Some days are harder than others in this
job unpaid perpetual indentured servitude.
This review came about because one of my very, very closest friends donated embarrassingly generously to Joanna and simply asked that I review a beloved childhood movie of hers, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
And now I’m going to crap all over it because I’m classy like that.
Oh, and she’s just announced that she’s engaged (Congratulations Fleur!).
Sorry to everyone who loves this film and I know there are many of you. Sorry to fans of David Bowie and Jim Henson (of which I consider myself one on both counts). Apologies to all you ladies out there (and a not inconsiderable number of you gentlemen) for whom the sight of David Bowie in those pants was your Leia in a Gold Bikini.
This is one nostalgia wave you must surf alone while I sulk on the beach complaining about the sand up my crack.
Don’t like it. Never have.
Labyrinth came about during the filming of Dark Crystal when director Jim Henson and concept artist Brian Froud started throwing ideas around for a movie that would be similar to Dark Crystal but maybe a tad less traumatising for the man cubs. Froud is an absolutely phenomenal fantasy artist, but unfortunately his work is often little more than pro-fairy propaganda, and I cannot recommend any artist who’d try to burnish the image of those baby-snatching, milk souring, potato mooching, cow-hassling little mother…
Sorry, sorry. I swore when I began this review I wasn’t going to let this turn into an anti-fairy screed.
began and remained to the end more of a showcase for Froud’s designs and the Henson company’s animatronic wizardry than a real attempt to tell a story. The movie is really just another entry into the surprisingly large genre of “young girl enters a strange land, makes some weird friends and sees some craaaaaaazy shit man”, joining such other exemplars of the form as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz
and that time your older sister went backpacking in Amsterdam.
David Bowie was cast as the Goblin King Jareth, over other possible choices like Sting and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson as the Goblin King is one of those things that could have gone very, very right or very, very wrong but on the whole I think they made the right choice with Bowie. He’s still not my perfect casting for the role though.
I should be a casting director. I should live in Hollywood and have a big house and a fancy car.
George Lucas produced, Bowie provided songs, Monty Python vet Terry Jones wrote the script and the puppeteering features work by veterans like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. A lot of talented people and George Lucas worked on this. No question.
So what’s my beef?
Let’s take a look.
So the movie opens with a barn owl flying over the credits in what is actually the first ever attempt at rendering a photo-realistic animal in CGI in a motion picture. It always bowls me over to think that, far from being new or cutting edge, computer animation has been used in film for well over three decades now. As 1980s computer animation goes it’s…not at all bad actually. I mean, it’s clearly CGI but the animation is fluid and realistic and it actually holds up pretty darn well.
In a park, Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) is running around in a white dress and talking guff about goblins.
I…honestly have no idea what she’s doing here. She’s fifteen years old and playing by herself in a park. In costume.
Is she role-playing? Rehearsing a play? Feigning madness to catch the conscience of the king?
I have a theory that Sarah is actually in a constant state of delusion and that the movie and all the stuff with the Labyrinth that happens is just what she does every single day. Connolly of course went on to have a long and fruitful acting career but here she’s…a very nice young lady who’s doing her best. Alright, I know that acting almost entirely with a cast of puppets is a real challenge for any actor, but honestly I think she’s actually better in scenes where she has to interact with the various denizens of the Labyrinth. When she has to carry a scene on her own though, things get iffy. There’s some really weird line readings. Like when she hears the town clock ringing and yells “Seven O’Clock! It can’t be!” and it’s less like that she’s surprised that it’s that late and more like the very concept of seven o’clock is unthinkable because she was always taught that the clock only goes up to six.
Anyway she runs home and her parents are angry with her because they’re going out tonight and they need her to babysit her baby brother Toby. Toby, incidentally, is played by Toby Froud, Brian Froud’s son. He was originally called “Joey” in the script but they had to change the character’s name because Toby would only react to his own name on set.
Brando used to pull shit like that all the time.
Sarah is super pissy that this baby sitting gig has called her away from LARPing solitaire and her stepmother essentially says that at her age she should be out getting laid.
“It’s the EIGHTIES for Gods sake! Do some coke! Live a little!”
Her parents chew her out for causing them to be late and she goes to her room and throws herself on the bed in a huff because nobody gets her.
You’re nuttier than squirrel poop, what’s to get?
I admit that I use to feel sorry for Sarah when I saw this movie as a kid. Now of course, I have a baby of my own and know that unreliable babysitters deserve only tortures not seen since the darkest days of the reign of Caligula.
Toby wakes up crying in the middle of the night and instead of, y’know, comforting him, or changing him, or feeding him Sarah goes in and just yells at him for five minutes and I really, really don’t like this scene at all. One, because it establishes Sarah as such a horrible person that I really can’t root for her after this and two, because Toby Froud doesn’t have a fucking clue why Jennifer Connolly is yelling at him and is clearly just freaking out.
