Why You Should Love Jim Henson’s Labyrinth
Posted on July 11, 2015
We all have our favorite childhood films. If you were a kid in the 1960’s, you may have really loved Mary Poppins or Jungle Book. In the 1970’s, maybe it was Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. In the 1980’s, maybe it was The Goonies or Little Monsters. You get the picture. There are always at least one or two films of every decade that every kid clings to. In my case, one of my all time favorite films in general, as well as one of my all time favorite children’s movies was Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I was surprised to learn later on, when I cared to research the film on my own and to learn bits of trivia about it, that it didn’t initially do very well at the box office. Being that I grew up with the movie, I figured I may be a bit biased – but I wanted to understand why it didn’t do well. In the end, even Jim Henson was confused about the failure of Labyrinth while its darker predecessor, The Dark Crystal, enjoyed financial success.
…1986’s Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered (in part due to its cost) a commercial disappointment. Despite some positive reviews (The New York Times called it “a fabulous film”), the commercial failure of Labyrinth demoralized Henson to the point that son Brian Henson remembered the time of its release as being “the closest I’ve seen him to turning in on himself and getting quite depressed.” The film later became a cult classic.
To me, Labyrinth combined many, many different things that I loved – all rolled into one epic children’s film that adults can appreciate as well. Sure, some of the effects and puppetry may seem a little dated when compared with insane CGI-laden films like Avatar or others in that vein, but Labyrinth has heart, and the use of Jim Henson’s puppetry grounds the film in some sort of reality when compared with the soulless CGI of today’s movies. If you’ve never heard of Labyrinth, or if you’ve seen it a long time ago – here is a trailer to give you an idea of what the film’s about, or at least refresh your memories:
With all that said, here are a few reasons you should check out the Labyrinth for the first time or try to look at it in a new light if you’ve already seen it and are on the fence about it:
IT WAS JIM HENSON’S FINAL FILM BEFORE HE DIED
This, above all other reasons for at least checking out Labyrinth, is why you should. Jim Henson is an undisputed genius. He didn’t die from drug use, or from assassination, or any other terrible thing that usually happens to famous people. He died basically because he was so nice and polite that he didn’t want to bother anyone – which meant he died from a curable disease, which is almost unheard of among celebrities. The guy was only in his fifties and he only had pneumonia. Yes, it was a waste – but how he died shows us what sort of person he was. He wasn’t a showboater, he wasn’t all about himself. Labyrinth was his vision, was made under his direction, and unfortunately the world wasn’t ready for it at the time it came out – people just thought it was too weird. Henson at least got to see the film become a cult favorite before he died, but to me, Labyrinth is the embodiment of the man’s final thoughts and deserves some recognition. His films and his puppets only evolved during the time spanning his career and Labyrinth was no exception. Mr. Henson was just hitting his stride when he released this, and it’s sad we didn’t get to see what else he would come up with if he’d lived longer, although The Storyteller was another excellent project in the same category if only being a television project.
DAVID BOWIE PLAYS A GREAT COMPLEX VILLAIN
Say what you will about David Bowie. Maybe you dislike his music, or think he’s a terrible actor, or both. Me? I like pretty much all of the music I’ve heard from him, even his Ziggy Stardust stuff. As far as his acting goes, I think the man is a great performer but acting isn’t necessarily where he shines. However, he does have the capacity to pull his own weight in certain roles, and I believe he did a great job in Labyrinth.
Here is some proof that he has some acting chops, if you want another example aside from his role as Jareth –
Good, eh? His performance as Jareth was, to me, a very good casting choice. Henson and company had been contemplating other musicians for the role, such as Michael Jackson and Sting. When they finally chose Bowie, the conceptual designer of the movie, Brian Froud, stated that he also believed Bowie was perfect for the role.
In an interview with Ecran Fantastique, Henson explained his decision to choose Bowie for the role. “I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures,” Henson told the magazine “And David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world.”
Conceptual designer Brian Froud felt that Bowie was perfect for the role, describing how his “protean persona” made him well-fitted to the role of Jareth. Froud described Jareth as “Sarah’s inner fantasy, a character made up of her dreams and nightmares… He is seen, through her eyes, as part dangerous goblin, part glamorous rock star.” Summing up his view of the character, Froud states that “Jareth needed to be a mercurial figure who would continually throw Sarah off balance emotionally.”
