Jim Henson’s 1986 musical/fantasy Labyrinth is a cult film in the purest sense. There’s nothing contrived or expected about the Renaissance this film has experienced. Like all great movies that acquire belated devotion after their disastrous initial release, this one began its film life as a crushing failure.
Despite being produced by George Lucas, directed by Muppet master Henson, written by Monty Python member Terry Jones and starring the legendary David Bowie, Labyrinth flopped with audiences and critics in theaters (although not as badly as the other Lucas-produced film from the same year: the notorious Howard the Duck). Over time, Labyrinth became acknowledged as an essential Henson work. Also, for ’80s kids too young to connect with Ziggy Stardust, it was our first impression of Bowie.
A 16-year old Jennifer Connelly stars as Sarah. We first meet her reciting dialogue and wearing a theatrical costume in an empty park. Sarah is an odd teen and a real brat who despises having to babysit her infant brother Toby. Her solution: she wishes that Jareth The Goblin King (played by Bowie) would take her brother away. To Sarah’s surprise, Jareth immediately appears, snatches Toby and informs her that, if she wants her brother back, she has 13 hours to solve the massive maze surrounding his castle in another world.
Henson’s weird, episodic film is tonally all over the place. Despite songs written and performed by Bowie, this isn’t a great musical. The numbers pop up out of nowhere and feel forced. The fan favorite “Magic Dance” is pretty silly but “Underground,” which bookends the film, is terrific. So is “As The World Falls Down,” set to the film’s haunting ballroom sequence. Bowie’s appearance is campy but his performance is committed.
But Bowie devotees should note that this is far from his best work as an actor. The late artist played everyone from Judas Iscariot to Andy Warhol (in Basquiet, showcasing Bowie’s best film performance). Jareth is an iconic Bowie character but this was a small footnote in a career full of towering artistic milestones. It’s actually Connelly’s film and she’s engaging enough to carry it.
Labyrinth is at its best when it’s creepy: Toby’s abduction, the “cleaner” chase and the gravity-lite staircase finale are all brilliant. The puppetry and art direction are excellent, providing visual innovation in every scene. There are lots of Python-esque touches throughout (my favorite is the blue-haired, red scarf-wearing worm who appears early on) and Brian Froud’s creature designs are scary and beguiling. The blend of puppets and humans is so convincing that I didn’t notice how Ambrosius the Dog is–thanks to clever edits and positioning–played by both a puppet and a real canine. The low points are the “Chilly Down” head-tossing number and the chaotic battle in the Goblin hub, which are needless filler.
At first glance, there seems to be a lack of subtext. Jareth’s motivations are confusing–why does he need to turn Toby into a goblin when he already has so many at his disposal? Is Jareth in love with Sarah or does her really view her as a threat? Taken straight, Labyrinth can be viewed as a parable of how a Dorothy of the 1980’s journeys through a dark world that represents the unfairness of adulthood.
Early on, the camera slowly pans across the contents of Sarah’s bedroom. She has a poster for Cats, a copy of Where the Wild Things Are (Henson even acknowledges Maurice Sendak in the end credits) and other items that foreshadow her trek through the labyrinth. Sarah is, after all, a weird drama kids (as a former member of the Baldwin Theater Guild, I can relate). There are also newspaper clips of an actress named Linda Williams (who bears a resemblance to Connelly), reportedly in an “on/off relationship,” with an actor who is clearly Bowie (sans Jareth makeup).
Is Labyrinth Sarah’s teenage fantasy about courting and resisting the seduction of another actor? This hidden Easter Egg gives the entire film a greater dramatic urgency and more narrative clarity.
Henson’s final film as a director is best for children but still offers intrigue and enchantment for those who grew up with it.
Labyrinth plays at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Sunday, April 29th at 2pm and 7pm, with additional showings on May 1-2nd at 7pm.