All of the flawless know-how that master puppeteer, Jim Henson could pour into a $25,000,000 budget, a pop-tune inspired soundtrack from the legendary David Bowie, and, some of the most unreservedly unimaginable, and still very impressive, special effects went into the creation of Labyrinth (1986); visually, a richly layered fable a la the Brothers Grimm meets Frank L. Baum and Maurice Sendak. Yet, despite its inventiveness, this compendium of clichés and exoticism failed to jell beyond the pedigree of such impressive visuals. Superficially at least, there was nothing inherently mistaken in pursuing the rather heavily trodden escapist ‘dream’ motif (for which an entire body of science fiction has relied on time immemorial) or our proto-feminist heroine, entering this illusory province of infinite joys and dangers by way of an Alice Through the Looking Glass porthole. Regrettably, there was also not much more to the point of Terry Jones’ screenplay. For once having crossed to the other side of its highly stylized insanity, the Labyrinth seriously lacked the impetus of a forward-thinking narrative structure; the singular quest in the journey leading to more mayhem and misadventures with misanthropes than a search for self-discovery; usually the purpose of such soulful enterprises. We should pause a moment to tip our hats to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale admitting to the Good Witch of the North that if she ever feels the urge to go in search of her own heart’s desire again, she will never look further than her own backyard – “…because if it isn’t there, then I never really lost it in the first place.” No movie before or since has done as much for our ageless suspension of childhood disbelief while proving the affirmation of these daydreams that, far from dissipating, seem only to ripen more sincerely with the passage of time.
At least in theory, Labyrinth has all glitter, panache and makings of an epic children’s movie classic like Oz. Yet, it foundered at the box office – barely clawing back half its initial investment. But this rather makes sense to me now. I can recall seeing the movie in ’86. Even at the ‘mature’ age of 15 (the same age as our heroine) I found Labyrinth more disturbing than enchanted. Fair enough, the literary world of the Brothers Grimm is peppered in the edgily dark and demonic. Yet, in the case of Labyrinth, here was a tale about a bitter ingénue, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) who, with tearful spite and venom toward her stepmother, and, ‘big sister’ cruelty re-channeled to a helpless and blubbering baby, wishes the innocent banished to an eternal and forgotten lair of fantasy she knows absolutely nothing about. Then, with her miscarriage of imagination devilishly fulfilled by Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie) – a gangly, punk-haired, Dracula-caped, shape-shifting tease, spewing platitudes and glitter in tandem – Sarah pursues a rescue intervention from his brooding netherworld; a place where virtually all friendships are fickle and fleeting, and all ‘creatures’ encountered along the way are deformed non-human entities. Meanwhile, the Goblin King holds other people’s seemingly unwanted children captive in a sort of ageless vacuum for his own amusement.
Some thirty years later, I still see no reason to revise my initial assessment of Labyrinth as a thoroughly ambitious, but equally as flawed masterpiece. Despite its cult status, and a rather intriguing performance by Bowie, tailor-made to his life-long adoration for gender-bending make-up and costuming, Labyrinth is grotesquely undernourished and wafer-thin on plot and purpose. Again, I defer to MGM’s mammoth Wizard of Oz. Unlike Oz’s Dorothy, entering a fascistic alter-reality, impacting positive change via three enduring friendships and, in the process, liberating the denizens of its demesne under a tyrannical witch, but also the false-prophesized micromanagement of a ‘humbug’; Sarah in Labyrinth is never motivated by any such altruism. She is merely desperate to undue the impromptu madness she herself has caused before dad (Christopher Malcolm) and step-mama (Shelley Thompson) can unearth her wicked wretchedness. If Oz is a place where good girls go in search of their better selves, than the Goblin King’s labyrinth is a purgatory lurking with temptations for tarts who moronically believe they can do better without any help at all. Jareth’s domain is not a magical fairyland ‘somewhere over the rainbow’, but an arid and generally unkempt principality, overgrown in vines and weeds, a dystopian paradise gone hopelessly to seed with periodically cobble-stoned Tyrolian townships and moss-laden, swampy ‘stinky’ marshes where only the fittest – or at least, the most enterprising – can survive. Worse, at least for the picture’s success, is the queerly unsettling, if briefly mutual, sexual attraction between the child, Sarah and worldly Jareth; Bowie’s otherworldly presence a potent potion for this burgeoning young lass who lacks his level of experience, though otherwise possesses the chutzpah to play his game on his terms by exploiting her own ‘come hither’ eligibility as an intoxicating counterpoint of interest.
