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  • nickkarner

Labyrinth (1986)

I share a special bond with my sister over a particular group of films, most of which came from the 1980’s. They include The Goonies, Something Wicked This Way Comes, the TV-version of Alice in Wonderland (1985), The Neverending Story, Return to Oz, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the list goes on and on. You might notice that most, if not all of these titles either contain several dark elements or are out-and-out scary-ass films. One of the towering examples of our education in fantasy cinema was Jim Henson’s 1986 production of the trippy, mysterious, and extraordinary Labyrinth. Utilizing ambitious, unique puppetry from the legendary Henson workshop and coupling it with an original soundtrack by musician/star David Bowie, we’d dance around the house quoting the film and singing the songs; taking particular delight in the dopey way a goblin sang “thundah or lightning!” Our nostalgia thirst would be quenched as we attended a revival screening at the now sadly-closed Colony Theatre in Raleigh, NC. It wasn’t nearly as packed as we expected. Wasn’t everyone as big a fan as we were? One gentleman did dress as Bowie’s goblin king, Jareth, but he may or not have felt a tad ridiculous as this was an un-hosted, under-attended special showing on a weeknight. The movie unfolded...and we were underwhelmed. Sure, the puppets still looked cool, the songs were pleasant enough, but the acting wasn’t nearly as compelling as we remembered, and man, does that mid-section drag. Still, I was determined to introduce this box office disappointment-turned cult film to my daughter. Her response to it proves two things. One, it’s a fabulous film that will fill your heart and your mind with wonder, and two, it’s a fucking strange movie.

Jim Henson was a fascinating man and obviously had developed a profound sense of patience by the time the production of Labyrinth rolled around. This is evident by watching the making-of-featurette “Inside the Labyrinth,” wherein the newborn son of brilliant concept artist Brian Froud simply refuses to cooperate and do what he needs to do for the crew to get the shot. Another director might have gotten highly frustrated and it’s actually quite surprising that they didn’t go with twins, obviously wishing to keep things “in the family.” I worked on a film with some twins. It’s a real plus to be able to switch out one for another during long days, but when neither tyke wants to do what they’re told it’s...shall we say, a problem. Henson’s work with puppets had prepared him for the massive amount of trial-and-error which goes hand-in-hand with work involving inanimate objects, children, and animals. One need only look at the popular YouTube clip of Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas outtakes where the crew desperately tries to get a rolling drum to cooperate, prompting only some light swearing by the puppeteers. These are people who know what it’s like to work on one specific thing for hours on end.

The story for Labyrinth was developed by Henson and Dennis Lee, the composer for Fraggle Rock, although Froud does deserve a great deal of credit as his sketches provided much inspiration for what ended up onscreen. Screenplay duties were passed on to the Terry Jones, a member of the legendary Monty Python troop and the director of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, Erik the Viking, and co-director on The Holy Grail. It was an inspired choice to utilize the talents of Jones, whose predilection for darkly farcical madness lent itself well to Henson’s appropriately creepy vision for the tale of a young girl who must rescue her baby brother from the clutches of the King of the Goblins.

While Jones initially expressed his delight in the visualization of his fantastical ideas, he’d later comment that much of his script had been altered drastically, although he’d be called back to re-insert the humor lost in the mountain of rewrites by scribes as varied as Elaine May and George Lucas. Now, to be clear, it’s very obvious that the film borrows more than its fair share of material from Maurice Sendak’s “Outside Over There,” a tale which also happens to feature a female protagonist searching for her sibling and also happens to feature goblins. It’s very fortunate that Henson was such a charming, decent guy because Sendak could have (and very nearly did) sue the pants off Henson’s company. I know Big Bird doesn’t wear pants, but that wouldn’t’ve stopped Sendak from taking a feathery chunk outta that giant monster bird’s ass.

