A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2016


30th Anniversary Tribute Review  

1986, PG, 113 mins. 


David Bowie as Jareth  /  Jennifer Connelly as Sarah  /  Toby Froud as Toby  /  Shelley Thompson as Stepmother  /  Natalie Finland as Fairy

Directed by Jim Henson  /  Written by Terry Jones

"Tell me Sarah...what do you think of my labyrinth?"

- Jareth the Goblin King

In Memoriam: David Bowie (1947-2016)

LABYRINTH would never be made today.  

In our pixelized-heavy modern age with movie after movie relying on a heavy preponderance of computer generated fakery to tell stories, it sure was a refreshing trip to recently re-visit Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy.  The film employed antiquated by today’s standards, but everlastingly endearing puppetry and a practical production design aesthetic, which consequently allowed for Henson’s work to have an astoundingly tactile look and feel even while viewed through our highly scrutinizing cinematic eyes today.  

LABYRINTH remains a supreme testament to the late, great Henson not only as a provocative and enterprising puppetry maestro, but also as a intrinsically innovative creative mind that was able to tap into the recesses of his imagination to audaciously craft a movie world that felt like it actively transported us to another ethereal time and place.  The film is, of course, also fondly remembered for being a star vehicle and performance showpiece for David Bowie, who sadly died earlier this week after a long and protracted battle with cancer.  

LABYRINTH is certainly a wondrously ingenious work that - from a conceptual standpoint - proudly bares its multiple influences like badges of honor (everything from THE WIZARD OF OZ, to the works of Lewis Caroll and Maurice Sendak, and even to the mind-bending visual paradox illustrations of M.C. Escher are echoed here), but the film is also lovingly recalled as a spirited toe tapping musical, confidently quarterbacked by Bowie’s obvious on-screen magnetism and star power.  LABYRINTH may be a lavish and opulently designed fantasy that's dominated by puppets, but it still retains a strong human element. 

The motley production crew assembled for the film was kind of nothing short of remarkable.  We had the director in Henson, already an icon in the family entertainment industry well before the film’s release; STAR WARS creator George Lucas, who served as Executive Producer; and Monty Python’s own Terry Jones as screenwriter (granted, and by his own admission, the final shooting script was re-worked numerous times before production by Lucas, Henson, Dennis Lee, and Elaine May, baring little resemblance to Jones’ first draft).  Discussions about making LABYRINTH go back as far as the early 80’s, during which time Henson and designer Brian Froud were brainstorming ideas for a follow-up to Henson’s 1982 film THE DARK CRYSTAL.  Henson wanted to retain some of the inherent darkness of that film while, at the same time, conjuring up a more audience-friendly and light-hearted fairy tale that would be broadly inclusive to viewers of all ages. 



LABYRINTH, much like THE DARK CRYSTAL, was intended to be puppet-heavy, which even originally included the role of the film’s central antagonist, Jareth the Goblin King.  In a wise move, Henson opted to cast a well known star for the part to perform opposite of the human female hero, and Bowie was a fiendishly bold and compelling choice.  Realizing Bowie’s clear predilections towards both music and theatre of the outlandish, Henson drastically re-envisioned the Goblin King to include copious song and dance numbers.  Casting the female lead in Sarah nearly went to Helena Bonham Carter, but Henson and company decided to nab a then relatively unknown actress in Jennifer Connelly, many years away from growing into an assured Oscar winning actress.  Connelly may have been a somewhat greenhorn actress during the time of LABYRINTH’s production, but her lack of polish as a performer lent itself well to the production.  Watching the film, we feel like we’re taking a mysterious new journey alongside Sarah.  A more seasoned and poised talent may not have been able to capture Sarah’s inherent naiveté and innocent sense of wonder in discovering the unknown as well as Connelly achieved. 

15-year-old Sarah, as a character, is cut form the same cloth as many classic examples of fantasy heroes: the somewhat immature, mildly irresponsible, yet ambitious minded and bright eyed adolescent that deeply yearns for excitement and adventure away from the humdrum nature of her suffocating home life.  The film opens with Sarah feeling deeply frustrated by the prospects of once again having to tend to the needs of her baby brother Toby as her parents go out for a night on the town.  Young adult responsibilities of babysitting her infant sibling are simply not exciting prospects for Sarah, seeing as she frequently escapes into the world of fantasy fiction to calm her unease and anxiety on the home front.  Her primary wish is for the goblins (from her books that she obsesses over) to swoop down and take Toby away forever.  Unbeknownst to her, the goblins were indeed listening to her request, and without warning Jareth the Goblin King appears with his horde to kidnap the crying baby. 

Jareth may enjoy stealing infants right from their cribs, but he at least grants Sarah an opportunity to save Toby, but only if she is able to navigate her way through an extraordinarily complex labyrinth that leads to his castle…and in under 13 hours.  Predictably, Sarah experiences great difficulties in trekking through her strange and exotic new surroundings, replete with odd, yet colorfully exotic creatures, some of which become trusted allies to her and her quest.  One of her companions, a dwarf-like creature named Hoggle, makes a promise to help Sarah, but manages to rescind on his word.  Sarah does have more trustworthy help in a powerfully large beast known as Ludo (think of a cross between a chubby Chewbacca and a troll) and a pint-sized adventurer named Didymus, and together the team manages to make their way through the ever-increasingly dense maze before finally standing off against Jareth in one final test of will. 

