“Closer than you think” – Celebrating Labyrinth

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Mystic Ambrosiaus Sir Didymus

Twelfth Night brought The Dark Crystal while Epiphany brings Jim Henson’s final directorial masterpiece, Labyrinth.

the second of Jokerside’s double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… 

IT SURFACED FROM COLLABORATION. DURING A SCREENING OF THE DARK CRYSTAL VISIONARY PUPPETEER JIM HENSON AND FANTASY ILLUSTRATOR BRIAN FROUD CHUCKED A FEW IDEAS AROUND. A few years later the resulting film left the New Age philosophy of The Dark Crystal to draw on the works of Baum, Mendak, Bronte and Grimm. Oh and chuck in the odd tune. Now commonly seen as a cult film of a particular era, Labyrinth remains a startlingly innovative take on familiar themes that developed but also departed from Froud and Henson’s previous big screen collaboration. Unfortunately, it also saw the departure of critical and popular opinion at the time.

“That’s not fair”
“You say that so often…”

Labyrinth (1986)

A helluva team

Four years after The Dark Crystal, came the film that it’s probably fair to say is more famous. And a step forward and step back, depending on the Escher-styled staircase you’re on. For one, the budget was almost double that of The Dark Crystal. Once again, it was based on the incredible conceptual art of Brian Froud. But this time it didn’t run from humour, but embraced it. Apparently, humour was a prerequisite for David Bowie’s involvement. It combined humans and puppetry in incredibly realised, highly detailed environments that couldn’t help but highlight the scale. It moved from the early oddity of the previous film’s languages and avant-garde score to sculpt a witty musical.

Many usual subjects were involved in this higher level Henson production, but as a powerhouse collaboration the personnel were almost unbeatable. Brian Froud, Henson and Oz et al were back of course. But in addition to Henson taking a sole grip on the reins, George Lucas exec produced and Monty Python’s Terry Jones scripted from Dennis Lee’s story. Lucas not only had a pass or two on the script but also helped Henson edit, leading Henson to the fantastic quote on their relationship: “I loosen up his tightness, and he tightens my looseness.”

Add into that Trevor Jones return, blending a wonderful score with classic tracks from David Bowie himself. Yes, the centre of the piece was the chameleon of pop as Jareth the Goblin King, at that time riding out the popular highs and mild artistic fall of his mid-1980s period.

With that calibre behind it, Labyrinth just couldn’t fail. And artistically, it doesn’t.

The solemnity of The Dark Crystal was gone, but the fairy tale and frights remained. Jareth’s arrival proved that near the beginning. And away from the New Age philosophy of that earlier film, Labyrinth wandered into what might be the most difficult territory of all. The mind of a teenage girl. Much has been made of the film’s coming of age aspirations, but they’re well realised in a highly textured plot.

First Lines

“I’ve figured it out. I couldn’t do it before. I think I’m getting smarter.”

After the glorious animated opening, Sarah’s entrance firmly establishes a real world. Caught up in her fantasy role playing, with her trusted dog Merlin, we meet her the ‘wicked stepmom’ who is entirely reasonable. We see little of that real world as Sarah quickly returns to her room – a space that would prove pivotal. And so much falls on the corridor that connects her room to her parents; that bridges Sarah’s reality from the dark room where she wishes her brother away, before walking seamlessly into the Goblin Kingdom.

And once she’s there… Sarah is likeable, generous self-assured, self-improving – a far cry from the petulant child we see in reality. She gives away her jewellery, tries to help those around her.

These little subtleties though, can get lost in the onslaught. Some of the references are heavier or more oblique than the palette The Dark Crystal drew from. And as it’s designed to be a scrapbook kitchen sink of a film it’s no surprise that it can disconnect from its audience. Where and when is difficult to pinpoint as so much of it is stupendous in scope, scale and imagination. Take that opening promise, with the crying baby Toby (an excellent performance from Brian Froud’s son) which blurs live and puppet in tension, humour and horror.

“She called on the goblins for help”

Terry Jones script is light and humorous, adding depth through the wonderfully quirks of accents variously British, American and Muppet throughout: “Where did she learn that rubbish? It doesn’t even start with “I wish”’. The ominous stones are a particularly regional highlight.

