Looking back, it’s difficult to believe that the cult classic “Labyrinth” was actually a failure at the box office. The movie was conceived after the release of “The Dark Crystal”, an earlier collaboration between Jim Henson and artist Brian Froud. Wanting to work on another project together, and taking inspiration once again from Froud’s artwork, “Labyrinth” was born.
Influenced by such timeless tales as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Outside Over There”, “Labyrinth” tells the story of Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connolly), a teenage girl who won’t let go of her childhood. Forced to stay home and take care of her baby step-brother, Toby (Toby Froud), Sarah unwittingly wishes Toby be taken away by goblins. When Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie), obliges Sarah, she tries to take back her wish. But some things cannot be unsaid, and Sarah is forced to solve the labyrinth before Toby is changed into a goblin forever.
Thus in this coming-of-age story, by traversing the labyrinth Sarah makes the journey from child to young woman. She learns about responsibility and consequences. She often complains that things are unfair, but as Jareth reminds her, life isn’t fair. Sarah even learns the dangers of a charming man.
Later, when she finds herself trapped in a replica of her bedroom, she realises the stuff she had treasured is unimportant and what really matters is her brother. What’s interesting is everything in the “Labyrinth” is a manifestation of the books and toys in her bedroom. The M.C. Escher artwork, the fiery, even the “Labyrinth” itself; everything is there to teach Sarah a lesson. The biggest one of all being that no one, not even a goblin king, can have power over you unless you give him that power.
Made back in the days of matte paintings and physical puppets, “Labyrinth” has a tangibility that just can’t be replicated with CGI effects today. You almost feel as though you really are looking into a different world. The beautifully crafted goblin puppets each have their own individual personalities thanks to Jim Henson’s exceptional puppeteer team. Even by today’s standards, “Labyrinth” holds up very well.
The movie is filled with surreal humour, no doubt in no small part because Monty Python’s “Terry Jones” contributed to the script. Between the bog of eternal stench, the shaft of helping hands, and the dialogue between the goblins, humour abounds throughout “Labyrinth”, making for a fun, family-friendly movie. In fact, it is one of those rare gems that begs to be re-watched to find some of the more subtle jokes.
Jennifer Connolly’s performance as Sarah is perhaps a little stilted at the start of the film, but once she’s in the labyrinth it’s hardly noticeable. Whether it’s because she improves or you become so engrossed in the film, I’m not sure. However, Connolly perfectly inhabits the role of Sarah as she transitions from child to adult.
David Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth is pure genius. The musical numbers in the film make excellent use of Bowie, yet his performance transcends the music. There’s no question that he stands out. You’re always aware this is David Bowie, but still he manages just the right level of seduction and menace. The notion of Sarah being infatuated by Jareth is creepy and wrong, and yet with David Bowie in the role, it makes perfect sense.
Is “Labyrinth” a perfect film? Not by any means. The Fireys sequence still makes me cringe and Sarah is a little tiresome, at least at the beginning. However, none of this matters once you enter the labyrinth. For this is a realm that Jim Henson, Brian Froud and Terry Jones created, a unique world in which the impossible is possible, and you know you could not be in better hands.
Jim Henson (director) / Dennis Lee, Jim Henson, Terry Jones (screenplay)
CAST: David Bowie … Jareth the Goblin King
Jennifer Connelly … Sarah
Toby Froud … Toby
Shelley Thompson … Stepmother
Christopher Malcolm … Father