The project was begun in earnest after an impromptu conversation between Jim Henson and Brian Froud; the pair having worked together on Henson’s other pet project, The Dark Crystal (1982). Froud, who would ultimately serve as Labyrinth’s ‘conceptual designer’, pitched some of his ideas to Henson with a passion for the age-ole folklore of goblins as its centerpiece. While Henson liked the idea, he also encouraged Froud to seek out the humor rather than the pathos of the piece. Henson was also more determined his puppets should have ‘character’ this time around. Yet, almost from the beginning, the concept for Labyrinth became muddled. An early novella, commissioned by Henson from author, Dennis Lee seemed to shed some light. Indeed, Henson admired the lyrical quality of the piece, passing it along to screenwriter, Terry Jones. However, Jones disliked practically everything about Lee’s book so much, he elected instead to begin afresh, cribbing from Froud’s concept art for his only inspiration. Although Jones would receive sole writing credit on Labyrinth, the shooting script would continue to morph and was to be heavily rewritten by George Lucas, Laura Philips and Elaine May, with Henson putting in some of his own finishing touches. What ultimately emerged from all this tinkering was a movie Jones would all but disavow.
Part of the problem lay in Jim Henson’s decision to cast David Bowie as the irrefutable ‘star presence’; a move resulting in the part of Jareth being greatly revised and expanded. Initially, Jareth was just another puppet creature in Henson’s arsenal of convincing oddities. Eventually, the character outgrew this primitive concept; Henson leaning more toward the idea of hiring a pop star to play the part. While the likes of Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson were all briefly considered, Henson eventually hit on the inspired notion of casting Bowie in the lead. One cannot underestimate Bowie’s distinctiveness; his unique and angular physicality married to one of the most iconic and trend-setting careers of any musician in his vintage. Bowie had studied acting, arguably his first true love, before embarking upon a career in music. Yet, only more recently had he chosen to split his time between live concert performances, writing, producing and recording albums; also, to include a breakneck schedule of thoroughly impressive theatrical and movie appearances; 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1979’s Just a Gigolo, and 1983’s The Hunger among them.
And indeed, in revisiting Labyrinth some thirty years on, regrettably after Bowie’s untimely passing, his performance remains the one thing about the picture ostensibly that has not aged. Bowie brings a certain aristocratic je ne sais quoi and flamboyance to the part; also, a distinctly asexual glamour that is as innocuous as it remains succinctly subtle in the art of scintillation. “I'd always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else,” Bowie would later confide in an interview, “…and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning.” Yet, to some extent, Bowie’s participation also offsets and/or unhinges the strength of our heroine’s soulful search for self-discovery.
In Terry Jones’ original screenplay, Jareth is an enigma of Sarah’s mind; elusive, yet hypnotically compelling; the labyrinth, not revealed until Sarah’s discovery of it in the third act. It thus, and simultaneously, remains a mystery to the audience. In the finished picture, however, the labyrinth is represented several times throughout the story; Bowie leaping about its Roman forum-esque construction in a rather transparent music video-ish performance that could have just as easily been excised from TV’s The Muppet Show (1976-81). Between 1983 and 1985, Jones’ screenplay would undergo many mutations and no less than twenty-five heavily revised drafts. Bowie was not particularly impressed with the script, believing it lacked humor and pathos. At one point, he even contemplated withdrawing from the project, his fears allayed by Henson’s repeated promises that ‘improvements’ were being made to accommodate his interests. It is perhaps noteworthy to recall in these early drafts, the protagonist of our story shifted from an Arthurian liege to as equally as bygone a princess, and finally, to a little girl from Victorian England. To keep budgetary concerns to a minimal, the bookends of Labyrinth were eventually updated to then contemporary America, making Sarah’s atypical fascination with spotty widgets, spirits, goblins and the like all the more curious out of context.
