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Labyrinth (1986)

by on August 24, 2020
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I had little interest in seeing “Labyrinth” when it came out in the summer of 1986. This despite the fact it was directed by Jim Henson in a similar vein of fantasy as “Dark Crystal,” which I’ve always adored, and produced by George Lucas during his curiously underrated decade after “Return of the Jedi.”

Adult-oriented fantasy was pretty much dead by 1986, subsumed by kiddie fare or laid low by diminishing box office returns. “Red Sonja” was a flop a year earlier, and “Labyrinth” was also a box office failure, grossing less than $13 million against a $25 million budget.

(That’s about $59 million in today’s dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that year’s #1 and #2 films, “Top Gun” and “Crocodile Dundee,” were made for $15 million and $6 million, respectively.)

Despite being filled with puppets and explicitly aimed at children, it’s a rather dark film with plenty of scary sections that likely turned off ticket-buyers. Even though Henson fretted about this and made efforts to inject more humor.

Time went on, and I still never got around to seeing it. The film’s reputation grew and grew, one of the early examples of a movie being saved by home video sales and rentals. It became a particularly favorite among Millennial girls, and today even younger generations of mostly female audiences adore it.

(This probably didn’t help my continuing reluctance to check it out.)

So I finally watched it along with my boys and am pleased to say I really liked “Labyrinth,” bordering on love. Critics dismissed it as a visual spectacle with little in the way of story, and there’s some truth to that. But the imagination is so incredibly dense, it more than makes up for the overly simplified fairy tale narrative.

To wit: a 16-year-old girl, Sarah (Jennifer Conelly), who resents her stepmother and baby half-brother, Toby, is challenged when Jareth the Goblin King steals the tyke and imprisons him in his castle. Sarah is given 13 hours to solve the incredibly complex labyrinth surrounding the castle or Toby will be turned into another goblin. Along the way Sarah encounters a menagerie of fantastical creatures, helpful and otherwise.

It’s easy to see that this story is a mix of classical mythology and modern fable (notably “The Wizard of Oz”), and indeed author Maurice Sendak threatened to sue and shut down production because of the similarities to one of his books. Henson added an acknowledgement in the credits, and presumably some palms saw some grease.

The one thing I’m not completely wild about is David Bowie as the Goblin King. He wrote five songs for the movie and performed most of them, and I think at some point during the pre-production process someone had the idea of casting him, too. This despite the fact all the goblins and myriad other creatures are stunted little creatures performed by puppet masters, so why would their king be a fey, androgynous human who looks like he was the victim of the most vicious backcombing in history?

From what I’ve been able to learn, screenwriter (and Monty Python-er) Terry Jones and Henson repeatedly clashed and the script went through so many rewrites to the point Jones says it bears little resemblance to his work, even though he received sole credit. Henson was reportedly concerned that audiences found “Dark Crystal” too dark and unrelatable, so he wanted to cast a major pop star so they would have two primary human figures amidst all the goblins and trolls and dwarves.

It’s also notable that in the story-within-a-story backbone of the tale, Sarah and the Gobin King are supposed to be in love despite their contest, and there’s a beautiful dream sequence where they make moony eyes at each other from across a masked ball. I’m guessing someone realized a girl-on-felt-puppet romance wouldn’t play well.

Bowie’s songs are… OK, I guess, though none got me tapping a toe or humming a tune afterward. Though at least one of them, “Underground,” charted decently at the time and another, “Magic Dance,” was rediscovered after Bowie’s 2016 death.

The most memorable is “Chilly Down,” the only one Bowie does not sing himself. It’s an encounter between Sarah and five red-furred creatures who refer to themselves as the Fire Gang, who can detach their heads and other body parts and play around with them. One of the members shows two long fingers, uses them to pluck out his own eyeballs, shakes them in his fist and tosses them like dice.

Unlike “Dark Crystal,” the majority of the puppet work was achieved by humans wearing elaborate costumes with workable heads and limbs, with hand-held creatures as needed. The most significant is Hoggle, a dwarf with an oversized head who Sarah first meets outside the labyrinth while he’s killing fairies with pest spray. He’s quite arresting, with a knobby nose, age-spotted hands, beetle-brows and huge, expressive eyes.

