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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.
This scent shows off some really cool hand puppeteering (not using puppets with hands, but actually using hands as puppets) with the puppeteers creating talking faces with just their hands. The faces ask her whether she wants to go up or down and she says “down” because she used up all her intelligence points in the previous encounter.
She ends up in an oubliette deep under ground and Hoggle appears and to take her back to the beginning of the labyrinth. Instead, she bribes him with a bracelet to take her as far into the labyrinth as he can. He says he can’t promise anything but he’ll do what he can.
They walk past the False Alarms, massive stone heads who solemnly below out things like “TURN BACK! BEWAAAAARE!” until Hoggle shuts them up. I’ve already mentioned that Terry Jones wrote the script and honestly, there’s very little “pythoness” on display here, which I think it could really have used. There is one bit here though, where one of the False Alarms gets cut off by Hoggle mid-bellow and says “Oh please?” like a Knight of Ni asking for another shrubbery that I do love.
Suddenly, Jareth appears and angrily demands to know why Hoggle is helping Sarah and Hoggle says that he’s actually been leading her back to the beginning of the labyrinth all this time. Sarah gives a big infuriated “WHAT?!” (I was going to say that’s stupid since Hoggle is quite clearly just lying to Jareth, but then she should still react as if he’s telling the truth to throw Jareth off the scene so, I dunno, maybe she’s smarter than I’m giving her credit for.) Jareth then tells Hoggle that if he betrays him he’ll hang him headfirst over the pit of eternal stench. He then asks Sarah how she likes his labyrinth and she says that it’s a piece of cake which he uses as an excuse to shave some hours off her time and chase her and Hoggle down the corridor with a massive razor sharp machine of doom.
Good comeback, bro.
They manage to escape to the surface and Hoggle says that he’s taken her as far as he can and that she has to go on without him. Sarah calls him a cheat and steals his stash of jewellery even though he has done literally exactly what he said he’d do. Take her as far as he could towards the centre of the labyrinth and then tell to screw off. Those were the damn terms. Hoggle says that it’s not fair and Sarah says that fairs are for carnies and that if wants his shit back he’d better recognise that Sarah’s calling the shots now.
They come across the Wiseman, voiced by one of my all time favourite voice actors, Sir Michael Hordern (he was Badger in Cosgrove’s Wind in the Willows) and he gives Sarah some advice “The way forward is sometimes the way back.”
“Great. Okay. Thanks for that, Ill file THAT away.”
They press on and come across Ludo (Ron Mueck), a gigantic wookie-like creature who’s been caught in a trap and is now being tormented by goblins with little piranha fetuses on sticks…
I’ve gotta be the first person in history to type that sentence.
Anyway, Sarah picks up some rocks that are mysteriously rolling around and starts milling them at the goblins and drives them off. She then gets Ludo down and he follows her because once you save a wookie’s life they owe you a life debt and they will never leave your side, ever.
“What have we talked about, Chewie? Bathroom time is “Hans time””
Hoggle runs off after hearing Ludo’s first bellow, and he gets waylaid by Jareth who gives him a peach to give to Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah and Ludo suddenly set upon by OH JESUS NO!
LIVE ACTION BAHIA!
Alright look, I’m not in this movie’s fandom. I don’t know how fans of this movie feel about the Fireys. All I can say is, I’m pretty sure they are of the devil. These are some of the freakiest things I have ever seen in my life, my very soul goes tharn at the sight of them. Here, just watch for yourselves.
Sorry about that. Also, you now all have seven days to live.
I absolutely hate this scene from start to finish. The puppets are hideous. The voices are maddening. The song is awful. If that greenscreen was any more obnoxious it would be loudly screaming “I’M THE GREENSCREEN BITCHES! WHERE MY HOS AT?” and to top it all off it’s entirely pointless. It’s pretty much a perfect Big Lipped Alligator Moment (yes, I know they show up again in the last scene but then that’s such a BLAM moment in itself it still counts). Anyway, Hoggle rescues Sarah from the Fireys who are trying to rip her head off (you know, for kids) and we all agree to never speak of them again.
“Under penalty of TORTURE.”
Hoggle, Sarah and Ludo come to the Bog of Eternal Stench and to escape they have to cross a bridge guarded by a fox-knight named Sir Didymus (David Shaughnessy). Didymus says that no one can cross the bridge without his permission and after Ludo tries to fight his way through Sarah realises that all she needs to do is ask his permission. Didymus grants it. The bridge collapses when Sarah tries to cross it and Ludo uses his rock powers to create stepping stones for her to cross. Oh yeah, Ludo has rock powers, didn’t I mention that? I was actually going to rip on the movie for just pulling this out of thin air but watching the movie again I noticed that in the scene where Sarah saves Ludo he’s actually directing the stones that she throws at the goblins so it is established earlier that he can do that. So fine. You win this round, movie.
