30th Anniversary Tribute Review
1986, PG, 113 mins.
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.
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.
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.
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
broadly inclusive to viewers of all ages.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.