Because it is an unspoken goal of The Film Dump to review every film made in the 80s (Hint: film review 300 is an 80s films) it was only a matter of time before I got to Jim Henson’s master work, Labyrinth. Also, because Labyrinth is a great film it was also only a matter of time before I got to it. This is a film I probably watched fortnightly as a kid. I was actually unaware, until recently, that it had failed critically and financially upon its original release. I had always assumed it was a huge deal because it was a huge deal to me, my friends and pretty much everyone around my age and younger today. The film is still referred to as a cult classic. There’s nothing cult about how poplar Labyrinth is. This film is legit, so, click the link below and I’ll tell you just how much Labyrinth is one of the most legitist films ever.
Labyrinth follows a teenage girl called Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who, one night whilst babysitting her baby brother, gets so annoyed by his crying that she does what any teenage girl would do and wish him to be taken away by the Goblin King. Totally normal behaviour. Also, The Goblin King is David Bowie. I did tell you this was an 80s film. Sarah realises this was a bit of a rash move pretty much immediately and begs Jareth, The Goblin King, to return her brother. He explains that she can only have him back if she can solve his labyrinth and get to his castle in 13 hours. Of course this isn’t going to be as easy as solving a maze would seem. The labyrinth is a twisted and magical place that is constantly changing and shifting with a dreamlike logic that will test Sarah’s mind and determination to save her brother.
What this film does exceptionally well is create a coherent, and yet suitably incoherent dream scape of a world from the Goblin King’s world. Much like Jan Svankmajer’s Alice almost every element of the Labyrinth can be seen in tiny little visual clues dotted around Sarah’s home and, primarily, her bedroom. She has a Goblin King stature, there’s a doll of a ballroom dancer contained behind glass, cuddly toys that share similarities with the creatures she encounters. She also has a collection of fantasy books that share many similarities with regards to their themes as Labyrinth does itself. Books such as Where the Wild Things Are and The Wizard of Oz., for example. These objects even come into play later in the story as she must effectively leave them behind in order to continue with her journey. This completes a stage of her rite of passage that is central to the film’s story.
Thematically the film is essentially about a teenager learning about responsibility, about how life isn’t always fair and how to open herself up to others. Early on she is abrasive with her parents, sees her responsibility to babysit her brother as a chore and inconvenience to her life and would rather escape into fantasy than deal with life. Basically she’s a standard teen. He journey through the labyrinth require her to trust others, force her to test her patience and to rely on her wits to outsmart the world around her. The film does a superb job of gradually changing the characters personality from being a bit of a little drama queen to being an actual mature and compassionate human being. This is accomplished through tiny details such as eventually remembering the name a the dwarf companion she encounters called Hoggle, who she repeatedly calls Hogwart by accident early on. Something The Goblin King does too, suggesting he’s viewed as barely a person. Also, it kinda convinces me that JK Rowling stole all the names she uses from 80s fantasy films. Other scenes show her rejecting a perfect fantasy world Jareth presents to her and in another scene she helps rescue a creature called Ludo, showing her increased care for others. Something that wasn’t present earlier when she had first shunned Hoggle in a mean spirited way. She really does start off as quite a brat.
The transformation of her character by the film’s end is genuinely well executed to a degree that doesn’t tend to be present in a lot of fantasy movies these days. The icing on the cake comes in the final scene and I believe it is those moments that really cement this film’s longevity. The character themes it tackles ring true for almost anyone. It’s not delivering a message that as a teenager you have to give up on flights of fancy, but rather that those fantasies are what make you who you are and, as such, shouldn’t be abandoned. It reminds you that if you loved a film, book or game as a child, despite you having grown up and fully formed your personality, you can still love it as an adult as this fantasy is part of what made you who you are today. That you are the sum of your parts and influences and that the things you love can never truly go away.
A hell of a lot of mention should go to Jim Henson’s creature workshop for the puppets and effects pulled off in this film. Jim’s previous film, Dark Crystal, as quite the showcase for the mastery of puppetry. Labyrinth is just an incredible feat in this regard. The variety of puppet types are increased. The ingenuity of how on set actors were combined with practical effects such as masks is just superb, Hoggle being a pretty ground-breaking mixture of performance and puppetry himself. There’s a few moments where the puppets have started to look a little dated now but the entire world is so uniformly consistent in its crafting that they blend right in. Barring some slightly problematic chroma key and masking effects the visuals in Labyrinth are near flawlessly executed. Any problems those effects could have had could easily be fixed with a high quality remastering of the film to adjust the colour tones and remove that tell-tale blue glow. Regardless, this is still a practical effects masterclass that nears Aliens levels of perfection.
Performance wise Jennifer Connelly is still in that awkward pre-adult acting phase in her career where the majority of her line delivery is via the medium of wood. She had improved a fair amount since Phenomena though, so that’s good. David Bowie flits between clearly not being sure what to make of this and being entirely wrapped up in the fantasy. Which leads to a typically unique performance from old Mr Stardust. This is perfect because if he was to ever come across as normal for the slightest moment the fantastical nature of his role would have been shattered to pieces. I doubt there was any danger of that though, especially when his wardrobe is so gosh darn fabulous. All feathers and short jackets coupled with spandex tights so revealing he’d get put on a sex offenders register these days if he stepped near a girl as young as Jennifer was whilst wearing them. Bowie also provides all the musical numbers in the film with only one being performed by anyone other than him. That song is Chilly Down and features on vocals, amongst many others, Danny John Jules, who you likely know as Cat from Red Dwarf. I’m not shitting ye. He’s also in Little Shop of Horrors you know. Fun facts!
There’s a very good chance that if you were born post 1980 that this film is likely amongst your favourites. I honestly think I would struggle to find someone that hasn’t seen this among my friends and would be equally as unlikely to find anyone that dislikes the film. Labyrinth isn’t perfect, as noted, but it’s an honest, fun, fantastical film with genuine thematic worth. Jim Henson and his crew conjure up imagery that so few other directors can even come near approaching. No, Tim Burton doesn’t manage it. He’s a fraud. This film has heart and an incredible amount of care lavished upon it, all of which shows on the screen. As far as I am concerned, and I am aware I have said this of a few children’s films, this is essential viewing for any young person you may have brought into this world. Get it in your collection and make them watch it.