(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
“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
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.