By the mid-80's Henson was in the midst of his creative re-invention. The Dark Crystal (1982) had been financially successful but hadn’t lit the world on fire as some predicted. He effectively closed the chapter, at least for a while, on the Muppet movies by marrying Kermit and Miss Piggy in 1984’s amusing and slightly harder-edged Muppets Take Manhattan, which in turn spawned the classic Muppet Babies. Making the decision to focus entirely on the filmmaking aspect of the production, he’d decline to operate a puppet during the Labyrinth shoot, instead opting to fully immerse himself in the behind-the-scenes details. It was a wise decision which pays off in spades as the film’s tone, while increasingly odd and even frightening, is at least fairly consistent.

“Fly back to the Apple II computer you came from!” That’s pretty much what I yelled at the screen after once again encountering the first photo-realistic CGI animal ever created for a feature film. “Photo-realistic” is a bit of an overstatement. It pretty much looks like fucking Bubo from Clash of the Titans (1981), but more mechanical, which is weird. We meet artsy, early cosplayer/theatre kid Sarah, played by perennial 80’s dream girl Jennifer Connelly, in a park, where she’s dressed like a Game of Thrones extra and monologues to no one in particular: “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great...for my will is as strong as yours…my kingdom is great…Damn! I can never remember that line!” Dude, you’re not going to nail your community theatre audition for A Midsummer Night’s Dream if you can’t keep less than six lines straight. You’re going to end up working tech while that bitch Betsy stumbles her way through Titania’s speeches. Anyways, somehow she’s over an hour late to babysit and gets caught in the rain with her big, adorable lug of a sheepdog Merlin.

I’ve re-warmed to Connelly’s performance this time around. On my earlier re-watch, I was stunned at how flat I found her acting. It’s very strange to look at Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and realize that although Sergio Leone and co. could see this little lady (and future Oscar winner) was talented, they had no idea just how successful she’d end up becoming. I’m not going to complain about the lovely Elizabeth McGovern playing the older version of Connelly in the film, but it would be wild if the Rocketeer or Dark City version of herself could be digitally inserted into Leone’s epic, just to see what it would be like. She’d nearly lost a finger thanks to Dario Argento’s negligence and a pissy monkey on Phenomena a year before, so I suppose working with puppets was a safer bet. Shockingly though, that damn owl and just a bit of trick photography is about all they did as far as digital effects go. Everything is very real and pretty dangerous. BTS footage of her descent into the oubliette and particularly her near-fall into the Bog of Eternal Stench is quite harrowing to watch. All of the stunts were clearly done in a controlled, safe environment, but Henson was mighty impressed that the young actress never complained considering the actual physical danger she was occasionally asked to participate in. Now, I look at her performance as being central to the film’s success, mainly due to her expertise in reacting to all of the chaos around her but remaining steadfastly committed to her quest. She’s a bit of a blank slate, but it works to the film’s advantage rather than its detriment.

After subtly being called a lesbian by her “wicked stepmother” she storms into her amazing room to do a little teen angsting and brooding. This room is amazing, with fantasy books, including Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and another inspiration, “The Wizard of Oz,” scrapbooks, stuffed animals, and dress-up clothes. My sister always wanted this room growing up. Perhaps if Labyrinth had been a huge hit, a lot of this stuff would’ve been merchandised. I wouldn’t’ve said no to a big Ludo puppet myself. Not the near 75-pound version that ended up onscreen, mind you. Just one you could hug and maybe use to smash a few Lego buildings, if you had the inkling.

It’s not entirely clear whether baby Toby (played by future puppeteer Toby Froud) is merely a half-brother due to the unexplained absence of Sarah’s actress mother. The novelization implies that she divorced her husband and he remarried. Toby, incidentally, is wearing an identical onesie to the one worn by the insanely evil baby from Dead Alive, although he’s not nearly as bloodthirsty. Sarah’s pissed about Toby getting to play with her teddy bear Lancelot and as he whines and cries, she practically says “Fuck you! You want a story, you little shit?!” She holds the screaming child aloft and shouts: “I can bear it no longer! Goblin King! Goblin King! Wherever you may be, take this child of mine far away from me!” The cutaway to a screen-filling shot of many, many goblins is abrupt and jarring, to say the least. Of course, these aren’t the correct words and the goblins, while creepy, are also adorably goofy. “Did she say it?” “Shut up!” She offhandedly wishes for the goblin king to take Toby away and it’s more than a little eerie when his cries immediately cease. The goblins are lurking everywhere and when the owl bursts in, it transforms into rock star David Bowie and our screening’s small audience burst into applause.

