October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie
Synopsis: Sarah (Connelly) is an imaginative 15 year old girl who still loves to dress up and act out epic fantasies in the park. She resents her stepmother and new baby brother, Toby, and one night when her plans are spoiled by being forced to babysit while her father and stepmother go out, and annoyed that the baby has been playing with one of her special teddy bears, she impulsively cries out to the Goblin King (Bowie) from her stories to take him away. Much to her surprise, this happens and she instantly realizes her mistake and demands him back. Jareth, the Goblin King, gives her 13 hours to solve his labyrinth and retrieve the child before he is turned into a Goblin. Sarah accepts, facing numerous challenges and setbacks in the labyrinth and meeting an odd collection of new friends. Jareth constantly tries both to distract her from her mission and to convince her to stay with him and love him forever. Sarah and her friends reach the goblin city at last and but only she can face Jareth at the end. She realizes everything she’s been through is part of the fantasy she made up at the beginning of the movie and tells Jareth her line “You have no power over me!”. He is defeated, she and Toby are returned home and she makes peace with her brother by offering him the teddy bear. Back in her room she looks in the mirror and realizes that even though she is growing up, she still needs her friends and her fantasy world in her life. She calls to them, and huge psychedelic party with all the characters from the goblin kingdom who helped her in her quest breaks out in her bedroom, blurring the lines between this world and the other.
With the possible exception of The Dark Crystal, which is a sister and a precursor to this film and contains no human characters, there really are no other movies like Labyrinth. It’s a crazy fantasy where most of the characters are puppets and one of the two main humans is David Bowie at his most glam-rock androgynous. It’s sort of a musical (or at least Bowie is in a musical even if no one else is). It’s a story about growing up, about the place between girlhood and womanhood, told through an adventure that grows stranger and stranger by the moment. And it’s also about the importance of holding on to your childlike wonder and imagination even as you learn to navigate adulthood.
But first, let’s talk about the puppets. Labyrinth features one of the most impressive collections of puppets in any movie, from tiny ones smaller than your hand to giant lumbering beasts. Few of them bear any resemblance to creature in the popular fantasy canon, which adds to the film’s allure. Many of the puppets required collaboration between multiple people, from off-set radio controllers to the people actually inside of a suit. The designs are fabulous, but the fact that all of them manage to move and act in a way that makes you really believe they are sentient beings, despite being operated and voiced by two to five different people at once, is the real miracle. Even if the rest of the film were rubbish, it would be worth watching just for the puppet performances.
But the rest of the film isn’t rubbish, and the fact that it has only grown in the affections of the public since its disappointing debut in 1986 proves that. Sure, Bowie is super weird, Jennifer Connelly’s acting talent was still developing, and the story is confusing and a little random at times. But on the other hand, Bowie’s strange magnetism is perfect as a metaphor for the older, fascinating, and sometimes predatory sexuality that a naive young girl might encounter in the world as she first becomes aware of her maturity. What Connelly lacks in skill she makes up for earnestness, able to go from bratty to nurturing, from innocent to a little knowing over the course of the film. Her dewy, fresh faced beauty is at the perfect point between child and adult for the story Labyrinth wants to tell, and resisting the urge to cast a more seasoned actress was probably one of the best decisions made in production. And yeah, the plot goes on tangents, but they are entertaining tangents and the ultimate resolution and greater message of the film is clear.
This movie really shows the heart of Jim Henson, and not just in the unique design and fanciful setting. Its world view is uniquely his. Throughout the film it’s never clear whether any of this is really happening, having been based on Sarah’s fantasies or Sarah’s imagination having tapped into some deeper reality, or whether it is entirely in her own mind. The movie actively discourages us from trying to figure this out, because it doesn’t matter. To Henson, the imaginary world is as real as you can make it and drawing such distinctions is a waste of time. So too is the ending the perfect example of the way Henson lived his life and performed his art.
Yes, we all have to grow up to some extent and take responsibility for ourselves, to learn not to just think about ourselves and to not be too attached to things over people. But we should never let go of our imagination, our sense of wonder, or the worlds we’ve built and experienced as children and in our own minds. These things make us better as grown-ups, not worse. They make us more caring, stronger, braver, and help us face the difficulties in life. If we abandon them with age, we’ve missed an important lesson about how to be a person in favor of just being an adult. I think that the heart, not just the cool visuals, is why Labyrinth has had such a lasting impact for so many people. It’s a shame the response at the time of the release was so disheartening for Henson and that he passed away before he could see it become the beloved classic it is today.
Many of the complaints I’ve heard about the film center around the character of Sarah, that she’s spoiled and unlikable, particularly at the beginning. And that’s true, but I don’t find it to be a detraction. Part of the point of the film is her growth, her learning to be less selfish, to not worry about what’s “fair” because life doesn’t care what’s fair. I find Sarah to be an incredibly realistic character, and one that speaks to me. When I was fifteen I lived in stories in my head and imaginary friends and adventures. I’m sure I was incredibly spoiled as well, and I know I could be bratty, but so are many teens and that’s certainly not all I was. Sarah is complex. Even before undergoing character growth, she has a very loving compassionate side, and even after she’s not perfect. She’s also confident in her abilities and has to use her intelligence to save her brother. Sarah sets a good example, and a realistic one, to all the young dreamers who might fall in love with this movie.
Quality: 6 Hoggles out of 10, for the puppets and innovative story telling, even when plot and acting are lacking and pacing is wonky.
Entertainment value: 9 Bowies out of 10 for a fun, beautiful, ridiculous movie that stays with you.