Jim Henson is one of the biggest creative forces of the 1980’s—though perhaps that statement belittles his importance. His influence can be seen across the big and small screen, and the humanity and joy he brought to his mostly puppet characters is unprecedented. I challenge you to find a puppet who has more emotional depth than Kermit the Frog or more vivaciousness than Miss Piggy. Everything Henson ever produced bore an essential childlike joy, a pure jouissance. Nowhere is this exuberance better felt than in Labyrinth, a film Henson saw as a “lighter weight picture” after the decidedly heavy themes of The Dark Crystal.
Director: Jim Henson
Producers: Martin G. Baker, David Lazer, George Lucas, Eric Rattray
Writers: Jim Henson, Dennis Lee, Terry Jones
Cinematographer: Alex Thomson
Editor: John Grover
Music: Trevor Jones, David Bowie
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelly Thompson, Christopher Malcolm, Frank Oz, Michael Hordern, Kevin Clash
US Theatrical Release: June 27, 1986
US Distributor: Sony Pictures
Labyrinth was Henson’s third feature (after The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal) but he was by no means a rookie, having worked for years in television. He even made a few stunning experimental shorts in the 60’s, which played in galleries and showcase his incredible talent for rhythm and visual humor. Yet in many ways, Labyrinth was a new turn for Henson—it was his first time working primarily with human actors instead of puppets and it was his first major commercial failure—losing twelve and a half million dollars, half its budget.
One of Henson’s early experimental works, Time Piece (1965)
Why Labyrinth failed financially is a bit of a mystery. It has a good cast, including David Bowie at the peak of his music career, a blossoming Jennifer Connelly, and performances from perennial Henson collaborators like Frank Oz, and puppeteers from the Muppets and Sesame Street. Admittedly, Bowie’s performance falls a bit flat—he never was an actor, despite many attempts—and the original songs he wrote for the film pale in comparison to his albums at the time. Still, the quality of production is impressive and Henson’s creative directing and set design, and the clever script, pull the film out of tedium. Some of his cinematic tricks are reminiscent of the great practitioners of early cinema—a path in the nominal labyrinth is disguised by careful use of soft focus or a group of puppets juggle their heads like Georges Meliés—and Henson employs these techniques with both skill and affection. This film should have been more successful, but like so many others, it may have come along at the wrong time.
An amalgamation of dozens of children’s parables, riddles, and games, all cobbled together, Labyrinth focuses on Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), an immature teenage girl who is left to sit for her baby brother Toby while her parents go out for the night. But, when she wishes Toby away, and into the clutches of Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), she must travel through his magical labyrinth and the Goblin City to rescue Toby. On her way she meets cowardly Hoggle, burly Ludo, and courageous simpleton Sir Didymus, all puppets lovingly enlivened by Henson’s veteran puppet crew.
But it is not for its plot that Labyrinth is worthwhile, it’s for Henson’s particular aesthetic execution. Whimsical puppet characters float in and out of the frame along with site gags, and visual ingenuity is everywhere, and some of the puppetry is truly astonishing. While most of Henson’s career is about bringing life to carefully constructed felt creatures, Labyrinth features some puppetry less devoted to artifice. In a remarkable scene, dozens of puppeteers intertwine their hands, creating puppet faces out of the shadows that grow between their fingers. These suggestions of faces are as emotive as any Muppet, and the fluid transformation from face back to hands is a hypnotic and a fascinating display of a little-practiced artform, as well as a show of surprising skill from cinematographer Alex Thomson. Seeing analog cinematic tricks and puppet characters (rather than the CGI alternatives that would certainly slip into a contemporary movie) is refreshing. These moments of artistic ingenuity pepper the film and make a nice interlude between classical (now clichéd) fantasy tropes like riddles, puzzles, and menacing interjections from the villain.
Through the film Sarah’s relationship with Jareth, including a strange drug-induced hallucination in which the two are married becomes oddly central, as does Sarah’s maturation into an adult who takes responsibility for her actions. Yet there is a strange sexual tension that builds between the two, exacerbated in part by Bowie’s extremely revealing costume—if you have ever had the urge to see the outline of David Bowie’s penis, you are in luck. In the film’s narrative, Sarah’s maturity, and its sexual connotations, happen in a mysterious other world, a magical place full of goblins, puppet-people, and high fantasy tropes. As Alan Moore put forward in his comic book Lost Girls, which takes for its case study Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan, perhaps these stories about adolescent girls traveling to fantastic realms are really thinly veiled allegories for their sexual awakening. Labyrinth seems particularly well tuned for this reading, since its goal is procuring a baby. Like all three of Lost Girls’ protagonists, Sarah goes into another secret and magical world, and returns as a more mature, womanly version of herself. There are flashes of Oz around every corner, from Sarah’s three traveling companions to the phony-looking painted backgrounds, yet Labyrinth’s script has some of the sardonic playfulness of films like The Princess Bride—acknowledging the fantasy genre with a knowing wink.
The film is certainly a bit dated, but as a midnight movie, that is a part of the appeal. And as a children’s movie with songs (even songs as unimpressive and forgettable as these) there are certain to be cultish fans in the audience who know every word. As a film Labyrinth is a B-plus, but as a midnight movie it’s hard to imagine better.