Labyrinth is a 1986 fantasy film that has developed something of a cult status. I was only one when it came out, but watched it at some point during my childhood and forgot about it until I was seventeen, when I bought it on video. Of course I’ve since replaced my video with a DVD!
Labyrinth boasts the legendary David Bowie as the Goblin King (how many modern musicians could star in a fantasy film and still retain their credibility?) and a young Jennifer Connelly as main character Sarah. The film was directed by Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and the film bears many of the hallmarks of his work, including a variety of weird and wonderful puppet characters. It was produced by George Lucas, known for the Star Wars films. Jim Henson wrote the screenplay along with children’s author Dennis Lee and ex-Python Terry Jones. The film was designed by Brian Froud, a fantasy illustrator, who also worked on The Dark Crystal, another Henson effort. Interestingly, Sarah’s baby brother Toby was played by Froud’s little son, who was named Toby in real life!
Surprisingly, despite all these factors, the film was regarded as a commercial failure, only grossing $12,729,917 despite a budget of $25 million (according to Wikipedia). I find this really hard to get my head round, considering how brilliant it is, but sometimes these ‘flops’ become cult classics, and this is certainly what’s happened to Labyrinth.
The film follows the adventures of a teenage girl, Sarah, who lives in her own fantasy world and loves to act out the story from her favourite book, Labyrinth. Angry at having to babysit her little brother on a Saturday night, she wishes that the goblins would come and take him away. When the Goblin King himself actually DOES spirit little Toby away to the castle in the centre of the Labyrinth, Sarah faces a race against time to make it through the maze and rescue her brother.
The plot is in many ways a typical fantasy adventure plot, in which the main character must battle against the odds to achieve some goal or perform some feat. It is gripping throughout and the film never gets boring. The opening sequence, set in our world, sets the scene concisely and it isn’t long before you get into the Labyrinth. The environment within the Labyrinth changes continually: there’s a desert with built-up stone walls, a paved maze, an underground oubliette and a hedged garden, as well as a lush forest and a goblin city. The castle itself is beautifully and cleverly set out like an Escher drawing. There is always something new to be amazed by, and the special effects stand up really well nearly 25 years after they were originally done. The models and the puppetry produce a rich organic feel to the film which is sometimes missing from modern films with their CGI effects.
There are very few human characters in the film: most of them are puppets, apart from one dog! Sarah’s father, played by Christopher Malcolm, doesn’t have much of a role while her stepmother, played by Shelley Thompson, makes a similarly brief appearance but comes across as rather nagging. Baby Toby is very sweet in his little striped romper suit but I bet the actor is embarrassed about it now!
Jennifer Connelly has gone on to star in films such as Requiem for a Dream and A Beautiful Mind to critical acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why as she does an excellent job in the film, even at the young age of 15. Sarah is still very childish in her outlook at the start of the film, prefers her fantasy life to her real life, and is rather stroppy and moody – in fact she is rather annoying, but you really see her grow and develop throughout the film. She is brave and loyal and devoted to her friends, and this really comes across as the film progresses.
Most of the characters in the Labyrinth are puppets, but they still manage to be three-dimensional characters, figuratively as well as literally. There’s Hoggle, the grumpy goblin Sarah encounters as soon as she enters the Labyrinth (urinating into the lake!). Hoggle is torn between his growing friendship with Sarah and his duty to the Goblin King, who threatens to throw him into the Bog of Eternal Stench if he doesn’t do as he is told. Whose side is he really on? Ludo is a large fluffy orange creature, who is very gentle despite his size, and has special powers. Sir Didymus is a quixotic fox-like creature who rides around on his trusty steed Ambrosius (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Sarah’s dog). There is a wealth of other characters who make brief appearances: the little Worm, the frightening Fireys, the Wiseman and his talking Bird Hat, the Junk Lady, the Guards and the Door Knockers… too many to list! These characters, which are all puppets of some description, really add to the richness of the film and are the source of much wonder and humour.
Last but by no means least, there is Jareth, the Goblin King himself, played by David Bowie with a mean hairdo and rather tight trousers! I bet that if you are female and of a certain age you once had a bit of a crush on the Goblin King. Jareth is an interesting character – he is manipulative, cunning and cruel, and he is clearly the ‘baddie’ as he has spirited Sarah’s little brother away and is threatening to turn him into a goblin, but you suspect he has done this out of ennui more than anything else, as the scenes with him in the castle suggest it is rather dull living with a host of silly goblins! Throughout the film his attitude to Sarah evolves and it seems that he starts to develop feelings for her!
The influence of ex-Python Terry Jones on the script is obvious as there is a lot of humour, much of it unexpected. Try and solve the puzzle of the Four Guards before Sarah does – it’s incredibly difficult! The film was scored by Trevor Jones and also contains many incredibly catchy songs written and performed by David Bowie, including ‘Underground’ (which opens and closes the film), ‘Magic Dance’ and ‘As the World Falls Down’. I do own a copy of the soundtrack album as well as the film! In a documentary included as part of the DVD extras, Bowie admits that he made the baby noises during ‘Magic Dance’ as the baby in the studio would not!
This is a film about growing up, and the difficult transition from teenager to adult. Sarah is a particularly childish teenager who is very attached to her fantasy life and material things. The film is about her adjusting her priorities and learning to put friendship and family before toys and trinkets, while at the same time maintaining the delicate balance between living in the real world and keeping that connection with your imagination and your childhood. At the same time it subtly explores sexuality and romantic feelings: it isn’t something children would pick up on – the film is comfortably rated U – but any teenagers or older people watching would notice the changing relationship between Sarah and Jareth, who also represents the fantasy world that Sarah is in danger of completely succumbing to. Fantasy is a medium that is often used to explore important themes and after watching Labyrinth a number of times I think the film does this remarkably well. According to the DVD extras, the film has over time proved especially popular with teenage girls, and I can certainly understand why, as it certainly resonated with me as a teenager (and in fact still does).
Labyrinth is a film that repays repeat viewing. The storyline and characters remain exciting and fresh and are not dulled by familiarity. When watching again you notice things you didn’t pick up on the first time. For example, in Sarah’s bedroom you see things that are reflected in the world of the Labyrinth: a musical box with a doll in a white dress that looks remarkably like Sarah in the ballroom scene; an M. C. Escher poster that resembles the castle; a doll resembling Ludo; and more which I will leave you to spot for yourself. During the part of the film set in the Labyrinth, there is more to see: watch out, for example, for the three standing stones that when viewed at a certain angle look just like Jareth! The makers of the film obviously took great care and time when designing and filming it.
My DVD is the 2007 2-disc Anniversary Edition. The DVD includes a number of extras including a very informative and entertaining documentary, including interviews with the main people involved and a look at how the characters and sets were made. There are also a number of featurettes and some beautiful concept art. Unlike some DVD extras these are really worth paying attention to.
While I was doing research for my review I found out that Labyrinth was also turned into a novel by M. C. H. Smith. Three volumes (with a fourth on the way) of an English-language Manga sequel, entitled Return to Labyrinth, have recently been released. The sequel follows the adventures of baby Toby once he turns fifteen, and have received mixed reviews on Amazon. I still think I would like to get hold of them though, more out of curiosity than anything.
Overall, Labyrinth is one of my all-time favourite films, and I recommend it for children, teenagers, and any adult who still likes a bit of fantasy. It’s a wonderful film and has everything: great story, beautiful design, interesting characters, humour, songs and a message. There is an excellent informative article about the film on Wikipedia, but I recommend reading it AFTER watching the film, as it does give away some elements of the plot. If you haven’t seen it – do!