Labyrinth began its arduous five month shoot on April 15, 1985 at Elstree Studios in London; a relatively brief schedule for principle photography preceded by almost a year and a half of pre-production to create convincing creature designs. Employing virtually every major sound stage the studio had to offer, Production Designer Elliot Scott and Art Directors, Terry Ackland-Snow, Roger Cain, Peter Howitt, Frank Walsh and Michael White handcrafted a fantastic assortment of indoor sets, requiring the expert execution of forced perspective and enveloping dioramas – arguably, the largest ever built – to mimic this vast and seemingly endless landscape. To anchor the tale in its ‘American setting’, the production crew also took advantage of staging the movie’s bookends in Upper Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw, NY. There is, to be sure, a certain level of verisimilitude to these opening shots depicting Sarah, soiled in her ‘princess white’ robes as she races home from her afternoon of make-believe during an impromptu thundershower, that the rest of the studio-bound work never entirely assuages; despite the inclusion of 120 truckloads of tree branches, 1,200 turfs of grass, and 850 lbs. of dry leaves scattered throughout these stylized sets to suggest some pseudo-authenticity beyond their artifice. But the uncanny illusion of life, oft’ honed by a small army of puppeteers toiling behind the scenes, would be most complexly realized in Hoggle – the elfin, pock-skin ‘garden gnome’ who serves as Sarah’s reluctant guide through the zigzagging abyss. Ultimately, character actress Shari Weiser was suited into the costume, providing the spritely pantomime of body movements while four radio-controlled puppeteers plied their craft to will a separate ‘performance’ from the elf’s audio-animatronic head. Despite its transatlantic exodus from Hollywood, most of Labyrinth’s creatives were culled from talent loyal to Henson’s state’s side production company, including a good many ‘Fraggle Rock’ alumni; Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Karen Prell, Ron Mueck and Rob Mills among them.
After a main title sequence set to Bowie’s ‘Underground’, and featuring an animated barn owl swooping in and out of the credits, Labyrinth opens with Sarah Williams rehearsing for a part in a play in a park-like setting with her loveable mutt, Merlin. A light spring rain stirs Sarah from this fantasy role-playing to recall she is supposed to be at home preparing to babysit her infant brother, Toby (Toby Froud) while their father, Robert and Sarah’s stepmother, Irene go out to dinner. Coming into direct conflict with Irene on the front steps; then, acting belligerent toward Robert, Sarah next sets about tormenting her already tear-stained brother with angry diatribes that do little to comfort his tears. Aside: as a fifteen year old boy in 1986 I could not imagine a more hellish nightmare than to have been left in Sarah’s care. What a spoilt and viperous brat! Ah, but Sarah is in for a good ‘head shake’ as it were; her rash request to have the fictional Goblin King from her play swoop down and remove Toby from her care, suddenly granted. The execution of this abduction is, in tandem, one of the most exhilarating and terrifying moments in the picture; the expansive bedroom set filled with shafts of bluish lightening from the storm outside and the infrequent grizzly giggles of goblins hiding everywhere in plain sight, awaiting the satisfaction of their master – Jareth.