Sarah tells the kid a story about a beautiful young girl whose horrible baby brother was carried away by the Goblin King. Somewhere, in some dark nether-realm, an army of filthy goblins springs awake.
Kinda like what happens whenever someone mentions misogyny on the internet.
The Goblins listen intently as Sarah says “I wish! I wish! I can bear it no longer! Goblin King! Goblin King! Wherever you may be take this child of mine far away from me!”
The goblins complain that “it didn’t even begin with “I wish”” and I gotta say, I think the Goblins are being overly generous to Sarah here. I mean sure, it’s not a complete sentence but I think any reasonable judge would rule in their favour if they just snatched the kid there and then.
Anyway, Sarah finally does make the wish and leaves the room and as soon as she closes the door the baby stops crying, and I’ll admit it’s an extremely creepy moment.
Sarah goes back into the darkened room to find Toby gone and finds herself face to face with the Goblin King (David Bowie, at his very Bowiest). I’ll admit, I love Bowie’s performance here, even though I’m not sure you could exactly call it great acting. It’s kind of like the performance a lot of actors give in Muppet movies, not exactly mugging for the camera but very clearly in on the joke. There’ s no denying that the guy has incredible charisma though, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s sporting a package that would be the pride of a male pornstar or indeed an internet critic.
The Fremen call it “Shai-Hulud”. The Old Man of the Desert.
Sarah begs him to let her brother go, saying that she was actually just joking and Jareth reveals that as well as being king of the land of the Goblins he is also Emperor of the Confederated Realm of No Backsies. Jareth tells her that if she wants Toby back she’ll have to make her way through the labyrinth to his castle in thirteen hours.
Jareth then disappears and Sarah sets off on her journey, saying “C’mon feet!”
She’s talking to her own feet.
“Wow. Shes craaaaaazy.”
“You said it buddy!”
At the entrance to the labyrinth she meets Hoggle, a dwarf, who’s spraying fairies with flit and oh yes, again! Again!
Now step on ’em! Crush their little heads!
Sarah, feeling sorry for the gold-hoarding little shits actually picks one of the fairies up which then bites her and Hoggle asks what she expected from a fairy. Yes. Yes! Exactly! It’s them or us, listen to the dwarf!
I’ve got to make mention of Hoggle here because, as well as being remarkably clear-eyed about the fairy menace, he’s an absolutely amazing effect. Apart from the design, which is a perfect rendition of Brian Froud’s style, Hoggle was achieved by having little person actor Shari Weisner portray his body movements while essentially wearing a robot face controlled and voiced by Brian Henson (it was originally going to be Terry Jones doing the voice but that ended being too much hassle). It looks gorgeous.
Hoggle shows her the way into the Labyrinth and then leaves her to it. At first Sarah doesn’t know what to do because the Labyrinth actually seems to be more of a corridor that just goes on and on without any turns (and I gotta admit, as a way of keeping people out of your castle, that’s a pretty good labyrinth). Fortunately, she’s helped out by a friendly worm who shows her a hidden entrance and she’s on her way.
Meanwhile, in the Goblin King’s castle, Toby won’t stop crying because he’s a baby surrounded by a bunch of creepy ass Goblin puppets and I don’t like this. This kid’s not acting. He’s a one year old baby who’s obviously really scared and they filmed that and put it in a movie for our entertainment and I do not like that.
Anyway, to shut the kid up Jareth sings Dance Magic. and tells the goblins that they remind him of the babe.
“The babe with the power.”
“What power you ask? How about the power of flight? That doing anything for ya? That’s LEVITATION homes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I…I…think he’s talking about Power Girl.”
The babe with the power.
Bowie is awesome in this song. His goblin backing vocalists are not however, and they really drag the song down. Other than that this song is only really memorable for the scene with Bowie throwing the baby high into the air.
Yeah. I could definitely see Michael Jackson playing this part.
Meanwhile, Sarah comes to two doors that are guarded by Scottish accented moustachioed camels (one of my favourite Saturday morning cartoons from the eighties incidentally) and has to solve a version of the Liar’s Riddle. This scene I actually really like, Connolly seems more engaged in her performance and it actually shows Sarah using intelligence to solve a problem rather than trusting to blind luck. If the movie had done more of this (I say “more” because it does do some) and actually showed how Sarah’s character learns and becomes a better person through her struggles in the Labyrinth I think it could have been a much better movie. The potential is definitely there, and shines through a lot of the time, but the script really needed more work to make the story more about Sarah’s journey rather than a random series of shit that happens to her. Anyway, she chooses correctly (I think?) and falls through an endless tunnel of grabbing hands.
Poor girl. Like travelling on an Italian subway.