Henson #1 – Labyrinth (1986)

(Concluding the countdown portion of The Jim Henson Project with #1…)

The Dark Crystal wore down artist Brian Froud, who poured years of work into the project only to watch it fail – shunned by critics and, worse, widely ignored by audiences. Froud says that when the process ended, he felt he might never do a film project again. He must have been surprised, then, to find himself taking a phone call from Jim Henson and listening to a pitch for another puppet-based fantasy film. Henson’s idea was to create a modern fairy tale, with a lighter tone than Crystal, and with human actors alongside the muppet creations. After only a moment’s hesitation, Froud had one word for Henson – goblins.

Labyrinth is the result of this conversation, and although it failed in theatres – worse than Crystal even – the film is a beloved classic today.

The Story: Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a teenage drama queen who plays dress up in the park and lives in a room full of colorful dolls. When asked to babysit her little brother Toby, Sarah gets revenge by spooking him with a fairy story… but accidentally summons a batch of goblins to steal him away, instead! The goblin king, Jareth (played jointly by David Bowie and David Bowie’s package), gives Sarah one chance to keep her brother from becoming a goblin — she must travel to the center of a fantastical labyrinth in just 13 hours. He then disappears back to his castle for some pop songs.

And all the roads are named Peachtree.

Sarah takes the challenge, but quickly learns that nothing plays fair in the labyrinth. A runty groundskeeper named Hoggle misdirects her, tiny critters change any marks she makes, and even when she solves a riddle correctly, she’s still dropped into an oubliette. Jareth, meanwhile, sings more pop songs.

Eventually, Sarah gets her bearings. She befriends Hoggle and a yeti-like critter named Ludo, who can summon rocks to come to her aid. Almost instantly, however, she loses them both and is swarmed by the Fire Gang, beasts that can’t understand why her head doesn’t come off like theirs do. Also, they sing pop songs.

Hoggle and Ludo rescue Sarah, but the trio soon find themselves trapped in the Bog of Eternal Stench, which is even more disgusting than you remember. Their exit is blocked by the wily Sir Didymus, a chivalric fox-like goblin who joins their quest when bested by Ludo in battle.

Now that Sarah has completed her party (and leveled up), a nervous Jareth stoops to cheating. A tainted peach traps Sarah in a dream bubble, where Jareth woos her amidst a creepy masquerade. Sarah goes with it at first, but the scene is surreal and dark, and her inner alarm bells start to sound. She escapes the dream and a junkyard full of her childhood toys meant to distract her and reunites with her friends at the gates of the Goblin City.

“You have lovely lips, Sarah. Would you like to pretend to be Mick Jagger?”

In the big finale, Sarah’s team fends off a giant robot and a bumbling army of goblin soldiers on the way to the castle, where she meets Jareth and his latest pop song in an Escher-inspired wackyroom.

She defeats him, finally, by denying his power over her life. The entire world of the labyrinth vanishes and she finds herself back in her home, her brother safe and sound. Her coming-of-age complete, Sarah removes her childish decorations. Hoggle, however, appears in her mirror with a simple line. “Should you need us…”, he says, and she does. So a rocking party breaks out, complete with one last pop song.

The Scene: If the story sounds a bit episodic it’s with good reason, but each episode is crazy good. I love the Bog of Eternal Stench, and the “Dance Magic” musical number in Jareth’s castle, but if one scene really makes the film, it’s the nightmare sequence after Sarah bites the peach.

Nothing about this says “pedophile?”

In the DVD commentary, Brian Froud admits that the sexuality in the scene isn’t subtext. The very adult Jareth is really hitting on the adolescent Sarah. It’s this seduction that reminds Sarah of what she is – a teenager. No longer a child who plays with dolls, nor yet a grown woman, but a person who embraces the age she’s at. It’s an important transition in the film’s story, and it looks incredible. The scene is played with all human actors, wearing masquerade disguises to look like goblins (obviously intended to BE the goblins, just from a different perspective), and when Sarah breaks out, the fiends fly every which way, as if gravity has ceased to mean anything. An artsy scene that elevates the movie into deeper terrain.

The Line: “You have no power over me.” The line Sarah uses to defeat the goblin king. From this point, Sarah will no longer allow her childhood fantasies to define her, and she officially grows up (as anyone who has seen Requiem for a Dream can tell you.)

