Having made his name in the 1970s through Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, the 1980s saw Jim Henson move into darker territory with a recurring interest in fairy tales. After steering The Great Muppet Caper to box-office success, he directed The Dark Crystal, a Tolkien-esque fantasy featuring ground-breaking animatronics. In the late-1980s he created The Storyteller TV series starring John Hurt, which retold Greek myths and European folk tales through a mixture of puppetry and live action.
Sandwiched between these two accomplishments is Labyrinth, Henson's last theatrical film before his tragic and untimely death in 1990. Its commercial failure drove Henson to despair, but it has rightfully attained cult status, spawning a series of manga spin-offs, a spiritual sequel called MirrorMask, reams of fan fiction, and even an annual two-day masked ball held in Hollywood. Looking at the film in isolation of its following, it has more than its share of problems, but like much of Henson's work the flaws end up making it all the more endearing.
Labyrinth does have a fair amount of creative pedigree. Aside from Henson's direct involvement, it boasts a screenplay by ex-Python and medievalist Terry Jones, who shares Henson's fascination with fairy tales. There is also a production credit for George Lucas, who collaboration with Henson in the creation of Yoda on The Empire Strikes Back. This is an example of Lucas doing what he does best - using his financial clout and army of toys to give those with real creative talent what they need. Lucas would subsequently work in a similar capacity on Ron Howard's Willow two years later.
Labyrinth is clearly the product of people who understand fairy tales - and in particular, understand them to be more than silly stories told to children. The most superficial indication of this is an early shot of Sarah's bookshelf, which features everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz. But there is also clear fairy tale imagery in the film's cast of characters. Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, is the classic dark-haired heroine with a 'wicked' stepmother; she stands in for Snow White, with Jareth's peach taking the place of the poisoned apple.
Alongside the frequent references to Snow White, there are tenuous connections to Sleeping Beauty: rather than the prince riding to rescue the princess, the gender roles are reversed and Jareth stands in for Maleficent. There are also nods to Alice in Wonderland in the maze sequence (which features prominently in the Disney version), and to The Wizard of Oz in the make-up of the companions: Sarah, like Dorothy, is joined by three companions and a dog.
It is therefore ironic that a film of such literary richness should be so all at sea narratively. The premise of Labyrinth is simple: a spoilt child has 13 hours to get her brother back, before he turns into a goblin. It is difficult to sustain such a premise over 90 minutes, and there are loads of random scenes which make no sense or have no right to be there. Some of these are quite witty in their own right - for instance, the worm who persistently offers Sarah cups of tea and asks her to meet his family. But other are just bizarrely surreal (the soldiers beating Ludo like a piņata) or somewhat misjudged (the talking knockers - more on them later).
The 'Chilly Down' sequence is Labyrinth is one of the best examples of a 'Big-Lipped Alligator moment'. This term, derived by Nostalgia Chick Lindsay Ellis, refers to a random musical sequence which comes out of nowhere, has little or no bearing on the plot, is ridiculously over-the-top, and after it happens is never spoken of again. This scene fits each of these criteria, and is also the most dated aspect of the film: the obvious blue-screen is a possible indication that, even in their infancy, digital effects date quicker than organic ones.
The special effects in Labyrinth are a complete mixed bag. The work of Industrial Light and Magic was perhaps impressive for the day but feels all too obvious after 26 years. The use of matte paintings, a common feature in fantasy filmmaking, also hasn't stood the test of time; the first shot of the labyrinth will prompt widespread cries of "it's only a model". But the puppets remain endearing proof of Henson's brilliance. His creatures come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them have a personality and a physicality which pulls us into their world.
That said, some of the characters are rather annoying. It's unfair to pick on child actors, who are still learning their craft, but Sarah is not an entirely likeable protagonist; not only is she spoilt and childish, but her intelligence seems to vary according to the nearest plot point. More problematic is Sir Didymus, a Don Quixote-style knight, who has a dog called Ambrosius for a steed, and who bring the plot to a grinding halt. To draw on Monty Python a second time, his introduction is somewhere between the Black Knight and the Bridge of Death, but without any of the laughs (or the violence).
In addition to all the non-sequiturs and plot diversions, Labyrinth has several moments which are either misjudged or downright disturbing. The script is rife with innuendo ("search me, we're just the knockers") or phallic imagery (obelisks and Jareth's, erm, balls). David Bowie manages to avoid looking ridiculous, but his tight trousers leave nothing to the imagination. Most disturbing is a scene where Sarah falls down a shaft full of wandering hands. It's an inventive and clever use of puppetry, but treads far too close for comfort to Repulsion.
One scene which is effective, however, is the dream sequence. After Sarah eats the peach, she descends into a deep sleep and imagines herself dancing with Jareth at a masked ball. The awkward dancing and shifting camerawork conveys their mixed feelings towards each other, both platonic and romantic. It is also the scene which highlights something rare - an 1980s electronic soundtrack that hasn't dated badly. Bowie's contributions gel nicely with Trevor Jones' instrumentals, and 'As The World Falls Down' is one of the film's highlights.
This scene also introduces the core theme of Labyrinth. The film is about learning to putting childish things to one side, not so much to leave them behind but to realise that everything has its place. This theme is approached gently and playfully, but it is there throughout the stronger second half. The most evocative example comes in the junkyard scene, where Sarah is confronted by an old woman carrying a burden of useless junk. The woman represents what Sarah will become if she cannot assert her adult self and move on from childhood.
Sarah manages to defeat Jareth and retrieve her brother by realising that he has no power over her. As persuasive and seductive as he is, he is still a fantasy of hers: she can control his destiny, not the other way around. The final scene, where all the characters descend upon her room, is a reminder that our memories and fantasies of childhood never really leave us. We draw on them when needed, but we needn't fear them (hence Jareth's absence).
The film picks up quite significantly in its last half hour, when our protagonists finally enter the goblin city. The fight that ensues is pretty aimless, but includes a good self-deprecating gag on Lucas' part: the multitude of boulders summoned by Ludo takes a certain scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark to its silliest possible conclusion. The scenes with Jareth inside the castle are very impressive, with another good song ('Within You') and an elaborate set which replicates the work of MC Escher.
Discounting the parents, Labyrinth only has two human performances of note. Connelly's delivery is off the mark at times, but she is generally okay and eventually manages to become likeable. Bowie is clearly enjoying himself: only someone of his charisma and sex appeal could wear that outfit with any dignity, and his odd delivery is suited to the character. Elsewhere there is good work all round from the puppeteers, particularly Jim Henson's son Brian who provides the voice of Hoggle.
Labyrinth remains a decent film and a definite guilty pleasure. It's riddled with flaws and inconsistencies which lessen its dramatic impact, but the charm of Henson's craft lift the experience of watching it. In the moments when it comes together, it is an original and intriguing exploration of a theme or eventuality often avoided in children's films. If nothing else, it cements Henson's position as high king of puppetry and emperor of the lovably weird.