Sunday 1 August 2021

35 years of Labyrinth

Labyrinth remains a teenage touchstone and cinematic capsule preserving cherished memories that can be reopened whenever I stream Jim Henson's fan-favourite fantasy film on Netflix.

Sony's celebrating Labyrinth's 35th anniversary with a 4K Blu-ray disc set (affiliate link).

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, faces dangers untold and hardships unnumbered.

Guest post by Nick Smith

While Aliens, Top Gun and Stand By Me all celebrate their 35th anniversary this year, there’s only one film from 1986 that has living cannonballs, talking door knockers and David Bowie songs.

When Labyrinth premiered, it was the latest in an inventive trail of Jim Henson features that included The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal. But this one had deeper, more far-reaching themes than Follow That Bird.

I grew up with a younger sister, Becky, who related to the lead character of Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, only 14 years old when she auditioned). Becky marvelled at the friendlier characters in the movie – Ludo (Ron Mueck), Sir Didymus (voiced by David Shaughnessy) – while I enjoyed the Pythonesque wisecracks, written by Terry Jones. His sense of humour seemed to blend perfectly with Henson’s muppet mayhem. I could also relate to Sarah as a resentful babysitter.

It didn’t hurt that the executive producer was George Lucas, the man who had opened my eyes to the fantastical world of filmmaking with Star Wars. So, Labyrinth was as special as a goblin secret whispered to a baby, and its air of hope and innocence seem perfect for the era that spawned it.

As Labyrinth opens, we meet a Sarah who is willful, headstrong and spoiled. She takes too many things for granted and she can’t even remember her lines. She’s got plenty of room to grow and she does, as she enters the realm of the Goblin King (David Bowie) to rescue her infant brother.

Cleverly, director Henson establishes a landscape where a wall can look fake because it is – we’re on a movie set! – and we question what is real and what is true, with some of the characters admitting that they’re liars and others telling Sarah she’s on the wrong track. Sarah is aided by quirky characters like Ludo, Didymus and Hoggle, who all help to add whimsical humour lacking in The Dark Crystal.

Labyrinth is jam-packed with imaginative ideas: the Bog of Eternal Stench, a giant steampunk robot, goblin guards with snapping lizard lances… lest we hail the film for its originality, it must be acknowledged that there are references to and echoes of Maurice Sendak (Outside Over There), Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and artists M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali.

In one scene, King Jareth’s face is formed by rocks, and the film revels in the kind of visual trickery found in Dali paintings like Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach. There’s also the town of the goblins, a delightful exercise in German expressionist architecture.

Beyond the sympathetic characters and creative visuals, there are important themes that gain meaning as time passes for the audience: the inevitable weight of responsibility; the dangers of materialism and hoarding; the allure of fairytales versus the emotional rewards of facing reality.

Combined with Connelly’s wide-eyed innocent performance (she would go on to win an Oscar for her role in A Beautiful Mind) and Bowie’s passing, Labyrinth possesses more dark and glorious magic now than the Goblin King ever did.

Labyrinth is a celebration of art, wit, music and imagination that resonates with the kids who grew up with it.

What are your Labyrinth memories? Let me know in the comments below.

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