Bowie gave thought to his character’s back-story, stating that “One feels that he’s rather reluctantly inherited the position of being Goblin King, as though he would really like to be – I don’t know – down in Soho or something.” Speaking to Movieline, Bowie explained that he considered Jareth to be “At best, a romantic, but at worst he’s a spoilt child, vain and temperamental.” Commenting on his character’s relationship with Sarah, Bowie stated that “He’s completely smitten” by her, going on to explain that she is “pure and, psychologically I guess, the Virgin Mary figure that some guys seem to yearn for.”
I agree with Froud on the sole fact that Bowie has that sort of dangerous edge to him, like he could really be a psychotic killer underneath all the glam and the unabashed dancing. Maybe another star could have done well as Jareth, but I’m glad Bowie chose to take on the role. I think it could’ve turned out to be a very different film based on the music of another musician. To top it all off, aside from Bowie’s accent – he also has two different-colored eyes normally so it brought a touch of mystery to the character that may not have been thought of if they’d chosen someone else for the role. Jareth is a dynamic and strange character, and Bowie just sort of embodies both of those qualities.
In addition to all of that, according to a lot of the internet chatter I read as well as hearing friend’s opinions – Bowie’s sexuality (and his magic pants/Bowie bulge) was sort of more effective than I think Henson originally intended. I’ve heard comparisons that Bowie/Jareth and his appearance and personality in the film was akin to the sexual awakening experienced by boys when Princess Leia from Star Wars first donned her “Slave Leia” outfit on Jabba’s barge. Bowie is the ultimate “bad boy” – petulant and childish in his own way, forceful, arrogant, sexy, and different shades of evil. More bored than tyrannical, however. And that’s why he’s interesting.
THE SOUNDTRACK IS GREAT
Aside from the reasons I listed above as to why Bowie was a perfect choice for the role of Jareth, there was also the music. Labyrinth would not be the movie it is without Bowie’s own personal musical flourishes. From the opening credits, all the way to the end credits, we are subjected to Bowie’s own crafted musical narration of the film, through his unique filter. The songs are all coherent, and they display the different qualities of his character. While most films choose songs that walk hand in hand with the message of the film, some films – like Labyrinth– are built using music. Technically, the film is a musical – but there is enough solid non-musical story in it that makes it feel less an actual musical and more a regular fantasy narrative supported by fantastical musical numbers.
Here are some of the film’s iconic songs:
Trevor Jones also made a lot of the film’s music, but Bowie’s songs were unique to most scenes involving his own character, which really makes Labyrinth stand apart from other films. Where else do you have a music artist in a film not of his own creation writing songs to identify his own character motivations and scenes? Maybe those films are out there, but if they are – they’re rare.
JENNIFER CONNELLY’S CHARACTER IS UNIQUE
When Labyrinth opens, we see Sarah Williams (played by teenage Jennifer Connelly) in a park, cosplaying by herself and reciting lines from a book. She realizes she’s late in getting home, and runs back through the streets during a sudden rainstorm. When she enters, she is confronted by her “wicked” stepmother and passive father, and she is forced to babysit her screaming brother, Toby, while they enjoy a night on the town. She’s resentful, frustrated, and very selfish. To some, these few opening scenes completely write Sarah off as being a typical teenage girl, a trope, an annoyance. I mean, they’re not wrong in a lot of ways, those naysayers. Sarah is a brat. However, she is more than the sum of the opening sequence.
When we are given a glimpse of Sarah’s room, we see that she is a very bright girl. She’s very imaginative, very smart, very interested in the whimsical and the cerebral. She owns many books, from children’s stuff like Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (an inspiration for the film, and a nod by Henson to his contribution) right up to an unexpected copy of a Judge Dredd compilation. This girl isn’t just into kids books and frilly dresses.
On top of that, we see that she’s dealing with some emotional and mental baggage. Her mother has apparently died, and we see her plastered in articles all over Sarah’s wall. Sarah hasn’t gotten over her mother’s death, and hasn’t let her new stepmother settle into the role, and in the beginning we feel like she never will.
