Be careful what you wish for. Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) can’t stand having to look after her baby brother Toby and so wishes the Goblin King would take him away. Unfortunately for her the Goblin King was listening and does just that, tasking her with beating his mischievous maze within 13 hours lest Toby be turned into another goblin. Cue one of the most memorably and iconic movies of the 1980s: Labyrinth.
When you cast your mind back to this wonderfully flamboyant movie filled with Jim Henson puppets, chances are you don’t really picture the beginning, with good reason. The first 10 minutes of set up is rather excruciating thanks to a painfully forced performance from Connelly (who was a teenager at the time). It’s not until the appearance of Jareth that things get moving because nothing says ‘showtime’ like an extremely tight trousered David Bowie with humongous hair.
What follows for the next hour and a half is pure moment to moment invention. The scenes constantly shift between Sarah working her way through the tricks and challenges of the Labyrinth (picking up a motley crew of allies along the way) and Bowie lounging around his castle like a foppish dictator. Bowie wrote several songs for the soundtrack which are nothing if not distinctive (stop yourself from singing along to Magic Dance, if you can!) and as ridiculous as he looks he clearly took his role seriously: when Jareth turns on the threats he can be very intimidating indeed.
One of the biggest joys of Labyrinth is the journey Sarah takes. The Jim Henson company, together with artist Brian Froud, lavish care and love on the set designs and characters. Be it a tiny friendly worm, a hairy gentle giant, or a chivalry obsessed fox; all the weird and wonderful creatures Sarah meets stir together into a colourful soup of fantasy. There is also massive technical achievement in the character of Hoggle, who is a mixture of live-action actor and extremely complicated puppet head. The expressiveness of Hoggle’s face (which took several puppeteers with remote control to manipulate) stands up even today.
Oddly enough considering the fun of the movie is the ever-changing locations and characters (Bog Of Eternal Stench, anyone?) the movie does somewhat spin its gears once a big action battle kicks off in the final act. Sure there are plenty of amusing skirmishes, but something about staying still with the same gang for 10 minutes or so drives the pacing into the mud. Especially because this scene follows a genuinely disturbing part where Sarah escapes from a dream bubble and lands in a claustrophobic junkyard that tries to trick her into believing she is home. Following such great concept fantasy, a big comedy battle is rather jarring.
We’ve all had movies we loved from our childhood only to rewatch and suddenly notice all the flaws. It would be hard to state with a straight face that the beloved movie Labyrinth, released in 1986, is not flawed. Bowie is giving it his all but his acting style is certainly an acquired taste. As I said earlier, Connelly’s performance is immature at first before she settles into proper ‘girl on a mission’ mode.
After the high fantasy of the Jim Henson Company’s previous movie Dark Crystal, Labyrinth seems rather hokey in its strive to be more accessible. If you are coming at this cold and not a child of the 80s then the movie may feel like somewhat of an assault on the senses.
Yet Labyrinth is a classic for a reason: it’s jammed packed with heart and ideas. What twists and turns the maze throws up is met with a smile and some of the best puppetry that Henson and co ever produced. Who knows what kind of magic spell they used, but chances are the movie will still make you dance magic dance. And baby says…?
Words by Michael Record