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…”
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.
“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. Continue reading ““Closer than you think” – Celebrating Labyrinth”