Bowie’s musical genius is not to be contested nor denied, so I find it much more interesting to delve into his filmography. While his “actor credits” number a jaw-dropping 130, his actual work in legitimate feature films is admirably small, clearly implying that music was, and always would be, his first love. It makes sense that he’d hook up with idiosyncratic and uncompromising director Nicolas Roeg (Bad Timing, The Witches) for his feature film debut The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). It was appropriately weird and off-putting, but as a film vehicle for a musician (always a shaky proposition), it could’ve been a lot worse. Possibly as bad as his follow-up, in actor-director David Hemmings’ Just a Gigolo (1978), a lame duck attempt to utilize Bowie’s natural charisma and raw sexuality. 1983 was a big year for cinematic Bowie, with an effective supporting role in Tony Scott’s ridiculously stylish The Hunger and a real stab at legitimacy in the very good but semi-forgotten Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, where he’s somewhat overshadowed by a superior performance by Takeshi Kitano.

By 1986, he’d have two box office duds which have since gained major cult reputations. His status as a musical icon certainly gained the attention of visual filmmakers as yet another stylist, Julian Temple, cast him in Absolute Beginners, a film which doesn’t really work but features the unforgettable sight of Bowie standing astride a gigantic typewriter. The other film was, of course, Labyrinth, whose financial failure devastated Henson and he wouldn’t direct another feature film again. It’s fortunate that the alternative casting choices, which included Mick Jagger (not sexy enough), Prince (too sexy), and Michael Jackson (which would’ve been terrible and he’d’ve constantly thrown up being forced to act attracted to a girl), didn’t come to pass. Admittedly, Henson’s original choice, Sting, isn’t a bad call. I’ve never found Sting (get me another beer, Gordy!) to be a fantastic actor, but he might’ve done something interesting with the material. Casting Ziggy Stardust himself essentially allowed for the illusion of a human-being lording over freaky little goblin puppets to be plausible. Bowie’s appearance and performance have rightly become iconic, stemming from his Tina Turner-inspired fright hair, codpiece, and ability to spin crystals in one hand. A hand, incidentally, provided by noted juggler Michael Moschen, who was working blind and required many takes to nail the mesmerizing act of twirling crystals. I’m definitely guilty of trying this with pool balls. It didn’t end well for my bare feet.

Sarah immediately regrets her wish and we’re introduced to what noted asshole-person Kim Jong-Il in Team America referred to as “the ticking crock!” The “crock,” as it is, goes up to thirteen, as opposed to Nigel Tufnel’s speakers, which “go to eleven.” She must solve the labyrinth and reach “the castle beyond the goblin city,” or else Toby will change into a goblin. The aforementioned crystals are wishes, whether literal or symbolic, I’m not sure, but as he gracefully slides the circular glass over his knuckles, he seductively suggests she “go back to your room. Play with your toys and your costumes. Forget about the baby.” Set to Trevor Jones’ (Excalibur, Angel Heart) ominous score, there’s a sense of danger and temptation bubbling under the surface of the scene.

When she politely refuses the “gift,” the crystal turns into a snake, which he flings at her while saying “Don’t defy me.” Jareth represents a walking contradiction for Sarah. He wishes to both serve and command her. This theme of simultaneous subservience and domination is enigmatic and implies Sarah’s maturation into womanhood is full of temptation and peril. By the film’s conclusion, a ravaged Jareth is practically begging Sarah: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me...do as I say and I will be your slave.” I’ve never quite understood whether this statement implies male dominance masquerading as female empowerment. The overarching flaw of the film is that it appears to have several ideas about growing up, making difficult choices, and living in a fairy tale, but these intriguing ideas take a backseat to the strong visuals and otherworldly creatures.

