Given light of recent events (I don’t need to tell you which ones, I hope), I took it upon myself to dust off a copy of Labyrinth (two moths and a puff of dust left the DVD case as it opened. I daren’t open the VHS for fear of what eldritch horror may have taken up residence inside) and have a look through modern eyes at one of Mr. Bowie’s most fondly-remembered roles and Jim Henson’s last film as director before his untimely death.
Labyrinth is the kind of film people would have gotten hyped up about.
It was as the opening credits began rolling (assisted by a polygonal computer-generated owl ) that I realised this. A few familiar names popped up- Jim Henson, expected given the well-known puppety nature of the movie. David Bowie, of course, the film being one of his most recognised roles. Then a few names I didn’t recognise swam up in glorious 80’s baby blue glam font… ‘George Lucas; Executive Producer’? That George Lucas?
‘Screenplay by Terry Jones’ – Terry ever-loving Jones?! Of Monty Python fame?
(Brian Froud as conceptual artist/designer is also very exciting, but perhaps he’s a bit more obscure)
This is the kind of movie had it been made today, fantasy fans and movie geeks would have been raving about it before its release- it’s the 1986 equivalent of us being told we’d be getting a planet-hopping retrofuture mystery with William Gibson on screenplay, Tarantino in the Director’s chair, with ILM working on practical effects with designs from H.R Giger. That either sounds awful or amazing depending on who you ask, but the bringing together of some very talented hands on one project like this is something that would have caused a buzz without a doubt.
The film, in short, concerns Sarah (Connelly), an unspecified tween / teenage girl who is forced to babysit her little brother by her ‘oppressive’ stepmother (the film makes no attempts at biasing us towards either Sarah or her parents which is nice). Sarah is shown to be a bookworm, spending a lot of her time with her head in children’s fantasy literature.
In petulant ‘it’s not fair’ style, Sarah wishes her little brother Toby to be taken away by goblins (“right now” in fact) and in typical Monkey Paw pastiche, her wish is granted. The rest of the picture concerns Sarah traversing the eponymous labyrinth devised by Jareth, the Goblin King (Bowie) to rescue her little brother Toby within 13 hours else he be turned into a Goblin forever. Why this is an issue I’m not sure because Jareth is the Goblin King and he looks fabulous. But I digress.
The film is pure fantasy from beginning to end. Everything bar Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie is practical effects (and that goddamn creepy owl) and it has that wonderful charm of puppetry rather than dated or false-looking, although there are a few errant scruffy pieces here and there. The characters created here are truly some of Henson’s Creature Shop’s best. Each bizarre creature is an individual, with the full gamut of textiles, moving parts and puppeteers utilised to create what feels like a living, breathing population of weird and wonderful characters inhabiting this maze.
Speaking of the Labyrinth itself (cue segue), the set design is great; the maze feels intricate, bizarre and dense with oddment throughout the whole film as it takes us through statued topiary gardens, junk heaps, temperate forest floors and through the ominous and whimsically named “Bog of Eternal Stench” (re-dubbed by myself as “The Swamp of Eternally Undulating Anuses”).
The film takes us through these locations at quick pace, sometimes feeling a bit like they’re trying to cram as much weirdness in as possible. I for one would have loved to have spent more time in the oubliette (and any film that uses the word ‘oubliette’ more than 3 times outside of historical work is a winner in my book) but this reflects the frantic nature of Sarah’s quest.
Along the way we meet a host of well-made, well-performed and well-puppeteered characters including the gentle giant Ludo (who is definitely either related to the Wampa or those stop-motion hellhounds from Ghostbusters) and the electrically eccentric Sir Didymus as well as Hoggle, the miserly sour dwarf Sarah meets at the beginning. Our principle ‘party’ is here and they play well off each other. It is a tried and tested method for fantasy films, the picking up of principles along the way and it works well here, each character playing off one another and being given room for interaction while keeping pace.
The film does have its off-kilter and jarring moments, particularly the 80’s tendency for children’s films to have oddly disturbing sections thrown in when seen through adult eyes. Of note is one section where a group of lanky red creatures (called ‘Fireys’) pull themselves apart to whimsical slapstick result. Following this, the creatures harrow Sarah through a dense forest in an attempt to pull off her head as well. This and a section where a tunnel populated by human hands which mimic human faces left me feeling a little unnerved. However rather than spoil the film, these moments leave a nostalgic feeling for similarly tonally-brave classics like The Dark Crystal and The Pagemaster, where children’s movies were not afraid to be foreboding.
Other than this, there’s an odd section where Hoggle drugs Sarah at the Goblin King’s command and she passes out in the forest in full face-melt mode. Following this is an odd, Kafkaesque music video where Sarah walks through a Masquerade aimlessly as several people turn into David Bowie. For me, it was a bizarre scene to watch as a child tripped out while being stalked by a glam rock star. I’m taking things out of context.
There are a few ‘music video’ scenes, including the famous climax of the movie where Sarah tries to reach Toby while being stopped by Jareth (featuring the architecture of MC Escher) which are now considered part of the film’s odd personnage but out of context can seem quite strange, particularly seeing a grown man in sequins throw a baby around in a post-Michael Jackson world feels strange. At times it seems arbitrary to have a cutaway to David Bowie singing in a suitably ridiculous costume; on the other hand if you had David Bowie writing and singing the songs for your movie then why the hell wouldn’t you?
Speaking of the Starman himself, there’s a reason Jareth is a big part of the cult following the film holds. Bowie is striking, mysterious, vindictive and steals the show every time he appears on screen, leaving us as an audience ensorcelled by his weirdness; despite being the only other ‘human’ (save Toby and the kids’ parents) on screen, Bowie feels right at home with the goblins, the imps and the whole host of fantastical puppets he stands beside. At the start of the film he arrives without preamble; we simply know he is The Goblin King. After all, who else could be?
He has that whimsical nature of a folklore antagonist; he provides the chance for victory for the hero by giving Sarah 13 hours, he doesn’t turn Toby to a Goblin immediately and when he has been beat he is not destroyed, he is bound by the terms of his world. A wonderful villain without ever truly being evil.
As a whole, Labyrinth is a film in love with fairytales; its characters are bound by fairytale rules; reading the words from the book dispels the villain, facing the baddie alone because “it’s how it’s done” and the image of a wish gone wrong are all concepts we know by now, but Labyrinth brings them to life effortlessly through Henson’s true passion for puppeteering, through Bowie’s bizarre, fascinating villain and songs; Labyrinth does so much of its own thing that it’s hard not to fall in love with it. The characters we meet, the story that is told cannot be reduced to constituent parts. It is just that; spectacle and story. There’s no overall moral to this tale (there’s some half-hearted repetitions of “it’s not fair” and learning to grow up but they’re not relevant) but it doesn’t need one, it is what it is: a good ol’ yarn.
With memorable set-pieces, fantastic effects that have aged surprisingly well, loveable characters which stay with us today, musical numbers penned by a genuine rock star this is now a ‘cult classic’ for a damn good reason. Some of the scenes or characters can be a little bit unnerving if you have sensitive small ones watching or if you’re overly cynical or analytic, but many of these moments can be hand-waved away as part of the film’s charm.
Labyrinth is a wonderful fairytale, focused through the lens of several very talented people and injected with unique elements which make it stand out to this very day. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favour and give it a run through, whether it be to show your kids what you had when you were their age, as a nostalgia trip to the kind of movies they used to make or whether or not it’s in tribute to the late Mr. Bowie. We will always have Labyrinth to remember people like him, heck, to remember people like Jim Henson too – we will have them forever in these films, their art, immortalised as if in crystal balls.