Like with any saddening news of icons passing, we always look back and watch some previous work as an act of remembrance. With the passing of musical icon David Bowie recently we looked back on some of his films, and quite simply just had to watch Labyrinth again. So as we say thank you to Bowie for all his contributions to music and film over the years, here is our re-view of the 1986 fantasy cult classic Labyrinth.
In the event that your childhood was robbed from the pleasure of watching Jim Henson’s Labyrinth the synopsis is as follows. Jennifer Connelly is Sarah, a young but selfish girl tasked with babysitting her baby brother Toby by her stepmother and father. Sarah resents the fact that she must stay in and look after Toby instead of being able to do what she wants, as well as Toby’s constant cries, and she wishes for him to be taken away. Unfortunately for Sarah, the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) is more than happy to fulfil her wish. After Jareth informs Sarah of what she has done, she is given the opportunity to save Toby, but she must complete an mystical, otherworldly expansive labyrinth in 13 hours or Toby will become the Goblin Kings child forever.
So what is Labyrinth? Well it’s a unique concoction of fantasy and adventure with a dash of memorable musical numbers. Released in 1986 the film was actually a commercial disappointment with a meagre box office gross of $12.7 million in the U.S., on a budget of $25 million. It would be the last film the legendary Jim Henson directed before he passed away in 1990, and the Goblin King would become David Bowie’s most culturally significant film role. But at the end of the day, as a child of the 1980s, Labyrinth is a wonderful daydream fantasy film chock full of fantastical creatures and settings.
As far as childhood fantasy films go you can’t really do much better than this. We have a sprawling fantasy world contained within the labyrinth itself that allows your imagination to run wild. Contained within this world are a host of unique characters, big and small, that bring the world to life and supply us with a never-ending stream of visually appealing sights. The work that went into creating and bringing these puppets and creatures to life is nothing short of tremendous, I’ve always loved the art of puppetry and stop motion animation because my childhood was filled with media that utilised these art forms. In retrospect the work of Jim Henson and his company was criminally overlooked by awards ceremonies especially for both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. In a modern world of stunning CGI the art of the puppeteer is rarer than ever, and looking back on films like this that utilise the talent, it is still refreshing to watch and I can only hope we see more of it in the future. The world of the labyrinth has a grim colour palette, but not every fantasy should be laden with bright candy colours, it is the land of the Goblin King after all.
As fantastic a puppeteer as Jim Henson was, it is noticeable his experience behind the camera was a little more restricted. Though he worked plenty in TV, his film catalogue is very short and this is evident in the film. Despite the running time clocking in at approx 100 minutes the film could have been trimmed down and shorter. There are sequences that either have no relevance to the story, or are just in there because of the work that went into shooting it. The scene with the Fire Gang (or Fiery as listed in the credits) is a prime example of this, as Sarah and company stumble upon these weird creatures and just run away from them. In an interview with Ecran Fantastique, Henson mentions he wasn’t happy with the resulting look of the scene but included it in the film anyway as he thought the puppetry deserved it. There is no question that the Fiery creatures are great to watch, but the scene just had no place in the film.
Another issue with the overall final product that arguably prevented it from being better is that when you look back on who was involved with the film, there were just too many people involved in so many of the processes. Monty Python member Terry Jones wrote the first screenplay draft, but it was drastically changed in tone, theme and story by 2 or 3 different people. There is some small pieces of humour now and then which feels pythonesque, but the finished product as recognised by Jones is far from what he had imagined for the film. The editing process also involved more than Henson as he brought in George Lucas to assist, to which he mentioned they both had different styles of editing. History has taught us many a time that to many chefs can spoil the broth, though Labyrinth is far from being spoiled, it most certainly could have done with a singular vision and decisiveness throughout it’s production.
With that all being said for somebody like myself, a child of the 1980s, there is a lot of nostalgia to look back on when watching the film. It stands as a brilliant example of puppeteer work and a great exercise in the genre of fantasy, and I love it. The acting is pretty decent when you take into account Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie were performing with puppets and both relatively new to film. Labyrinth should be quintessential viewing in any persons childhood, it isn’t the most refined of films but you can feel the work and heart that went into making of it, and for kids it’s great fun. Now I’ll be honest, this film did not need any songs or musical pieces, but I’m happy they did because the world is just a better place with Magic Dance.