Sarah stares down at the gorgeously-rendered matte painting of the labyrinth and her journey begins. Her first encounter with someone who will both help and hinder her immeasurably in her pursuit is Hoggle, a truly lifelike creation performed by little person Shari Weiser (Follow that Bird) and voiced by Brian Henson (the heir apparent and also the unfortunate director of The Happytime Murders, a project he spent years trying to make happen). He appears to be some sort-of caretaker for the labyrinth and prides himself on the number of fairies he extinguishes. It’s amusing that Sarah’s belief in fairies being kindly creatures who grant wishes is quickly dashed when she’s bitten by one of them. “Shows what you know,” Hoggle gruffly states. He helps her enter the labyrinth and is later revealed to be working for Jareth, although he secretly has a heart of gold, like most loners.

The seemingly-endless corridor, glistening with goo, is a convincing use of forced perspective. Ditto the optical illusion wherein Sarah finds an opening thanks to a friendly, blue-haired worm wearing a red scarf. Right next to it is some coral-like fungus that sport wide, blinking eyes. The creativity on display here is monumental and represents the Henson company firing on all cylinders. I’ve always found some of The Dark Crystal’s puppets to be a little less organic than I’d like (particularly the stiff gelflings), but the humanoid animals in Labyrinth are a sight to behold.

There’s a Robot Chicken sketch in which Belle of Beauty and the Beast fame complains about everything needing “to fucking talk!” It’s frankly shocking how many things speak in Labyrinth. Sarah has to enter a series of doors and often encounters odd characters guarding them. Many of the creatures sport long, Wilford Brimley walrus-like moustaches, including an odd pair of blue and red riddle speakers who hide behind painted shields and look like mutated goats. Another pair of doors feature talking knockers, which are amazing because their dark color resembles bronzing of the highest order. I do have to ask, though. These things can breathe? Stone walls, which remind me of the gnome king in Return to Oz, are rather freaky looking, but also surprisingly sensitive. In a meta-moment, Hoggle even allows one of them to engage in the regular schtick of dire warnings of doom. Several little people were employed during the film, including Warwick Davis and a few Time Bandits like Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, and Jack Purvis. When Ludo, the gentle giant behemoth is strung up and tortured, the goblin soldiers use freaky, skinless beasts on the ends of sticks to bite at him, much like those spring-controlled shark sticks one uses to annoy one’s sister, not that I ever did that.

The drop into the oubliette is one of the highlights of the film. After Sarah chooses the wrong door, the floor opens and hundreds of dark, decrepit hands snag her as she falls, forming various talking faces through fists and fingers. Connelly was suspended at least 20 to 30 feet in the air and the drop was indeed real, as was a gigantic, terrifying drill manned by things Hoggle calls “The Cleaners.” In a “how did they do that?” moment, Hoggle helps them escape by simply shoving a piece of wood against a solid wall and then opening it which, after a brief adjustment, reveals a helpful escape corridor.

Along the way, Hoggle keeps changing allegiances, but Ludo, whose mighty roars can control rocks, is a constant companion, gently and monosyllabically stating “Sarah friend.” Ludo's rock-controlling ability is a slight carryover from The Mystics in The Dark Crystal. Sarah, Hoggle, and Ludo eventually end up in the Bog of Eternal Stench, where placing one foot in the nasty swamp will cause the unlucky victim to “smell bad for the rest of their life.” They encounter the swashbuckling Sir Didymus, a cocksure fox creature who uses a cowardly sheepdog named Ambrosius as a steed. If my kid were younger, she’d definitely toss a saddle on our big dog and ride him. Hoggle receives a crystal, which turns into a tainted peach that will cause Sarah to forget her mission. He reluctantly offers it to her and she drifts into a strange, nightmarish fantasy.

This brings up the subject of the musical numbers. Far and away, the most successful song remains “Magic Dance.” Henson made the right call by using this piece as the first big production number. The jaw-dropping number of puppets and little people goblins swarming around Bowie as he swaggers about singing and holding a surprisingly microphone-like staff is infectious and joyous. The middle of Labyrinth dips and perhaps if this song had been placed later, it might’ve lifted the proceedings a bit, but it could be argued that doing so would’ve led critics to believe Henson was just trying to spice up an illogical tale with a random song, which “Magic Dance” would be if it weren’t a major introduction for Jareth and the goblins.