Trevor Jones provides another blinding score, really bringing some mid-80s synth brilliance to match the subject, waning in and out to perfectly match the varying visual tone. Truly, that’s one of the soundtracks everybody should own. And it matches perfectly with Bowie’s contributions, far fewer songs than a viewing suggests but nonetheless brilliant. The storming gospel Underground recalling Young Americans, the catchy Magic Dance that can’t help suggest The Laughing Gnome (and sticks resolutely around Bowie’s frilly short collar just the same to this day), and the haunting As the World Falls Down, almost up there with Absolute Beginners for me. Then there’s the extraordinary finale, Within You, a reaching, sorrowful, gutting lament that hangs around far after the vocals fade.

It all ends in a falling Tetris of a collapsed world of course, by now Jareth having almost completed his transformation back into an owl. The Goblin King leaves hints as to his real nature throughout, but just like the sneaky likenesses of Bowie’s face hidden in the film’s long shots – in natural rock formations, the labyrinth floor and flora – it remains necessarily ambiguous. From their first meeting and his glorious owl and silhouette entrance, Jareth often lets Sarah speak for him (“you know very well where he is”). He may leave clues, but he also punishes any of Sarah’s glimmers of petulance. Unfair? “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis of comparison is…”

Bowie isn’t alone in the treacherous labyrinth of course. There are many lovely subversions from the sweet fairies that bite, the inability for anyone to grasp Hoggle’s name, the chirpy worm offering the cuppa who proves that actually, the path away from hell is paved with good intention. Heads that argue with other heads, bodies that ague with themselves, goblins that are weaponry and the Chilly Downs that are Frankenstein extension of Aughra’s eye in The Dark Crystal. Those fiery creatures are an oddity in the film, and not only for their evident testing of the film’s visual effects. Freakishly fun and one of the few elements seemingly outside Jareth’s control, they switch from mischievous too menacing but theirs is an innocent lack of understanding. They have rules, and Sarah has to break those rules to escape.

Clues

“You can’t take anything for granted”

Little visual gags are easy to remember, and it’s all supremely directed by Henson. Labyrinth sticks in the mind thanks to Henson’s incredible eye for detail as much as its vision. There are the accents of the puppets, the mechanism behind the cleaners in the oubliette and then the sly mess and damage they leave behind, Hoggle and Sarah’s escape back to the labyrinth though an impossible vase…

And much of the time, there’s a real sense that all these elements have a unified goal. Jareth is leaving clues for us and ultimately a moral for life. In that context perhaps one of the strangest parts of the film is when the camera takes its eye away from Sarah to join the Goblin King. The film could have invested more in ambiguity, implying that everything exists in Sarah’s head. But then, some of the delirious fun and jokes may have been lost on the way. Most of the time those cutaways to Bowie and his goblins run concurrent with Sarah’s actions in the labyrinth, particularly during the infamously epic Dance Magic Dance sequence. A musical, marginally less violent equivalent of the Trial by Stone scene in The Dark Crystal, in labyrinth you get a true sense of scale.

Structurally sound

“Oh, my aching sushi!”

A tour de force of imagination, Labyrinth has a more cohesive narrative and humour to drag it through its sketches than The Dark Crystal. And in covering a more diverse environment, it quite possibly beats its predecessor in production design. The labyrinth itself may be one of the greatest representations of RPGs ever put on film. Reaching the Goblin City, a Pandemonium of its own, Labyrinth puts up the greatest technical achievement across the two films. The ensuing prolonged goblin battle is a feat of skill as much as imagination. And even when dark and threatening, unlike The Dark Crystal it’s happy to display its soft and smirking side. Inside the giant gate guardian sits that small eyed, wispy be-winged goblin “that wasn’t very nice” he says when deposed by the redeemed Hoggle. Inside the walls is the goblin bomb that asks “I hit something, yes?” As the mounted goblins are knocked flying there’s the skittles sound effect of battered armour that predates the burly brawl Matrix joke. “Hey, no problem” says the crushed goblin machine gun.