“You’re getting sloppy, Mouse.”
“Curse your insolence sir!”
Once they escape from the swamp, Hoggle finally gives Sarah the peach and she takes a bite. She then sees a vision of David Bowie playing with his balls.
Alright, you knew the joke was coming, I knew the joke was coming. Let’s just move on with our lives.
She dreams that she’s at a Masque Ball, dancing with Jareth, set to Bowie’s As the World Falls Down. She sees a clock though, reminding her that she’s got very little time left to rescue Toby and so she snaps out of it and finds herself lying in a rubbish tip with no idea of how she got there, which is how you know it was a really good party.
She meets The Junk Lady (Denise Bryer), a creepy as BALLS goblin covered in junk who brings her to a perfect recreation of her bedroom and starts slowly cocooning Sarah inside her books and toys and gadgets and gizmos and whos-its and whats-its galore. But Sarah again snaps out of it and breaks through the wall and finds herself outside the Goblin City. She meets up with Ludo and Didymus and they sneak into the city. They’re attacked by a giant robot but are rescued by Hoggle who’s been racked with guilt over the business with the peach and Sarah is all “Don’t sweat it brah.”
They fight their way through the goblin city but, let’s be honest, how are goblins going to kill Ludo if they couldn’t even kill Sean Bean?
I mean, he’d die if you sneezed on him.
With the help of Ludo’s rock summoning powers they show the goblins what’s what and they finally reach Jareth’s castle. Sarah tells the others to stay behind because she has to do this alone.
After giving her the runaround on some MC Escher stairs Jareth finally confronts Sarah and they have their final climatic confrontation. Sarah demands that Jareth give her back the baby and he says that he’s been generous up until now. She asks him what he’s done that’s been so generous and he answers:
“Everything! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”
Excuse me a moment.
Weak. Lame. Feeble. Would not bang.
This is one of the reasons why this movie is so frustrating to me. It could be so good, it really could but the writing just is not there. “You cowered before me, I was frightening”? What the cock does that even mean? I know what the words mean, but what does Jareth mean by saying that? Any line of dialogue needs to have a purpose. There has to be a goal that the character speaking it wants to achieve by saying it. Dialogue should be action. It should do something. It should convince, or threaten, or cajole, or infuriate but there should be a purpose behind it. There are so many ways this could have been made to work. Jareth could challenge Sarah with how her experiences in the Labyrinth have made her a better person, smarter, braver, more compassionate. Or you could push the angle that the labyrinth is just an elaborate seduction on Jareth’s part and that he really did create this just for her (and don’t tell me that he did, otherwise he wouldn’t be so angry every time she made progress in solving it). But there’s really nothing to what he says, it’s just flowery nonsense that sounds profound until you actually look at it for five seconds.
Anyway, Sarah doesn’t fall for it (thank God) and tells Jareth she has no power over him. The clock strikes thirteen and Sarah and Toby are spirited back to their house. She puts Toby to bed and then goes back to her room and then Hoggle, Ludo and Didymus appear and they have a big Shrek-style dance party. The end.
Oh look. There’s one of the guys who tried to decapitate her. And one of the goblins that was torturing Ludo. WOOOOO! PARTY!
Labyrinth was a fairly massive flop when it opened. Audiences stayed away, and the critics cocked their legs for the most part. Jim Henson took the failure very hard and by some accounts became quite depressed after its release. In any event, he never directed again. Labyrinth is of course now a massive cult film and has undergone significant critical reappraisal but…
I actually think this is one time when the original critical consensus was on the money. Roger Ebert, for example, praised the craft that obviously went into the movie while noting that the story is basically just a bunch of stuff that happens with very little connective tissue. And I think that’s more or less the movie in a nutshell, a triumph of craft over art. They have all these cool creatures and sets, but no worthwhile story to tell with them.
“Mouse, why do you bother even having this category when you’re reviewing live action films?”
“I’ve extreme OCD. There? You happy? Now that’s out there in the open.”
Awful character. Indifferent performance.
I’m happy. Hope you’re happy too.
Supporting Characters: 13/20
Something you’d expect to be a strong point for a Jim Henson film but this is actually a very uneven showing. Hoggle, Didymus and Ludo have real charm but the Goblins are downright creepy and not in a good way. I don’t even know what to say about the Fireys.
The song’s aren’t bad but any connection to what’s going on in the movie tends to be wafer thin. And the Goblins can’t sing.
FINAL SCORE: 58%
NEXT UPDATE: 25 September 2014
NEXT TIME: I’M GONNA REVIEW IT!
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter every Saturday. Like Unshaved Mouse? Let the good people at the Blog Awards Ireland know what’s what by voting for me HERE.