What occurs next is rather inexcusably befuddling. Jareth appears in the form of a barn owl, miraculously transformed into David Bowie. He offers Sarah a gift in exchange for Toby; a clear-glass orb juggled between his fingertips, suddenly transformed into a hideous snake. Urging Sarah to forget about Toby, the girl instead takes up Jareth’s challenge to pursue him into the labyrinth. Given Jareth’s initial abject discouragement, it is more than a little confusing he should then grant Sarah a brief pardon into his private kingdom – thirteen hours to ‘solve’ the riddle of the labyrinth, before commenting “what a waste, Sarah” and vanishing into thin air, leaving the girl to fend for herself in this strange land. Entering the maze by way of a magic doorknocker, Sarah has difficulty discerning turns and corners. Yet most of what she visually perceives is an optical illusion. Hoggle appears, but is of little help at first. After all, why bother. Unraveling the mystery of the labyrinth is impossible. But Sarah gets advice from a cockney worm; actually, a bit more misdirection than she bargained for, plummeting down a bizarre mineshaft comprised of ‘helping hands’ and reunited with Hoggle in a dark oubliette. While Hoggle is ever-pessimistic about their future, Sarah encourages him to reconsider the labyrinth as little more than a semi-complex puzzle to be solved. In response to her dismissal of his game, Jareth suddenly reappears. He ups the ante by advancing the clock several hours ahead, thus providing Sarah with less time to search for Toby. Jareth then threatens Sarah and her newfound companion with a strange metallic excavating device burrowing down the tight mine shaft, hurtling towards them and sure to crush and annihilate.
At the last possible moment, Sarah and Hoggle discover a secret passage and a wooden ladder leading back up to the surface. More encounters with strange and unearthly creatures from this netherworld follow; a sage with the upper half of a talking ostrich as his headdress, demands remuneration from Sarah (she gives up her ring) but then absolutely refuses to tell her anything in return. Pursued by warring pygmies, Sarah and Hoggle become estranged; Sarah stumbling across a gigantic beast, tied and dangling upside down from a tree. The beast, Ludo, briefly functions in the role of Sarah’s protector. However, he too gets lost in the Bog of Eternal Stench; Jareth reappearing to Hoggle, ordering him to give Sarah a freshly ripened peach (think the tainted apple from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1938). In the meantime, Sarah is accosted by ‘the Firies’ – the least convincing of Jim Henson’s creatures, shot in full figure against a blue screen and unconvincingly matted into the live action. The Firies perform another of Bowie’s songs, ‘Chilly Down’ before trying to separate Sarah’s head from her body. Mercifully, Hoggle comes to Sarah’s aid; a betrayal that causes Jareth to exile both of them to the Bog of Eternal Stench where Sarah is reunited with Ludo. From here, the encounters grow more frequently episodic. The primary criticism I have against Labyrinth is it completely fails to engage the viewer with anything better than these brief encounters, meant primarily to show off the technical prowess of Jim Henson’s puppet cavalcade. It’s all show rather than an experience.
Sarah, Hoggle, and Ludo are denied access to a narrow bridge by Sir Didymus, an anthropomorphic Fox Terrier and his English Sheepdog, Ambrosius. Yet, like virtually all the other obstacles Sarah has encountered, and will continue to, this one too is a red herring in misdirection, merely meant to cleverly delay the journey without actually causing us to fear its failure altogether. All Sarah has to do is ask Didymus’ permission to pass. This granted, she now falls prey to Hoggle’s ‘gift’ – Jareth’s juicy peach, causing a hallucinogenic nightmare to further detour Sarah’s odyssey. Instead, she imagines herself in a trance-like state during a lavishly appointed masked ball; Jareth steadily approaching to proclaim his love. The courtiers are as a gathering of wax mannequins escaped from Madame Tussauds; the illusion shattered when the memories Jareth is attempting to suppress with this elaborate ‘dream’ come barreling back into Sarah’s subconscious. She collapses, and is plunged into yet another illusion, that of having arrived to the relative safety of her own bedroom. It is, of course, even more misdirection; Sarah realizing the room is cobbled together from spare parts and relocated in a vast junkyard on the outskirts of the labyrinth. Ludo and Didymus come to her rescue and together they make their way to Goblin City. Now, Hoggle sheepishly – and rather bravely – helps everyone get past the tower gate. Despite his feeling unworthy, Sarah and the others forgive and welcome Hoggle back into their fold. Determined to prevent Sarah her entry into his castle, Jareth sends the goblin army to attack. But these diminutive warriors are no match for Ludo’s strength, as he hurls mountain rocks and other debris to clear a direct path to the castle. Sarah enters a room modeled on the famed Escher Staircase; its forced perspective, resulting in a discombobulating sequence, seemingly unbound by the laws of gravity.
