With the revival of The Muppets after their smash 2011 film and its upcoming sequel, Jim Henson is once again being remembered as a man who will have brought joy to countless children around the world with his puppets. But, in 1986 The Jim Henson Company went on a darker route with “Labyrinth” in partnership with LucasFilm. Directed by Henson and written by Terry Jones of Monty Python, the result is a unique film featuring David Bowie as singing Goblin King and muppets that could easily scare children. A cult status was inevitable.
Teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a dreamer. She walks around town in a princess dress reciting lines from a fairy tale. Her room is filled with classic books from the genre, playbills for the plays she is rehearsing, and dolls who each have their special place above her bed. When her stepmother asks her to babysit baby brother Toby while she and her father go out for dinner, Sarah pouts and begins reciting her lines in anger. Angry at Toby who will not stop crying, she wishes the Goblin King from her book would come and take him away. Beware what you wish for.
A Goblin King called Jareth does indeed show up in Toby’s bedroom in the form of David Bowie with long white hair, a black leather coat, and tight pants. Sarah immediately knows who he is even though any other person would assume a lunatic has broken into her home. Jareth tells her he has taken Toby as she asked, but of course she says she didn’t mean it and wants him back. He gives her 13 hours to find her brother at his castle, otherwise Toby will be turned into a goblin. To get to the castle she must first go through his labyrinth, whose glittery walls harbour traps, grotesque creatures, and talking doorknobs.
Sarah’s quest comes off as a demented version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Along the way she befriends some of the labyrinth’s creatures starting with Hoggle (voice of Brian Henson), a dwarf first seen urinating in a pool and spraying fairies with insect repellent. Later she rescues Ludo (voice of Ron Mueck), a giant hairy beast who can summon rocks with his cries. Before crossing a bridge she also forms an alliance with Sir Didymus (voice of David Shaughnessy), a brave knight who happens to be a one-eyes rabbit.
The labyrinth itself is practically a character. In Jim Henson’s world everything can become alive and talk, from the walls to the trash heaps. Whereas today a film like this would have been shot entirely on a green screen, back in the 1980s everything was made by hand and painted backgrounds were used to give the impression Sarah is staring at another world. It is actually when computer effects are used that the film shows its age, especially in a scene where Sarah runs into a group of creatures that tear off their hands and bounce them around a forest.
The movie hinges on the performances of its two main human characters. Connelly plays Sarah without a trace of irony, as though stepping into another dimension is scary, but not unheard of. She is young, innocent, and often whines about how none of this is fair. Her quest proves to be a transition into adulthood as she becomes more resourceful and puts her brother’s life above hers.
Bowie plays Jareth as a deceitful trickster figure, who often changes the rules to his liking. There is a duality to the performance as he can be both seductive and menacing. Their relationship gives the story a very dark subtext. Between Sarah’s easy acceptance of Jareth’s existence and Jareth drugging her with a poisoned fruit, you have to wonder if something bad happened to Sarah back in the world. Seeing baby Toby surrounded by hideous goblins in Jareth’s throne room is rather disturbing as well.
Decades later Guillermo Del Toro went down a similar road with “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but he went full-on dark fairy tale as his story featured death, mutilation, and a fairy-devouring monster. Henson’s “Labyrinth” seems to be only going half-measure resulting in a movie that is visually unique, but unfocused.
It is truly a product of its time, from the David Bowie songs to the dozens of muppets performing on screen with no strings attached. As a kid I would have probably found them too scary. As an adult I can only marvel at the handy work in today’s Computer Age.
(“Labyrinth” is available on anniversary edition DVD and Blu-Ray.)