If you are a child of the Eighties then you will no doubt be familiar with this film. For many people this fantasy adventure film holds a special place in their nostalgic hearts. Whether this is due to David Bowie seductively playing the Goblin King or if it’s the endearing puppet characters or even if it’s Jennifer Connelly’s imaginative and smart protagonist Sarah, Labyrinth is a cult classic, but why? Bowie certainly gives the film credibility and the variety of characters created by Jim Henson’s talented team are believable and memorable. But possibly Labyrinth’s strongest and most appealing trait is the story.
Labyrinth is pure escapism, even Sarah wants to escape from the real world. She resents her baby brother, feels her parents don’t care about her and uses her imagination to delve into other fantastical worlds. Her book of choice is Labyrinth, the story of a Goblin King who takes a baby from a teenage girl and forces her to go on a quest through a labyrinth if she wants to get him back. As Sarah is babysitting Toby, he cries and cries, and she inadvertently wishes the Goblin King to take him away. Unbeknownst to her the Goblin King is real and he whisks Toby away to his castle giving Sarah 13 hours to tackle the Labyrinth that leads to the castle and rescue her baby brother.
The classic quest is punctuated with fascinating and humorous creatures that Sarah encounters and befriends along the way and Bowie’s songs add a haunting and seductive air to the story. It is essentially a coming of age tale but the fantastical world depicted is so intriguing and entertaining that it is so easy to become lost in it. The pace and structure of the story are spot on and even though Sarah is a little annoying to begin with, she is a refreshingly clever main protagonist.
Watching the film today, the puppets are still believable and considering the film was made over 25 years ago, when special effects were just developing, Labyrinth does not appear as dated as you would expect. New audiences may be surprised by the lack of computer special effects but the puppets are so charming it would be difficult not to be drawn in and with such a robust story Labyrinth will live on for many more years, illustrating that the longevity of a film relies more heavily on story than anything else as well as superb characters.
Conceptual designer Brian Froud, whose son Toby was in the film, discussed working on the film after the screening. He believes that Labyrinth, which was full of pioneering ideas at the time, “still stands up to this very day in terms of technology”. When asked about his opinions on CGI Brian commented that “digital is catching up; it is about getting a sense of reality. Puppets have a physicality and it’s a performance, the human aspects shine through”. Apparently the owl at the beginning of the film, created by Industrial Light & Magic, was the first fully realised CGI character in a film, even though this is only a small part of the film and most of the effects are theatrical rather than CGI. He also went on to discuss that a hybrid of part puppet and part CGI could be very successful and indeed be the future for special effects.
Brian worked with Jim Henson on The Dark Crystal (1982) and the idea for Labyrinth came out of the fact that Jim wanted to do something with humans and goblins, to which Brian got an image in his head of a baby surrounded by goblins. However, he believed that after The Dark Crystal it “felt like we might have sold out” with Labyrinth but concluded that “people still love it, even though it is not as deep as Dark Crystal”. The appeal could be down to the fact that the story is “sort of elusive, not defined”, with references to Alice in Wonderland and little clues throughout, and the fact that “the Goblin King character is a strange mixture of lots of things, he is Heathcliff”. Upon discussing the costume of the Goblin King Brian said it was about bringing lots of things together such as ballet and leather and David Bowie brought a pop star quality to character.
Brian’s wife, Wendy Midener, created the original Yoda and puppeteered the ears, and he stated that “Yoda is a character that came out of limitations”. He believes that with puppets “less is more” and if you design one thing the puppets do really well, it makes it believable. Over 300 people worked on Labyrinth, creating and coordinating the puppets and making the film as convincing as possible. For The Dark Crystal, everything was on platforms so that the puppeteers were underneath, whereas Labyrinth had many more people in costumes which meant that the characters had more authentic reactions. Terry Jones from Monty Python was also brought in to tweak the script for the film and ended up doing a whole rewrite, using Brian’s sketches for inspiration.
So, whether it is down to the believable puppets, the elusive story, the witty script, or Bowie’s ‘Magic Dance’, who could not enjoy the combination of talents that make this near perfect escapist fantasy adventure?
Director: Jim Henson
Writers: Dennis Lee (story), Jim Henson (story), and Terry Jones (screenplay)
Stars: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly and Toby Froud
Runtime: 101 mins
Country: UK, USA