lucas) left most of the puppetry to his talented staff, so he could focus on directorial chores. Conceptual designer Brian Froud,* who also worked with Henson on The Dark Crystal, helped realize the visually complex world of the film, steeped in numerous artistic and literary influences, including Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.. Monty Python alum Terry Jones (working from a story by Henson and Dennis Lee, along with Froud’s artwork) fleshed out the witty screenplay. Labyrinth features magnificent sets, filled with optical illusions. In the film’s climactic scenes, M.C. Escher’s lithographs, “House of Stairs” and “Relativity,” form the basis for an astonishing set, featuring stairs leading into nowhere.

* In the DVD commentary, Froud stated the look of the film was inspired in part by medieval manuscripts and gothic art that frequently included faces peering out at you.

Jennifer Connelly* does a respectable job in one of her earliest roles as the film’s daydreaming protagonist, Sarah. Stuck at home with her crying baby brother Toby (played by Brian Froud’s son Toby Froud), she wishes the Goblin King would take him away. To her surprise, he answers her plea, and does just that, whisking the infant to his realm. After the deed is done, however, she’s filled with regret. Her dilemma is readily identifiable to anyone who’s ever thought of something awful, only to instantly become ensnared in a web of guilt, as if our mere thoughts had become actions. She embarks on a quest to rescue her baby brother, marking a rite of passage as she transitions from a selfish adolescent to a conscientious young woman. Along the way, she meets an odd assortment of characters who assist or impede her progress: the capricious Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson, and played by Shari Weiser), beholden to his master Jareth, but with an undeniable soft spot for Sarah; the foxlike Didymus (voiced by Dave Goelz), bound by his unshakeable code of chivalry; and Ludo (voiced by Ron Mueck), a sweet, good-natured ogre – a bit dim perhaps, but loyal to a fault and handy in a fight.

* Fun fact: According to Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones, the director had considered several other young actresses for the role, including Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern and Ally Sheedy.

It’s tough to think of anyone but David Bowie occupying the role of Jareth, the Goblin King, with such authority and zeal. Bowie seems born to play the ruler of the labyrinth, as he prances about in tight pants like a rock star, tempting Sarah with the hedonistic fruits of adulthood (as symbolized by a poison peach). He presents her with a Faustian bargain: in exchange for Toby, he will give her the life she’s been seeking. Flamboyant, charismatic and enigmatic, he’s the embodiment of her struggle to reconcile the playful innocence of childhood with the carnal pleasures of adulthood. Bowie’s infectious songs including “Magic Dance,” “Chilly Down,” and “As the World Falls Down” enhance the mood, describing Sarah’s conflicted states.

Although Henson commented that the eponymous labyrinth is “…whatever you like to make it,” (from Jim Henson – The Works, by Christopher Finch) he indicated it was an internal manifestation, rather than a concrete one. The labyrinth signifies Sarah’s late-adolescent, convoluted mind, while her baby brother Toby represents the responsibility of adulthood. But far from a dry, overly intellectual exploration of existential adolescent angst, it’s an amusing romp, filled with riddles, and infused with absurd little comic touches (such as an elaborate tunnel cleaning device that leaves a bigger mess in its wake) that keep you smiling and guessing. In the labyrinth, nothing is as it appears. Sarah must endure a series of trials designed to obfuscate and divert her from her task of reaching the center of the Labyrinth and rescuing Toby. Along the way, she encounters numerous distractions that attempt to discourage her, including the brightly colored fierys, Id-driven monsters with a propensity for taking off their own heads, and a junk heap filled with artifacts from her childhood. They’re all chaotic manifestations of the push-pull that’s all part of growing up.  

Biographer Brian Jay Jones does little to dispel Labyrinth’s unearned reputation as a critical and commercial failure, dismissing it as “one of those dead ends,”* focusing on the film’s deficits, as opposed to its many formidable charms. Those expecting another innocuous venture with a cute and cuddly assortment of Muppets were set up for disappointment, while those who were open to a new experience were treated to a fantasy world like no other. While Henson was dejected by Labyrinth’s initial lukewarm reception, it’s clear he created the film he set out to make. Time has proven the film’s detractors wrong, attracting scores of ardent admirers. It’s too bad he didn’t live to see what an impact it had, but I’m certain he would have been pleased to discover he was right all along.

* To his credit, Jones acknowledges the film’s loyal following in his epilogue, but not before thoroughly trashing it with negative quotes from assorted critics.


  1. Great review and I loved reading all the trivia about the casting. Hmm I dont think Laura Dern or Sheedy would work good because of their age. I do agree this a better movie then Dark Crystal

    1. Thanks Vern! It's always fun to learn about alternate casting choices, and what could have been.