CULT CORNER: Labyrinth (1986)

Oscar revisits a fantasy favourite in light of David Bowie’s recent passing. Godspeed, Goblin King.

Who made it?: Jim Henson (Director), Terry Jones (Writer), Eric Rattray (Producer), Lucasfilm Ltd./The Jim Henson Company.

Who’s in it?: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson, Christopher Malcolm, Natalie Finland.

Tagline: “A’ mazing tale of never-ending fantasy.”

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

While this is being written some time after the passing of the much-loved David Bowie, this review is more a celebration of one of his better-known films – a cult classic fantasy movie to this day. With the help of Jim Henson’s Muppet wizardry and spirited direction, what could’ve ended up a shallow star vehicle at the time turned out to be a visually unique world with a well-told story. While it was a box office failure, it has rightly gathered a following over the years and has been successfully vindicated by history.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) rehearses a play in the park while being watched by a barn owl. Realising she is late to babysit her baby half-brother, Toby, she rushes home and is confronted by her stepmother before she and her father leave for dinner. Discovering that her brother is in possession of her treasured teddy bear, Lancelot, Sarah rashly wishes Toby be taken away by the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie). She is shocked when Toby disappears and the Goblin King confronts her and transports her to his kingdom. He gives Sarah thirteen hours to solve his Labyrinth and find him before Toby is turned into a goblin. Sarah meets the troll-like Hoggle, who aids her in entering the Labyrinth, but a talking worm inadvertently sends her in the wrong direction. As she gets closer to the castle, the Goblin King watches her progress and continues to raise the stakes. On her quest, she meets the gentle giant Ludo and the chivalric fox knight named Sir Didymus and his canine steed Ambrosius, and must solve the mysterious riddles and illusions she encounters.

Appearing in her first feature film, Connelly is fairly mixed as Sarah; she shows plenty of typical teen angst beneath the heart, but she does have a melodramatic and breathless voice which no teenager in the 80s would have possessed. Still, having to give a serious performance opposite a cast of puppets for the whole film is asking a lot of a teenager, and she does her best. The other human star, of course, is Bowie and he just steals every scene he’s in as the Goblin King; he brings a lot of charisma and wit to this dastardly character, carrying his performance well despite his limited acting experience. All of the puppeteers and their voice actors inject a lot of personality and charm into their characters. Chief among them is Brian Henson as the voice of the gruff but loveable Hoggle, Ron Mueck providing both the voice and physical presence of Ludo, Timothy Bateson in a nice cameo as a friendly cockney worm, and David Shaughnessy’s Sir Didymus as my personal favourite, being earnestly noble and brave despite his size. Like The Dark Crystal, there are puppet performers present as well – the standout for me is Shari Weiser and Brian Henson joining together as Hoggle’s body and face, respectively. Muppet performers Steve Whitmere, Dave Goelz and Frank Oz also lend their talents to the various characters.

Like in The Dark Crystal, Brian Froud’s art style lends itself perfectly to more archaic fairytales, making the inhabitants of Labyrinth feel ancient and gnarled, keeping it a little bit grounded whilst still fantastical. The film’s variety of puppet characters are wonderfully designed such as Hoggle and Ludo, as well as the side characters such as the cockney worm and the Door Knockers. The “Dance, Magic Dance” sequence was brought to life with forty-eight goblin puppets with over fifty puppeteers situated in holes in the set. There were also around twelve little people in costumes leaping around on harnesses and told to simply “act like goblins.” It’s a fun sequence brilliantly played-out. Hoggle is a hybrid between costume and puppet, and the combination is quite seamless. The matte paintings of ILM blend beautifully with the live-action footage. Sadly, the scene with the orange, monkey-like Fireys is very clearly blue-screened; the characters look like dancing cardboard cutouts and the colour-correction looks off. For a film with otherwise many great effects, it stands out like a sore thumb. There is one obvious use of CGI and that’s the owl in the film’s opening. While it does look very fake today, it was the first fully-rendered digital creation and it was spanking new at the time, and I consider it a great first for the technology. But other scenes with the barn owl use traditional optical effects and puppetry. The first of two trippy scenes is Sarah’s ball dance where she has to try to escape or be entranced forever, and the second is the Escher stair sequence which takes advantage of the strange angles and optical illusions to make for an engaging finale. In both scenes, the combination of optical effects, matte paintings and other illusions is all done very well and leave a lasting impression.

There are two components to the music in Labyrinth: the score by Trevor Jones and Bowie’s own songs. While they do date the film to a certain extent, the Bowie songs imbue the film with its own distinct flavour and memorable charm, and what better adversary for a teenage girl than an all-powerful, ego-tripping pop icon? Jones’ score errs away from his usual style of orchestral music and favours electronic instrumentals that ultimately complement the Bowie numbers, and while not the most memorable of scores, it does suit the film well.

