Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Review: Labyrinth

Today we'll be looking at Labyrinth, the 1986 Henson-Lucas collaborative fantasy starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie's package.

Hey -- who's got two thumbs and likes this movie?  THIS GUY.

Yes, I have the soundtrack on vinyl.  And back when DVD's first came out, this was one of the first ones I owned, having purchased it in a combo pack with The Dark Crystal.  (The first DVD I bought was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

I was first exposed to Labyrinth one summer -- I'm guessing 1987, the year after it came out in theaters -- when my mom was teaching summer school classes.  I remember just being in the school, mostly being in the classroom but sometimes in the hallway, with a couple of books to read and maybe a couple of toys throughout the week or two that the classes were being held.  (I'm not sure where my two younger brothers were.)  The Friday at the end of one of the sessions was a "movie day," and my mom rented and brought in Labyrinth to play on the colossal 3-ton TV and VCR school cart.  

I'd like to say that it blew my mind, and that it was like nothing else I had ever seen before.  But that's completely untrue.  We kids of the 80's were bombarded with fantasies that were deep and dark and bed-wettingly too scary for us: Return to Oz, Gremlins, the aforementioned The Dark Crystal... but I think Labyrinth stood out in my consciousness because it had a Muppet-y charm to it.  Sir Didymus, the Don Quixote-esque fox terrier knight, should by all rights have shown up at Fozzie's mom's house on A Muppet Family Christmas.  

Incidentally, there was a little bit of hub-bub concerning the recent Muppets movie -- Frank Oz thought that the script didn't respect the characters, and an anonymous Muppets veteran thought that Fozzie's fart shoes were a "cheap" joke to which the Muppets shouldn't have lowered themselves.  Apparently that anonymous Muppets veteran has never seen Labyrinth.  In Labyrinth, there's about a five minute stretch where the main characters walk through the Bog of Eternal Stench, which bubbles up with obscene fart sounds every time one of them takes a step.  

Which isn't to say that the Bog of Eternal Stench scene was bad.  I think it's actually one of those "Muppet magic" things that was completely missing in The Dark Crystal.  In The Dark Crystal Jim Henson was trying really hard to be serious, and to make his masterpiece, but to a degree I think he forgot about these little quirky things that the Muppets do so well.  Just mention "the Bog of Eternal Stench" to anyone who grew up watching Labyrinth, and he or she will bellow in his or her best Ludo growl, "ssSMELLLL!"

This movie has some of those great Muppet scenes where they just fill the room with puppets, and the floors must look like swiss cheese to hide the legion of puppeteers working the scene.

By the way, I wasn't being facetious when I said that David Bowie's package is one of the co-stars of this movie.  His leotard-encased batch dominates every frame in which it appears.

Even when it's not on camera, it makes a visual and thematic echo throughout the movie -- from the little worm that gives Sarah directions, to Hoggle's nose and the goblins' noses, all the way down to its denouement in the creepy masquerade ballroom scene.

If you're not paying attention, you'll miss it; the whole scene is dreamy and drippy, and David Bowie's song is really boring, so you have to focus.  While Sarah is perplexedly ambling through the dance floor, a couple of weirdos open up a box in front of her, and a bulbous snake puppet pops out.  Sarah looks scared and confused, and then they laugh at her.

The movie The Man Who Fell to Earth has an extended sex scene (in which you get full moon shots of David Bowie's pale bony bottom) and it still doesn't have the same sexual undercurrent as some of the stuff in Labyrinth.

The little boy, Sarah's brother that was kidnapped by the Goblin King, was played by the son of Brian Froud, the movie's visual designer.  He's about 28 years old now.  Does anybody know if he's turned out alright?

Not to end on a downer, but I have to mention my least favorite scene -- the one I always fast forward when I'm watching the DVD.  The Fieries.

This is one of those things about Henson/Muppets productions that I actually don't like, but the Henson Company seems to be really excited about.  They throw together a bunch of new characters, each with one obvious character trait, and just let the script write itself.  It's probably why I was never a big fan of the Fraggles, and why that weird playhouse thing with the four hyper Muppets that they had on Sesame Street in recent years was so baffling.  (As a side note, I've also never understood why the Muppets, during their "down years" immediately following this era, got so enmeshed musically in this kind of light Caribbean funk.  It tainted pretty much everything, all the way down to Letters to Santa, and I was really nervous that Jason Segel and company wouldn't get the Muppets back on track, musically.  But I had nothing to worry about.)

The whole thing seems to be tied into the Henson Company's obsession with technical wizardry over character development.  If you watch really old footage of Jim Henson on the Steve Allen show and stuff like that, he was always rolling out these "trick" puppetry things, and was really excited about that kind of magic.  But I think it's no mistake that his simplest puppet -- by virtue of the fact that he was nothing more than a heart and soul inside of a green sock -- became his superstar.  

The last scene of Labyrinth, in which Sarah is back in her boring old room, and wonders if she'll ever be able to visit Hoggle and Ludo and Sir Didymus again -- if even just "from time to time" -- and sees them looking back at her in the mirror... that's Muppet magic.


  1. I used to argue with people that Labrynth was way better than the Never Ending Story. What do you think?

  2. It's a tough call, because I saw The Neverending Story IN THE THEATER when I was really little, so it's hard to say anything bad about it. But I read the book that it was based on a few years ago, and it was really, really good, and now the movie just looks a little dumber in comparison.

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