In one of Labyrinth’s creepiest and utterly icky moments, Jareth makes one final attempt to prevent Sarah from fulfilling her journey’s end. He promises her his eternal love if she will only ‘submit’ to him and thus surrender Toby into his care. Recalling for the first time the circumstances she is presently living through, mirror the events as depicted in the play she was rehearsing for at the start of the movie, Sarah begins to recite the lines she has learned, stumbling over a pivotal bit of dialogue; the only words that prevent her from returning home safely. As Jareth dangles the glass orb before Sarah, pleading for her reconsideration, she draws from memory the play’s definitive moment of liberation – “…and you have no power over me.” The spell is broken and Jareth dissolves into a heap of rags blowing restlessly in the wind. Sarah discovers herself back in the foyer of her family home; the barn owl flying out the open front door as she races upstairs to discover Toby peacefully asleep in his crib. As with most everything that has occurred thus far, Labyrinth’s finale is nonsensical. Sarah returns to her bedroom, slightly wiser and more ‘grown up’, but as saddened it all now appears to have come to an abrupt end. However, just as unexpectedly, Hoggle, Ludo, Didymus and Ambrosius, together with an eclectic assortment of creatures encountered along the way, suddenly reappear to surround her in jubilation. Perhaps, Sarah reasons, there is just a little more time to be squeezed out of ‘childhood’ before the inevitableness of time marching on creeps in for good. As the revelers rejoice, Jareth, in owl form, quietly observes from beyond the window before flying off into the night.
Despite its uber-sophisticated blend of puppetry and other sundry visual effects, Labyrinth is a convoluted fable at best. When stripped of all its ‘creature comforts’ it is not an altogether prepossessing one either. It desperately wants to be hailed as a revisionist’s mythology, and, moreover, a new ‘children’s movie classic’ on par with The Wizard of Oz. However, the cinematic Oz is a fairytale of the highest order, primarily because it is imbued with those intangibly light touches of faith in the future. And it has a heroine who never wanes in her positivism or goal. By contrast, Labyrinth’s Sarah is repeatedly delayed and frequently allows herself this luxury to wallow, either in self-pity or simply in the latest hallucination du moment. She is neither as clever nor as driven in her pursuit, primarily because outside of finding the brother she has exiled to this otherworldly maelstrom, she cannot see the ‘proverbial forest for its trees’; that a return to mid-town America does not necessarily equate to a restoration of life as she once knew it, or even better – an appreciation for – the humdrum of it she so easily dismissed at the start.
Alas, Labyrinth equally suffers from the elephantiasis of its top-heavy visual design that, while breathtaking, does not, in and of itself, generate the intimate or engaging backdrop onto which all its allegorical and semi-nonsensically staged action can thrive. While Oz’s trajectory moves in a linear forward direction, the purpose of Sarah’s journey in Labyrinth’s is neither clearly stated nor ever resolved completely at the end. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the movie is its SFX, virtually all but a handful achieved full-scale and in-camera. The movie’s other great salvation is David Bowie’s performance, imbued with stirrings in tandem of empathy, plodding vindictiveness, and, in a few scenes, an almost pedophiliac ‘romantic’ desire to possess Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah; herself, transformed from wicked to winsome before the end; a real woman with a ‘reel’ woman’s heart. Does any of this work? Partly. Should any of it make sense? Hmmm. At some point, even the most fantastical of all mind-bending movie trips has to meet the most basic criteria: to tell its story succinctly, competently, and purposefully without pretending to be anything more than an entertainment; a way to conveniently fill up our leisure with a good yarn and a dash of thought-provoking magic not to be unearthed in the natural world. Labyrinth fails in this purpose, mainly because Jim Henson is more invested in the vignettes, the technicalities, and the precision of bringing ‘life’ to the inanimate among the cast. As ever, this was, is and remains Henson’s great gift to the world. It does not, however, equate to movie magic of the highest order – at least, not in Labyrinth’s case.