Brian Henson, Jim’s son, provides Hoggle’s voice while Shari Weiser performed inside the suit. He’s irascible and peevish, but also acts as Sarah’s guide and protector. Little does she know he’s secretly beholden to Jareth, who shows up on a couple of occasions to browbeat Hoggle into thwarting Sarah’s journey. He gives her a poisoned peach to feed her, causing her to fall into a forgetful slumber.

Jareth keeps getting Hoggle’s name wrong, referring to him as “Hogwart,” which makes me wonder if J.K. Rowling stole that name from the movie for her wizard’s school (as she seemingly did everything else).

A couple of other, less consequential additions to Sarah’s team are Ludo (voice and puppetry by Ron Hueck), a monstrously huge but gentle red-furred creature who has the power to command rocks, and Sir Didymus (voice by David Shaughnessy, puppetry by Dave Goelz), a one-eyed fox knight who rides a sheepdog as his steed. The two actually do battle when we first encounter Didymus, who is guarding a bridge in a swamp Sarah must travel through.

This place is the Bog of Eternal Stench, the place Hoggle fears more than any other, and the place Jareth keeps promising to banish him to. The bog is filled with whirlpools and geysers that continually issue forth farts and burps, and one step into the muck will leave you smelling terrible forever. Curiously, Didymus seems completely unaffected by the odor.

I was also entranced with a few other creature encounters. Sarah and Hoggle meet The Wiseman (Frank Oz and Michael Hordern), a wizened old creature who wears a large bird as a hat, and the two continually bicker, exchanging (not especially helpful) advice in exchange for donations. They also walk through a cave where the stones come to life into magic mouths uttering deep-voiced warnings to turn back, and Hoggle rudely cuts one off before allowing him to continue.

Then there’s The Worm (Karen Prell and Timothy Bateson), a tiny worm in fine clothes who first gives Sarah clues how to navigate the labyrinth, pointing out some of the walls are just clever forced perspective illusions. However, he unwittingly sabotages her quest, telling her not to go left  because it’s dangerous, only pointing out after she’s left that it leads straight to the castle.

At several points in the story Sarah is forced to choose between two or more paths, including one where she’s faced with a pair of guardians with heads protruding from above and below their shields, guarding doors leading to the path or certain doom. It’s the classic conundrum of one who always tells the truth and the other who always lies.

She cleverly solves the riddle by asking one to say about the other, “Would he tell me that this door leads to the castle?” A similar encounter is with two living door-knockers. One has the ring passing through his mouth and can’t speak well, while the other has it going through his ears and can’t hear.

I also liked a plunge down a deep pit where she meets the Helping Hands, who break her fall and speak by using each other to form faces, including a working mouth.

Overall I actually enjoyed the more languid portions of the movie rather than the last act, where things speed up considerably and result in a lot of battles and derring-do. There’s some clever stuff, like cannonballs that are actually tiny goblins inside ordnance, but it gets a little old fairly fast.

The deeper meanings of the tale are not immediately obvious, and subject to interpretation. The exact motivations of Jareth are mysterious, since all he seems to do is hang out in his castle with a bunch of goblins, occasionally breaking into song and dance. What he sees in Toby, Sarah’s golden-headed baby brother, also remains a mystery other than growing his roster of minions.

The most likely answer is that the Goblin King is simply part of Sarah’s psyche — the portion of her that wants to remain a young girl who plays with dolls and makes pretend, and is scared of growing up and taking on adult responsibilities like looking after babies.

Connelly, just 14 when she was cast and dewy as a spring lily, is presented as completely innocent of sex, so having her fantasy lover be an androgynous  goblin (elf?) makes sense in that context.

I’m surprised at the lack of commentary on Sarah’s acting ambitions. It’s clear at the start at the story she is practicing the lines of a play, and in her room we see playbills and other newspaper clippings about a dark-haired actress that I first took to be Sarah herself. Upon second glance these are references to “Linda Williams,” who must be her (presumably deceased) mother.

Jareth, who juggles crystals with visions inside them, offers Sarah to grant all her dreams if she gives up Toby. In the final scenes she is quite literally putting away childish things, including, it seems, of following in her mother’s footsteps and stepping out onto the stage.

If so, this is a rather odd theme for a movie filled with flights of fancy and “hold onto your dreams” subtext.

Still, I have to say I found the experience of watching “Labyrinth” pretty magical. My boys loved it, which is surprising for a pair stubbornly devoted to all things Y-chromosome. I took care not to tell them beforehand it’s a ‘girls’ movie’ — I knew which door to pick.

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