Explore Capricorn Theater’s first theme season with Summer of 1986, a series of short reviews focusing on the summer films released in 1986. Today’s review: Labyrinth.
Jim Henson was more than the creators of the Muppets and Sesame Street. He had a rich history of creating stories for all audiences that thought outside the box. While a lot of his directorial efforts were Muppet-related, his last major project is also one of his most beloved: 1986’s Labyrinth starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. A dazzling mix of 80’s pop video scenarios, rich puppetry and charismatic performances from Bowie and Connelly, the film has won a place in the hearts of audiences ever since then.
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t like her younger step-brother Toby (Toby Froud) and she needs to practice for a school play and despises that her parents get to have a night out while she’s stuck minding Toby. So, using the play she’s studying, she calls on the Goblin King to take her brother away. Of course, she knows the Goblin King isn’t real and frumpily leaves Toby in his crib while she pines over her lost freedom. Unfortunately, the Jared the Goblin King (David Bowie) is real and does hear Sarah’s request and does take Toby. Sarah now has thirteen hours in which to solve the sprawling labyrinth sat in the way of the Goblin City, where Toby is, all while the Goblin King tries everything to tempt her not to succeed.
The film’s charm and appeal to this day can be split into two neat and tidy groups: the puppetry performances and Bowie and Connelly’s interplay. The work of the Henson Workshop meant that characters who would not be on screen normally for more than a few minutes must stand under scrutiny throughout the film. From Hoggle (played by Shari Weiser and voiced by Brian Henson) a curmudgeonly dwarf who reluctantly helps Sarah but is secretly being pressured by Jared to steer her away from the city, to Ludo, a huge, hairy monosyllabic friendly biped (Ron Mueck voicing with he and Rob Mills performing) to the Goblin creatures themselves, the puppets on display exhibit a massive range of emotion and intonation and make the human actors performances solid and assured. Speaking of humans, David Bowie seemed born to play Jared. Mixing a projection of childhood wonder and fear with a strange, almost adult manner of romantic infatuation with Sarah, Jared is a personification of evil rather than being evil in and of himself. He threatens Sarah but isn’t going to hurt her. He wants her affection but nothing will stop him from claiming Toby as a Goblin because those are the rules. All the while, he watches Sarah’s struggles from the castle and throws every obstacle in her way. Jennifer Connelly’s first major role in a film and she’s tasked with leading the picture, having no one, for the most part, to physically react against and to top it off, she has David Bowie as a nemesis. But while her performance can be claimed to be a little simplistic, her confidence grows as the film progresses and changes shape and she is able to match wits with Bowie by picture’s end.
The music in the film is the hidden secret before someone enters the world of Labyrinth. From the weird and somewhat deliberately discordant score by Trevor Jones to the standout songs by David Bowie like the melancholic “As the World Falls Down” where Sarah is given everything except Toby on a plate by Jared in the guise of an adults only masquerade ball to the infectious “Magic Dance” where the Goblins sing in turns with Bowie as he gleefully delights in his winning in the end against Sarah, the music has a power over the audience and acts as a glue to hold the lighter and darker moments together where they otherwise might not have. The slightly weird elements in the film: Bowie’s ridiculous codpiece, the garish green screen moments with the Fire guys, the weird fixation on Sarah that Jared has and uneven “real world” moments don’t detract from the film. In fact, they are actually celebrated by the film’s fans and add to their enjoyment of the world created for them. On top of this, there are the amazing sets like the Goblin city, the dizzying maze (faithful to the style of artist M. C. Escher) in Jared’s castle and the labyrinth maze itself. Truly, a failure at the time of its release, in the years since then audiences have learned to appreciate the film with its layers upon layers to explore.
If you take the notion that Sarah is simply dreaming the entire adventure, then Labyrinth is a look into the mind of an adolescent young woman as she transitions from the worrying position of being a teenager and all the woe and angst that goes with it and takes her first steps into being a woman complete with her first adult infatuation (Jared), her first taste of responsibility with all its downsides (forsaking Toby and getting him back) and forging friendships that she won’t leave behind (Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Didymus). From this perspective, it goes some way to explaining the film’s continued appeal. For girls, Sarah’s journey is every girl’s journey into adulthood. Not bad for a film that was made by the Muppet guy. If you simply take it as truth that everything that’s happening to Sarah is real, then the film is a classic in storytelling and has all the hallmarks of a great fantasy: a hero who makes a terrible mistake, a villain who has an ulterior motive and characters who distrust the hero until they prove themselves and a huge fight at the end that clears the deck and sets the world right.
On a more personal note, as I’ve stated before in other recent reviews with him starring in them, I find it sad that we lost such an amazing talent as David Bowie who, through his acting roles alone (never mind his musical talents), gave such multifaceted performances as Jared in Labyrinth. The same goes for Jim Henson and his prodigious talents.
Netflix review. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater by purchasing the US DVD, blu ray or 4K Ultra blu ray releases from Amazon US. You can also rent the movie from Sony UK through Youtube/Google Play Movies by clicking here