My second favorite piece is in the ethereal masquerade ball sequence. Choreographed by Cheryl McFadden, later Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a magical sequence; gorgeously shot by Alex Thomson (Death Line, Demolition Man) and costumed by Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud. The song, “As the World Falls Down,” is beautiful and much catchier than most critics believe. It’s a sexy song too. I believe one becomes pregnant after listening to it. “Magic Dance” is rightfully the most famous song, but this one may be the most underrated. Bowie cuts a dashing figure and Connelly looks like a princess, although she does have a bit of an unfortunate Kristen Stewart thing going on there, what with her mouth hanging open most of the time. My daughter began an impromptu ballet performance while this song played, even whispering “This is very romantic.” I’m not sure that’s what they’re going for, but OK.

Sarah smashes a mirror and the rest of the partygoers, who are one step away from engaging in Eyes Wide Shut-level depravities, rise up as the world does indeed “fall down.” Sarah drops into a junkyard world where a freaky vagrant woman with junk piled on her back leads her back into her own room and her own world, or so it seems. I’ve always enjoyed the nasty green worm inside Hoggle’s poisoned peach. It’s quite disturbing that the old crone is trying to change Sarah into another version of herself, evidenced by her way of piling Sarah’s various possessions onto her back. Sarah eventually snaps out it and delightfully smashes all of her “junk.”

The rest of the songs are fine, although nothing to write home about. “Underground” is pretty much just a credits song. “Chilly Down,” an upbeat, Rastafarian-based ditty featuring gangly orange monsters called The Fireys with removable eyes and heads, is forgettable and basically serves as nothing more than a showcase for puppetry. One of the performers is future semi-disgraced Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash. To shoot this sequence, which would’ve been much easier utilizing a green screen, the puppeteers dressed in black velvet and stood on a velvet-covered set, later to be keyed out. The effect is rough around the edges in the wide shots, though stronger in close-ups. In the documentary, George Lucas stands by, watching the proceedings. As a sidebar, I find most of the lyrics to be indecipherable. At one point, I could’ve sworn I heard them say “Don’t got no funyuns.”

In the final sequence, Sarah searches for Toby in an M.C. Escher-styled staircase room, featuring some impressive optical work, including actors dressed as Jareth legitimately being swung around upside down and flying past the camera as Bowie enters, creating the illusion that he’s traveling throughout the structure. He sings “Within You,” an angry, incendiary tune where he’s chastising and threatening Sarah, claiming “Your eyes can be so cruel. Just as I can be so cruel.”

The battle between Sarah’s group and the goblin army is epic, to say the least. It’s also surprisingly violent. One doesn’t often see legit bullets being fired at people in a film featuring puppets, but there you go. A truly gigantic robot, which was built using specially-formed foam, swings a mighty axe. There’s jousting between the goblin knights and Sir Didymus. Ludo calls the rocks and they smash through the goblin ranks. The goblins ride lizard horses and the cannons appear to be sentient, spiky creatures with legs.

It’s all very exciting and leads to the showdown, where Sarah claims “I have to face him alone. Because that’s how it’s done.” This bugs me since Sarah, while very smart, hasn’t implied that she’s aware the events taking place are coming from the “Labyrinth” book she read from in the beginning of the film. Still, her utterance of the forgotten line, “You have no power over me,” is defiant and causes the goblin world to spin out of control. She’s dropped back into the real world and everything’s fine. The “it was all a dream” idea is played pretty subtly, which I appreciate, and when her friends appear in the mirror, offering to return, “if you need us,” it’s very sweet. She says “I need you,” and the film rewards us by delivering a final party scene where they all appear in her room, ready to boogie.

Labyrinth may be the most accomplished of Henson’s projects. The Dark Crystal is likely the more adult of the “darker” Jim Henson films, but Labyrinth is far more enjoyable. Featuring music and craftsmanship of the highest order, it’s a wonder of practical effects and a benchmark for 80’s fantasy films.