Labyrinth (U.K./U.S.A., 1986)

May 24, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Labyrinth Poster

Fantasy in the 1980s had a “cutesy” problem. Setting aside the deliciously bloody Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian, the field was littered with productions steeped in the belief that fantasy=children’s fare. Whether it was Disney’s big-budget animated feature The Black Cauldron, the Rankin-Bass TV adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, or the likes of The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal, this wasn’t an era for adult fantasy. Labyrinth fits right in with those titles (and, in fact, is the ugly step-child of The Dark Crystal). The names involved look promising – Jim Henson directing, David Bowie playing the villain, George Lucas doing an uncredited rewrite and helping out in the editing process, and a screenplay credited to Monty Python’s Terry Jones. With all that talent – and I didn’t even mention contributions by Frank Oz and Elaine May – how come Labyrinth feels a lot like Xanadu? (In the 1980s, such a comparison would not have been considered a compliment, although the passage of years has transformed the Olivia Newton-John bomb into a cult classic. Ditto for Labyrinth.)

Part of the problem with Labyrinth is the Muppets. Oh, these aren’t Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. They’re goblins, worms, and other assorted creatures but they are recognizably Muppets and it’s a rarity that a Muppet can be effectively integrated into a serious-minded motion picture. (The most obvious counter-example is Yoda.) Although it might be possible to create a fantasy milieu with only Muppets, the introduction of humans into the mix creates an awareness of their essential fakery that might not be evident in another setting or situation. (The Muppet Movie gets mileage out of the co-existence of people and puppets, but it’s lightweight, comedy-based entertainment, not fantasy.)

Labyrinth’s central character is 15-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who, like most kids her age, isn’t thrilled with having to babysit for a baby brother – a task she’s given when her father (Christopher Malcolm) and step-mother (Shelly Thompson) go out on a date. Toby is a difficult child and, when he won’t stop crying, Sarah reaches the end of her wits and says “the words” necessary for the boy to be spirited away by the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and his minions. Immediately regretting her impetuousness, Sarah pleads with Jareth to release Toby. The Goblin King replies that in order for Sarah to retrieve her brother, she will have to travel through the labyrinth to his castle in the Goblin City, but the clock is ticking. In 13 hours, Toby will be Jareth’s forever. Accompanied by the cowardly Hoggle (voice of Brian Henson), the peculiar warrior Didymus (David Shaughnessy), and the mighty creature Ludo (Ron Mueck), Sarah navigates the labyrinth but rescuing Toby proves to be more difficult than she imagined.

Although there’s no doubting that glam-rocker David Bowie has a magnetic screen presence, there’s no way to perceive his performance other than campy. Extending the Xanadu comparison, his legs aren’t as nice as Olivia Newton-John’s but his hair is at least as good (and certainly bigger). Bowie occasionally breaks into song but, unlike ONJ’s vocals, none of the tunes have survived the passage of time. (Xanadu’s soundtrack soared courtesy of endless radio play and Top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100.) There’s too much Jareth – the scenes of him surrounded by goblins in his castle make for an interesting spectacle but they are superfluous. That’s the problem with putting an iconic figure into what should have been a supporting role – the desire to beef up his screen time to the point where it becomes intrusive. (This was a problem screenwriter Terry Jones wrestled with.)

Over the years, Jennifer Connelly has developed into an excellent actress, taking on daring roles (such as the explicit Requiem for a Dream) and winning an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. At this stage of her career, she was fresh-faced and unpolished. Labyrinth was her first major role and she’s one of the worst things about the film, delivering her lines in a stilted, unappealing fashion. She has an expressive face but creates a heroine so shallow that it’s difficult to care about her or her quest. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Goblin Muppets are more interesting and sympathetic.

Labyrinth’s tone is weird and at times off-putting. There are three obvious influences fighting for dominance: Terry Jones’ Python-esque humor, George Lucas’ action-oriented spectacle (more Indiana Jones than Star Wars in this case), and Jim Henson’s family-friendly fare. Although inspired by Henson’s 1982 feature, The Dark Crystal (which he co-directed with Frank Oz), the finished film is different in scope and intent. And, although the puppet work is expectedly excellent, many of the other special effects are substandard even for 1986. (Remember: the era’s state-of-the-art, Return of the Jedi, came out three years earlier and, with Lucas on-board, there’s no excuse for the spectacle aspect to be underwhelming.) The Dance of the Fireys, with its awful green-screen work, is an example of Doctor Who-level ineptitude. (Henson was reportedly unhappy with how it looked but decided to leave it in because he liked the puppets in the scene.)

Many of the most visible 1980s fantasy films, such as Willow, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, have been embraced by audiences who remember them with fondness from their youth. Their renewed “cult classic” status, however, doesn’t alter the fact that, at least in the case of this movie, nostalgia isn’t necessarily associated with quality. The post-‘80s decades have generated some top-notch fantasy efforts. Labyrinth is worth resurrecting and watching only to remember the awkward understanding Hollywood had of the genre back when people snickered at Tolkien as being an author for nerds.

Labyrinth (U.K./U.S.A., 1986)

Director: Jim Henson
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Brian Henson, Ron Mueck, David Shaughnessy
Home Release Date: 2020-05-24
Screenplay: Terry Jones
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Music: Trevor Jones, David Bowie
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 1986-06-27
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Fantasy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1