And there’s plenty of comedy in the rag tag band of good guys. The gloriously unaware Sir Didymus with his archaic turn of phrase and his rather faithless steed the petrified Ambrosius (yes, that’s fox riding sheepdog), the lovably monstrous rock charmer Ludo (we all know someone like Ludo) and the quite extraordinary supported animatronics of Hoggle himself. Hoggle’s a feat that solves the action jump the Gelflings found in The Dark Crystal.

More Subversion

“Ludo get brother”

If it’s anything, perhaps Labyrinth is a film of subversion. In that way it certainly extends some of The Dark Crystal’s aims. On the way, a kiss becomes a punishment. The poison apple taken from Sarah’s copy of Snow White actually leads to one of the one of the affecting, coming of age parts of the film in the bubble snow globe. In that haunting sequence comes one of the film’s great enigmas, the mysterious man, his masque reminiscent of a plague mask, who remains central in the mise en scène for many shots for apparently no reason. Disconcerting. Once Sarah’s broken through the glass wall, there’s the juxtaposition of the vivid junk sequence, horribly compelling and insidious – the junk woman one of the film’s crawling and disconcerting characters. Out of nothing it’s surprising how shocking that apparent return to safety and normality is. While it never really rings true, it shows how mesmeric the clashing parts of the labyrinth had been. There, next to her model of Jareth, Sarah is saved by her script book. It’s a film that’s not afraid to test you disbelief’s suspension. But then, you’re watching for escapist adventure, right?

Highs and Lows

“I…I… Can’t live within you”

Labyrinth is many things, and how strange that it’s strikingly a musical for only one side of the equation. The good guys never sing, well, even when they try. And with its literal swansong Labyrinth reaches its peak just where it should. It’s a proverbial leap of faith that takes Sarah from Jareth’s monologue lament and Escher nightmare to her final confrontation, floating in the void. And once there, Jareth’s earnest plea about the sacrifice of living in her imagination is a huge change of pace and truth. And from it, Incredibly, Sarah’s fight to remember her lines pulls out one of the great climaxes in all film-making. It may sound grandiose. But it’s a satisfying and truly great denouement that would receive its rightful credit were it not for the genre that surrounds it.

Alas, while Labyrinth didn’t suffer the same release trauma as The Dark Crystal, it suffered at the box office, taking just $11.6 million at the box office despite a considerable marketing campaign. The reason is quite baffling. The reviews were mixed, but while certainly harsher than they proved in hindsight, not terrible. It does seem extraordinary that it was released in June, but then its hindsight that’s made it such a comfortable home at Christmas. That’s where I first saw it on television. Still, it sold very well on home media and both Bowie and the now Academy Award Winning actress Jennifer Connelly reported being recognised years afterwards. Brian Henson also confirmed that his father, who died just five years after filming Labyrinth, lived long enough to see the enormous cult recognition both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth grew into. Sadly, Henson would never direct another film after Labyrinth’s demoralising theatrical take.

Final Moves

“Should you needs us…”

And so Sarah arrives back in the real world, if indeed she ever left it. Odd strands of meta layer on each other in the labyrinth (take the multiple Hoggle Mannekin Pis in the Goblin City) requiring many a re-watch to catch, to the point that the clues and toys lining Sarah’s room in the early and late scenes are almost gratuitous. Still, we see Sarah find her friends in her dressing table her mirror and takes a statement that recalls her earlier unfortunate wish to make them, and her former enemies, muck right into the real world. It’s a wonderful fairy tale ending, although it makes you think what kind of state Sarah’s actually in if she’s imagining it.

Despite all parts of the Labyrinth being referenced in her ‘reality’ from the Escher print on the wall to the music box dancer, Sarah never acknowledges that connection. It’s never even something that helps her win unlike the more abstract problem solving for instance. But that’s not the point. Seeing the Goblin King-like statue on her just too excessively child-like bedroom dressing table raises a thought though. It may have been interesting for Jareth to have formed from the mind of a teenage girl obsessively listening to David Bowie’s recent Tonight LP. Again though, that would have been too gratuitous.

After all, Jareth begins and end in the form of an owl. While those nocturnal wonders may equate with wisdom in the Greek tradition, as a native American totem they signify a transition in life. And as the Goblin King said during his first fade, “It’s further than you think”.

Return to the Planet Thra with the Celebration of 1982’s The Dark Crystal

 

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