Throughout the early scenes of the movie, she sticks to her spoiled roots. However, throughout the film, she is constantly adapting to the new reality of the labyrinth itself, which teaches her that life really isn’t fair and that she has to accept it in order to move on. In addition to that, she comes to rely on friends, a stark contrast to how she shuts herself out from social interaction when the film starts and she is cosplaying by herself in the park. Other characters she teams up with later on all have flaws of their own, and she has to accept them, along with those flaws, in order to succeed. On top of all that, Sarah resists Jareth’s charms and sticks by her decision to save her baby brother, whom she loves (though it’s not quite apparent when we first meet Sarah and Toby) and in the junkyard scene she literally rejects the comforts of childhood and home in order to return to the real task at hand – saving her bro. That’s very noble of her, and something she probably wouldn’t have done in the beginning of the movie – yet she retains some of her flaws right up until the very end.
THE PUPPETRY WAS AMAZING
I mean, if you know anything Jim Henson has done – you already know that his puppets are amazing. However, Labyrinth had its own puppetry milestones. Aside from the sheer number of goblin puppets and goblin suits, which were sometimes operated by humans in costume – there were also the main characters. Some characters were more complex than others, so lets start with Hoggle.
Aside from Hoggle, we also had the largest puppet Henson had ever built – the appropriately-named “Humongous”, who guards the gates to the Goblin City.
JIM HENSON: “It seemed like right late in the story what we wanted was for our heroes to come up against some huge obstacle, something worse than anything they’d encountered so far. And we came up with the idea of building the largest puppet we’d ever built.”
GEORGE GIBBS (special effects supervisor): “Jim asked us about last January. He said, ‘Boys, I¹d like a fifteen-foot high giant.’ We said, ‘Oh yeah. Very interesting.’ Lots of people had tried to make fifteen-foot giants that walk and throw their arms around. They hadn’t been very successful. So it was a challenge, really. So, we decided how we were going to make it and we went ahead and made all the mechanics and everything work wonderfully. When the body was produced in fiberglass, it just wouldn’t work, because the fiberglass wouldn¹t flex. Fortunately for us, we had our foam expert. And he developed a foam for us with skin, skin that would flex without looking rubbery. We made the foam look like steel armor.”
JIM HENSON: “He weighs . . . I don’t know how much. Lots. With all the rig and all the hydrolics, the thing has to be several tons. And so this was the largest, most complicated thing we’d ever built. We didn’t have very long to build it, probably two to three months.”
GEORGE GIBBS: “One man could operate the whole thing. In the old days, we’d have probably had five or six guys all at different levers, working hydrolics. But one man operates the whole of Humongous all by himself, makes him walk forward, makes his body spin ’round, makes him bow down, makes his arms swing the ax. And it’s all done with hydrolics. Every move his arm makes, the arms of Humongous make exactly the same move.”
JIM HENSON: “When George first showed me Humongous in action, it was really an amazing thing, to just stand there and have this large thing walk toward you. It’s one of the most awesome sights in the world.”
There was also Ludo, whom I named one of my dogs after. He wasn’t as large as Humongous, but he was still probably very challenging.
As you can see – these characters took a lot of work, and there were so many more than what I posted here. I won’t post every single video out there, but there’s a great documentary called Inside The Labyrinth which shows all the details regarding the puppet work in the film. It’s really amazing, and a feat that is quite impressive considering the time period. Henson’s love for the medium of puppetry really shines in this movie. Here is Inside The Labyrinth if you want to check it out:
In closing, I’d just like to say that all of you will probably have your own reasons why you dislike or like Labyrinth. This was only my attempt to highlight some of the reasons why I thought this film deserves more credit than it does. I’ve watched this movie so many times that there is no way I could count. One thing is for sure, this movie has stayed with me and has surpassed so many other films from my childhood in terms of longevity of interest and relevance. This is surely a classic, and I honestly hope they do a sequel while Bowie is still acting and not too old. I think he could still pull it off.
Now, I leave you with some photos that show some aspects of my life which Labyrinth still has some sway over. Feel free to share your stories in the comments about what the movie means to you, or how you still celebrate the artistic merits of Jim Henson’s final film.