Similarly to STAR WARS, LABYRINTH evocatively conjured up a vibrantly lived-in world that’s the very stuff of our collective fairy tale dreamscape.  The film required an exhaustive five-month shoot, mostly out of the meticulous nature of marrying together dozens upon dozens of animatronic puppets together with the human performers.  The sheer scope of the film’s production design is boundless.  Large scale and impressively mounted sets – such as the distorted Goblin City and the Shaft of Hands – easily give LABYRINTH an authoritative sense of the otherworldly.  A majority of the visual effects, obviously enough considering its era, were done in camera, with some exceptions (the film’s opening title card sequence makes very early usage of computer generated imagery, showcasing an owl flying towards the screen).  It could easily be said that some sequences have aged quite poorly due to the compositing limitations of the times Henson was working in (a musical number involving Sarah interacting with the Fire Gang is a notorious example), but LABYRINTH nevertheless remains an inviting motion picture because of its tangible artifice.  

Henson also knew that the key to his film's overall success was engineering and executing the vast menagerie of puppeted creatures.  There are times when every corner of the screen is populated by eclectically designed beasties; sometimes, these characters – even ones that occupy the frame for a fleeting moment – are parts of inanimate objects and/or even protrude from them.  The visual dynamism on display in LABYRINTH inspires legitimate awe and wonder, which gives the film a sense of bizarre, yet beguiling immersion.  Subconsciously – and especially as an adult viewer re-watching the film – I’m aware that most of the Goblin King world is the product of visual effects and shooting scenes on massive sets, but the film displays more heart and soul in envisioning its world than a handful of modern fantasy efforts, which often feel cold and antiseptic by comparison.  LABYRINTH might be one of the last purest examples of intrepid analogue filmmaking before Hollywood became entrenched – for better or worse – in our current digital age.  

It would be deceptively easy to overlook the human performers in a film replete with puppets.  David Bowie crafts an endlessly spooky and sinful figure of depravity throughout the film as his glam-rock inspired villain that's not opposed to breaking into merry song and dance numbers when the situation presents itself.  Bowie recorded five songs for the film, including “Underground”, “Chilly Down”, “As the World Falls Down”, “Within You”, and my personal favourite being “Magic Dance”, a bravura music-video inspired number in the film where Jareth mischievously frolics in and out frame and tosses the giggling Toby around to his Goblin minions in a spirited game of Hot Potato.  Connelly, like her co-star, had the utterly thankless job of somehow coming off convincingly playing opposite of puppets throughout most of the film’s running time, but she conveys a palpable sense of gutsy determination as her and her fellowship proceed through the labyrinth and towards her ultimate destiny.  The fact that Bowie and Connelly appear to fully believe in the world that they inhabit lends itself well to the film’s larger payoffs. 

LABYRINTH is a darker film than perhaps most remember.  Evidently, the morally dicey nature of wanting one’s baby brother to be kidnapped by vicious monsters is one thing, but the whole relationship between Jareth and Sarah in the film has obvious sexual undertones that many child viewers are unable to perceive.  Her troublesome and creepy standoffs with Jareth are of central importance, though, to the overall themes of LABYRINTH: Her arduous ordeal of journeying through the labyrinth and confronting her enemy allows for her maturation as a young woman.  Sarah begins the film as a petulant and selfish child that puts her own needs first and foremost.  By the time she makes it through the maze to rescue her brother she becomes a fairly headstrong and empowered person that begins to learn the value of caring for others outside of her initial bubble of petty self interest.  In one of the film’s eerier scenes Jareth, in pure Svengali-mode, teases and taunts Sarah with the pleasures of a hedonistic and gluttonous adult life (as he chillingly explains to her at one point, "Everything I've done, I've done for you.  I move the stars for no one."), which she overcomes and resists.  LABYRINTH has a strangely compelling and unnerving thematic weight that many critics of its time neglected to comment on. 

LABYRINTH was, regrettably enough, a box office bomb back in 1986, which is confounding considering that it had the names of two creative heavyweights in Henson and Lucas attached to the advertising.  When the film was released on June 27, 1986 it was dead in the box office water, and by the end of its theatrical run it grossed a measly $12 million on a then-high budget of $25 million.  One of the saddest casualties of LABYRINTH - beyond its lack of financial success - was that it ended Henson’s flourishing career as a feature filmmaker.  The commercial failure of the film led to him becoming demoralized by the film industry as a whole, to the damning extent that – according to his son Brian Henson – it derailed his desires to direct more films.  Depressingly, LABYRINTH was Henson’s last film as a director before he died at a terribly young age in 1990. 

On a positive, LABYRINTH has lived on and evolved over the decades as a cult favorite among cinephiles both young and old.  As a bold piece of family entertainment, it remains an exhilarating and richly pleasurable film-viewing experience that still appeases both adults and, yes, children.  I’ve seen the film countless times over the years as a young lad and now, even as a 40-year-old man, I still find myself being swept up in a prepubescent glee within its painstakingly realized world that proudly exhibits Henson’s absolute command over his puppeteering craft.  The film also serves as a nostalgic heavy piece for me on a personal level, seeing as it was definitively a product of a bygone decade of big haired, synth-heavy pop rock that I grew up in that made no apologies for its garish eccentricities.  Most importantly, LABYRINTH illustrated David Bowie’s unique and multifaceted skill-set as an performer.  Jareth has gone on to become an indelible part of fantasy mythology and musical pop culture history. 

Lastly, LABYRINTH tells a simple fantasy story with a remarkably effective economy, and one involving broad genre motifs of good versus evil set against a backdrop of a perilous journey of self-discovery and awakening for one teenage girl.  Henson’s film may look a little worse for wear now in parts, but it retains its rollicking sense of playfulness and intrigue even after multiple viewings.  

That, and it's a fun movie.  In our current times when far too many family films are needlessly cynical and edgy to their cores, that makes LABYRINTH a special achievement in movie magic; today's fantasy genre efforts could certainly use a bit more of it.

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