One of the many reasons I rarely watch television anymore, besides being phenomenally busy, is the fear of seeing commercials featuring the Muppets. After watching the lush, smart, and infinitely creative Labyrinth, directed by the great Jim Henson, it pains me to be part of present society. Whereas at one time the creations of Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the puppeteer pioneers received respect and admiration, today they seem to have nothing interesting to do, which can be faulted to the Disney Empire. Watching Miss Piggy tossing pizza bites into the mouths of horny teenagers or tuning in for the utterly mediocre The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz just makes me tired.
Luckily, this is where nostalgia thankfully steps in, taking me back to a childhood where puppets weren’t necessarily cute or used to hawk fatty products. The characters featured in Labyrinth have rough edges, including detachable heads, masses of bubbly warts, and more inherent personality than anything you’ll find in a computer animated film. Henson and company should be commended for designing a world from the ground up that completely holds up today, as their film is a rare example of one that can be watched again and again with the promise of newfound entertainment.
Comparisons can fairly be made between this film and other fantasy pieces, the most notable being The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The basic setup of Labyrinth sees 16-year-old Sarah losing her baby brother Toby to The Goblin King after she selfishly wishes him away. The King, feeling generous, allows Sarah the chance to save the baby via a challenge: She must navigate his complex maze in under thirteen hours, and if she fails, Toby will become a goblin child and live with the King permanently. Ala Dorothy and her companions, Sarah eventually makes a trio of friends in the form of Hoggle, a shifty lover of knick-knacks; Sir Didymus, a fox/knight wannabe whose steed is a sheep dog; and Ludo, a massive but soft-hearted beast.
You can obviously see where the similarities lie, but what makes this film so endearing is how it takes these well known conventions and fleshes them out with new details. And like its predecessors, Labyrinth isn’t at all afraid to go into dark territory. There’s a palpable sense of menace and desperation throughout, as Sarah tries her best to figure out a world with no visible solutions. Highlights of her journey include being chased by The Cleaners, a moving wall of rotating blades, drills, and other pointy objects, and a confrontation with the crusty junk queen known as Agnas, who tries to lull Sarah into a comfortable coma so she’ll forget about her mission. Nothing is safe at any point in time when it comes to this world, and that’s why I love the story so much.
Ah, but no review of this film would be complete without giving props to the masterful David Bowie, who brings a crazy mixture of stone-faced evil and dry sarcasm to the role of The Goblin King. Whoever decided to cast this man as the villain of a Henson project should be thanked, because Bowie practically makes the film. As an antagonist he just cannot be beat, with his glorious mane of ‘80s hair, forked eyebrows, and deliciously punk suits of leather. And I don’t care which way you swing, because you simply cannot ignore the armadillo living in Bowie’s trousers. It’s completely distracting in quite a few shots, but it definitely adds to the movie’s bizarre aura.
Bowie takes Labyrinth to another level by bringing a nice batch of cheesy songs to the table, including “Underground,” “Magic Dance,” and “As the World Falls Down.” You haven’t seen everything until you’ve watched this man sing a song to a roomful of goblins, a microphone covered in silver glitter firmly placed in one hand. In fact, all of the tunes are presented in traditional music video style, with Bowie finding himself in progressively more stylish locales. “As the World Falls Down” sees the singer seducing Sarah in the middle of a grotesque costume party, while the final track, “Within You,” has him randomly appearing in a room packed with twisting, turning staircases. Concept is what makes this flick work, and obviously it’s oozing out of every pore.
When compared to The Dark Crystal, the other big Henson film of the ‘80s, Labyrinth wins hands down. Whereas they both shares many qualities, including their dark tones and fantasy-driven stories, Crystal takes itself way too seriously and often comes off as just plain depressed. Today’s feature is much more balanced and fine tuned, with just the right amount of silliness, wry humor, and outright danger to keep any viewer’s complete attention, child or otherwise. If you have never seen it, do yourself the favor pick it up immediately.
Rogue Reviewers Roundtable Topic: Roundtable for the Vertically Challenged
Jonathon’s Review Site: Cinebomb