The simplistic story lends itself to bizarre visuals and strange characters. Like a classic fairytale, this story is less about Sarah and more about the supernatural world she travels through and the strange creatures she meets. At just over a hundred minutes, it moves along at a brisk pace and doesn’t overstay its beastly encounters. Most of the threat comes from Jareth rather than his goblin minions, who are very easily defeated and outwitted, which is forgiven because the goblins are played for laughs.

Sarah’s arc, while nothing original, is still well-told and understandable. She is a teenager with a lot of pent-up anger and resentment, but she realises the error of her ways and makes amends with her baby brother, whom she comes to care for as an older sibling should. She is a girl clinging to her childhood and refusing to move on, and when she goes on her journey, she has to step up and be a grown up, even facing a mind challenge in which she has to sever her ties with childhood toys in order to save Toby. While Jareth is unmistakably manipulative and cunning, he isn’t entirely evil either. He doesn’t look like the other goblins and is far more powerful, possibly indicating a sorcerer or a faerie, something which is open to interpretation by fans of the film. He takes every opportunity to make himself look good in comparison to Sarah, and tried to kill or tempt her at any opportunity, but he does keep his word in the end.

Whilst Labyrinth is indeed an original-looking movie with very memorable characters, one can see where it draws inspiration. There are thematic and story elements drawn from Grimm’s fairytales, Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are and The Wizard of Oz. Similarities to the Carroll stories are evident in which a normal everyday girl has a series of encounters with strange creatures that either help or hinder her. Also, it’s how the quirky characters themselves are the main attraction rather than the story itself, and how much Sarah must learn not to take this strange world for granted. In terms of plot, it’s an inversion of the Oz story; Sarah sets off into the Labyrinth, which has no clear path, unlike the all-safe Yellow Brick Road. The world of the Labyrinth is very dirty and washed-out, in contrast to the clean, vibrant colours of Oz. She meets Hoggle who is all brains, Ludo who is all heart, and Sir Didymus who is all courage, and even Ambrosius who is the Toto of the movie. Dorothy’s power is her innocence in the face of the Wicked Witch of the West, whereas Sarah’s is gained through maturity, coming of age and a defiance against Jareth. Almost the first thing we learn in Oz is that good things are beautiful and bad things are ugly, while we learn the opposite at the start of the Labyrinth, with the warty yet caring Hoggle and the pretty but nasty pixies.

Let’s also address the elephant in the room – the movie has its fair share of innuendoes and double entendres, but surprisingly, the film isn’t less charming and likable in spite of it. Not just from Bowie’s Casanova persona and his, um, very tight tights, but also when Jareth confronts Hoggle trying to help Sarah, noticing that his “jewels are missing.” Sarah herself is tempted many times by Jareth and even faces the prospect of becoming his queen. Again, something that could have been horribly mishandled by another director is counterbalanced by great characters and intelligent writing. There is just this sense of innocence and playful wit that keeps it all from feeling too dirty. I think they’re slyly disguised so that children who watch this film pick up on them later in life.

Like the stop-motion creations in a Ray Harryhausen film, there is a latent charm to the sets and puppetry present in these Jim Henson productions. It helps to understand the hard work done by the filmmakers when you can actually see the fruits of their labour onscreen. I am more tolerant of CGI than most, but there is magic in them puppets. The lack of similar films in the modern fantasy landscape makes Labyrinth and its cousins standout all the more for their charm and technical achievements. It more than holds up. The story does feel rather more tailored to children with its tone and humour, and there are certainly mysteries to ponder after finishing the film, but otherwise this is a wonderful modern fairytale.

Best Scene

Bowie being Bowie.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Two official music videos by David Bowie promoting this title and directed by Steve Barron were released. “As the World Falls Down” features scenes from the film itself, not just the ballroom scene, and includes specially filmed scenes of Hoggle together with Bowie. “Underground”, which can be heard as the final credits roll, features many of the films characters again in specially filmed scenes with Bowie.
  • The various things that Jareth does with the crystal balls (rolling them around his arms and in his hands and so forth) are not camera tricks or any other kind of special effect. They are actually done by choreographer Michael Moschen, who is an accomplished juggler. Moschen was actually crouched behind Bowie with his arm(s) replacing Bowie’s. Unlike a typical Muppet performance, however, he had no video screen to view his performance. In other words, his manipulations were performed completely blind.
  • One of the choreographers for the film is Cheryl McFadden. She also appears, uncredited, as one of the masked dancers in the ballroom scene. A year after this film, she starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation, credited as Gates McFadden, playing Dr. Beverly Crusher, a role she played in six of the seven seasons of the series and four feature films.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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  1. Michael Young says:

    Very good!

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