The 30th Anniversary of Labyrinth has received a stunning new 4K restoration utilizing the original camera negative. The results speak for themselves: a substantial upsurge in color fidelity and density, fine detail, and, accurately produced grain structure, perfectly capable of capturing the distinctive and subtler textures employed in these stunning visuals. Prepare to be dazzled because Labyrinth on Blu-ray has never looked better. Labyrinth’s carefully composed shots and exquisitely detailed old-school film-making techniques put virtually all of today’s digital photography to shame; Alex Thomson’s artistry remains a many-splendored thing; the likes of which ‘reel’ cinema magic is oft made. Detail is the most markedly improved. I found myself noticing things like the print of the wallpaper in Sarah’s bedroom, or some of the surreal textures in the puppet’s latex skin and artificial hair. No, it did not take me ‘out of the story’ – such as it is. If anything, a new appreciation steadily evolved for the ultra-high level of craftsmanship pursued and perfected on this project. Detail even emerges from the shadows; blacks velvety rich, though never crushing and skin tones looking more genuine than ever. There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. Labyrinth is a reference quality disc sure to delight its myriad of fans.
Labyrinth also gets a new Dolby Atmos 7.1 track. As with the image, Sony has taken the utmost care to deliver the goods with a truly immersive sonic experience; low, sustained rumbles during the thunderstorm, creature groans and moans sounding true to life rather than manufactured Foley and wow, dialogue so crisply rendered you will swear the cast is doing a live reading in front of your screen. The clarity of the music is also lushly spread around with careful distinction and an infinitely more robust bass than was available on the old Blu-ray release. The vocals are front and center as they should be. But there is atmospheric support creeping in on all sides. Anyone questioning the validity of converting older audio recordings to Dolby Atmos need only take a careful listen how good they can sound when all the care, bells and whistles have been applied with due diligence.
Lastly, Sony has pulled out all the stops for the most comprehensive assortment of extras, beginning with ‘The Henson Legacy’ – featuring Jennifer Connelly and members of the Henson family, plus a rare trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts that includes over 100 puppets from Labyrinth. Mythbuster’s Adam Savage hosts a Q&A with behind-the-scenes craftsmen, Brian Henson, David Goelz, Karen Prell and Sheri Weiser. In what must be considered the most poignant of the featurettes, Jennifer Connelly pays a glowing tribute to David Bowie in The Goblin King, along with Jim Henson’s children, Brian and Cheryl: bring Kleenex. Best of all, unlike Disney’s recent misfire with Beauty and The Beast, Sony has no compunction about including ALL of the previously afforded extras on their reissue of Labyrinth, including the old Picture-in-Picture commentary, another by Brian Froud, the original – and frankly, very comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary, plus two additional documentaries, exploring the movies vast assortment of characters, and a behind-the-scenes look at ‘Goblin City’; finally, the original theatrical trailer. It bears repeating that when it comes to Blu-ray, Sony remains ahead of the pack. Grover Crisp and his magicians are owed the utmost respect for bringing yet another vintage catalog release to the forefront with superior mastering and restoration techniques that have yielded bar none the most impressive Blu-ray of this newly inaugurated fall season. For those who have afforded Labyrinth its cult status over these many years, this new 30th anniversary will make a very fine Christmas stocking stuffer. Permit us to worship and give thanks.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)