She should have told Keith David that he had no power over her.

The Production: The creative talent behind Labyrinth is an‘80s dream team. Jim Henson directed (obviously) and his team built all the creatures and puppets, Terry Jones of “Monty Python” worked extensively on the script, Brian Froud did the conceptual design, George Lucas produced, and David Bowie, of course, provided his songs, his acting, and his junk.

Production took place in England, where the major players could easily collaborate, and the production was a bit of a soup. Henson had the initial idea, which Froud then further developed. The actual meat of the writing was then done by Jones, who inspired himself by poring over Froud’s sketchbook and developing forgotten critters he found in the margins. Once I discovered a “Monty Python” voice was involved in the project, it suddenly seemed so obvious. The door knockers, the wise man and the hat, the guards with the riddle – each has both the comic timing and the channeled insanity of the best of Python’s work.

For casting his lead, Henson interviewed hundreds of girls before deciding on Jennifer Connelly, primarily for her ability to bridge the child/adult gap so crucial to the character. For Jareth, the goblin king, a much smaller sampling of rock stars were considered. Before Bowie took the role, Henson claimed the other choices were Sting and Michael Jackson.

note: come up with some joke about Michael Jackson and helping hands

Nobody did more for the casting of the project, however, than Brian Froud. When designing the film, Froud drew a picture of a baby boy surrounded by dozens of goblins. Shortly after finishing the drawing, Froud’s wife became pregnant. Nine months later, baby Toby was born, just in time to star as Sarah’s little brother. The freaky part is that the design photo and the real baby Toby share an uncanny resemblance, suggesting that Brian Froud has the artistic power to mentally design his own offspring.

As mentioned in an earlier bit, and despite the incredible melding of talent in the film, Labyrinth was another box office disappointment for Henson, and it wasn’t until home video that the story caught on with children. As these children have grown, so has the film’s audience. It’s a shame that Henson, who died just four years after the film’s release, only saw hints of the success Labyrinth would eventually enjoy.

…A Jim Henson Film: Henson’s world-building skills work overtime in this film. His characters blur the line between fantasy and reality (the surprisingly lifelike combo of actor and robotic mask for Hoggle; the puppet/real-dog “steed” Ambrosius), and Henson filled his frames with detail, adding reasons and history to every object. The tone is pleasant and fun, and, as mentioned above, the collaboration behind the scenes was a Henson trademark.

Lasting Impact: To a greater extent than The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth stands as an example of what is possible with fantasy films and puppetry. What Labyrinth does best, however, is set the bar for other fantasy films. Mirrormask was an attempt to recapture the Henson/fantasy magic, but the lifeless computer effects still pale against such “primitive” creations as Hoggle and Sir Didymus. As a movie, Mirrormask was an interesting experiment. Standing next to Labyrinth, it was a well-intended fiasco.

Literally nothing a computer has ever done is cooler than this.

Will there ever be another film like Labyrinth? Possibly, but probably not from a major studio. Spike Jonze recently failed in his efforts to bring Where the Wild Things Are to the screen with animatronic puppets, and is currently reshooting the film for computer effects. Yes there was studio pressure for this decision, but the blame lies partly with the current state of fantasy filmmaking. Computer graphics have spoiled us to the point where a modern “puppet” film might be laughed off the screen. Why go practical when you can go digital? Perhaps we’ll look back at films like Labyrinth as the last of their kind. Whether that’s a bad thing or misplaced nostalgia is anybody’s guess.

Reason for Ranking: Labyrinth is not perfect, but it is easily the best film Jim Henson made. The Dark Crystal is too joyless, The Great Muppet Caper is too slight, but Labyrinth is a perfect mix of ingredients. Humor, music, fantasy, great characters, memorable writing, and a simple, archetypal story that gets to the heart of an important theme, the transition from one age to another. Much of Henson’s work, even Henson himself, straddles that same line. It was a remarkable marriage of director and story.

See you next week with the final thoughts on The Jim Henson Project!

The Jim Henson Project

1. Labyrinth

2. The Dark Crystal

3. The Great Muppet Caper

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  1. #1 by Ann Hadlock on 03/30/2011 - 12:55 AM

    Who wrote this entry? I want to quote it for my MFA Thesis paper I’m writing about Labyrinth.
    Thanks
    Ann

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