If I’m being totally honest, I’ve always been more of a Dark Crystal kind of guy myself… not to put the boot into Labyrinth – Muppet maestro Jim Henson’s second stab at crafting a gonzo (pun intended) fantasy world fully stocked with impossible creatures – but where The Dark Crystal was an incredibly po-faced and agonisingly realised world that had an entire population and ecosystem rendered exhaustedly in puppet form, Labyrinth is a far more surreal and jokey experience that plays fast and loose with the rules of reality. This is, of course, an excuse to launch a plethora of incredibly trippy scenes that prove to be every bit as spell binding as you’d expect a Jim Henson fantasy scripted by Terry Jones would be. That, and it has actual human people in it to root for – and also David Bowie…
Sarah is a typically tempestuous teenager who resents her well meaning step mother and prefers to lose herself in her favourite pastime of running around fields as a one person LARPer while shirking her responsibilities of looking after her baby half-brother. In a textbook example of selfish teenage assholery, she idly wishes that he would get taken away by goblins just so she doesn’t have to baby sit him (slight overkill, but there you go…) but to her instant regret it turns out that there actually is a kingdom of goblins and their king, Jareth – who, judging by the armadillo-sized bulge warping the cut of his tights, must be hung like a Grand National winner – has claimed baby Toby for himself. He makes Sarah a deal; negotiate the massive Labyrinth that makes up his kingdom and make it to his castle within 13 hours or Toby will become a goblin forever with the catch being that the otherworldly maze is as utterly illogical and confounding as negotiating the underground services in an unfamiliar country. Immediately sent off in the wrong direction by a well-meaning worm (fucking do-gooders), Sarah soon amasses a small cabal of loyal(ish) oddities led by the belligerent Hoggle, an untrustworthy, Keith Richards-faced dwarf whom we first meet taking a cheeky slash in a pond and spraying fairies with bug spray. Joining them is horned gentle giant Ludo and the gung-ho fox Sir Didymus (with his cowardly Dulux dog steed, Ambrosius thrown in at no extra charge) and the group try to overcome the many and varied obstacles in their path but can they possibly hope to contend with Jareth’s freaky deaky maze which proves to be as tricksy as a self aware Rubick’s Cube that’s training to be an illusionist?
Considering the huge cult following that Jim Henson’s extravaganza of hallucinogenic family friendly anarchy has these days it’s actually quite the shock to find out exactly how poorly it fared at the box office back in 1986 (Henson sadly never directed a film again). Maybe Labyrith’s brain frazzling imagery mixed with David Bowie’s barely restrained sexual fluidity was too much for parents to cope with in a year where Short Circuit and The Karate Kid Part II seemed perfectly acceptable, which is a legitimate shame as the film, despite some issues with it’s understandably episodic nature (solve puzzle/obstacle, move on, repeat) is far more memorable than most family film of that era combined.
To be fair, certain things play a lot differently in this day and age than they did back in the halcyon days of 1986 – chief of which is the fact that we’re supposed to perfectly cool with a 39 year old Bowie aiming his seductive David Bowie-ness (and his considerable groin bulge) at the impossibly fresh faced 16 year old Jennifer Connelly – aside from that however, Bowie’s Goblin king proves to be the beating heart that makes this exceedingly weird experience work so well. Striding around the place, kicking his minions as he absent mindedly plays with his balls (crystal balls you filthy minded wretches) he casually berates literally anything within his immediate radius and looks to be having a whale of a time surrounded by the sort of creatures he’s probably nonchalantly hung out with while tripping balls on tour. Although, to be honest, the majority of his featured songs prove to be heavily on the forgettable side – quick, name one from memory that isn’t Magic Dance! Yeah, didn’t think so… Swollen cod piece and petulant put downs aside, Bowie’s Jareth is a certainly more appealing humanoid that Connelly’s petulant lead; a spoiled brat who makes everybody’s life miserable with her huge amounts of entitlement, thankfully, Connolly’s supporting cast of cuddly friends make an indelible impact the very second we meet them and serve to dilute the fact that Sarah is a little bit of a b-word to the world in general. The constant battle within the self loathing Hoggle to not betray our self-obsessed lead is a far more involving character arc than a teenage girl embarking on an acid trip while realising that maybe she shouldn’t have wished that her baby brother wasn’t carried away by gibbering creatures.
As I mentioned earlier, brattish lead character aside, Labyrinth’s only really other issue is that the whole thing is unavoidably episodic with the main cast merely being a conduit for which Henson uses to shuffle us to his next mind boggling set piece, but in all honesty, who requires intricate substance when the style is presented by a gaggle of state of the art sock puppets? Scene after barely related scene of imagination stretching wonders are laid out before us like an all-you-can-eat buffet and our clutch of main supporting characters are only the start (although if you don’t immediately fall in love with Ludo then you very well may be an alien shapeshifter).
The innovation is constant: flame haired, psychotic examples of PG-rated body horror known as the Fierys remove their limbs at will to have hedonistic dance parties, a pit is formed of countless disembodied “helping” hands who join together to mime faces to comunicate, the huge gate in the Goblin City closes to form both halves of a massive, iron guardian… plus the freak-out inducing sets also unsurprisingly get into the act with an M.C. Escher inspired room full of inpossible staircases that gleefully flips physics the finger. It’s all dizzying stuff and requires more than a single viewing to absorb all the detail on offer and it’s truly gratifying that Henson’s puppety passion project found the devoted audience it richly deserved.
Labyrinth truly is the babe with the power…