The Unfettered Critic – October 2016

Thirty years ago, three master entertainers joined forces to create the fantasy film Labyrinth: director Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets), producer George Lucas (the man behind Star Wars), and actor/artist/rock god David Bowie.

If your memories of Labyrinth are vague, you’re probably a guy. If, however, your memories are tinged with pleasant emotion, you’re likely female. Mention the film, and the typical response is: (women) “One of my favorites!” or (men) “The one with puppets and Bowie in a wig? Ugh.”

One of us has long loved it, the other…not so much. Yet each of us gained a greater appreciation of the film while researching our latest book, Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History. (On sale October 18.) (End of shameless plug.)

The Jim Henson Company (home to Kermit and Gonzo) graciously offered us access to their archives, where we tracked down the first wisp of the concept—a conversation between three exhausted (and tipsy) people in the back of a limousine—to the silly-yet-savvy ideas Jim Henson jotted onto whatever scrap of paper was handy, to long-stored concept paintings of exotic characters. We talked with virtually every person who worked on the film (including the famously reclusive George Lucas), with two significant exceptions: Jim Henson, who died in 1990, and the unexpectedly mortal David Bowie, who passed just as we started writing.

Labyrinth is a coming-of-age tale about Sarah (future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly), a teenager on the cusp of womanhood who must outwit Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie) in order to rescue her goblin-snatched baby brother. It’s undeniably a “girl’s movie,” but Henson, father to two sons (as well as three daughters), also included stuff that would appeal to boys—like “The Bog of Eternal Stench” and Humongous, a fifteen-foot-tall rampaging robot. However, a boy would have to buy a ticket to discover that. And with competition like The Karate Kid, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Top Gun filling the screens that year, there wasn’t much incentive for boys to pick Labyrinth for a Saturday matinee.

Despite good reviews when the film premiered, it sank like a stone. But curiously, Labyrinth has never faded from public awareness. Over the decades, it’s enjoyed a robust afterlife in home entertainment, and revival showings invariably drew in new fans with the old. Now, celebrating its 30th Anniversary, it’s bigger than ever. Theatrical screenings are scheduled nationwide, and a commemorative Blu-ray DVD, filled with new interviews and bonus features, is on the way.

What makes Labyrinth worthy of our attention thirty-years-after-the-fact?

  1. It’s one of the last examples of pure “hands-on” filmmaking. With the exception of a computer graphic owl in the credits, every onscreen character, no matter how outlandish, is physically “present;” nothing was added in postproduction. Human actors interact with inhuman creatures operated by Henson puppeteers on huge elaborate sets. As someone once said, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!
  2. David Bowie’s performance is sublime. There he is in all his bewigged glory, singing and cavorting in memorably tight pants. Yet his songs, his magnetic personality, and his larger-than-life presence are what you remember. Bowie is funny, threatening, sexy, gorgeous. His entreaty to Sarah—“Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave”—is beguiling. Sarah’s tempted by emotions she’s too young to understand but ultimately mature enough to ignore.
  3. It was Jim Henson’s last feature film. This brilliant artist and unmatched fantasist died at the age of 53. We can’t help but wonder what marvelous works he’d have completed in future decades. Thankfully, Labyrinth is lasting testament to his talent.