Labyrinth is one of two highly under-appreciated Jim Henson movies
(the second is The Dark Crystal). Highly under-appreciated, that is,
by all except… well, except by the type of people who are most likely to
be reading this review. I have, at different times, found myself gathered together
with groups of people from the younger half of the Star Wars generation
(the younger half being those who were in diapers when Star Wars was
released, as opposed to those who were 10 or 12). Little covens of artists,
writers, music-makers, dreamers of dreams. And without fail, when the subject
of favorite movies comes up, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are
In Labyrinth, a girl’s baby brother is stolen by the Goblin King
(David Bowie), and the girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), must go on a quest through
a strange otherworld to recover him. The rest of the cast is made up of Jim
Henson creatures, but most of them aren’t quite so cuddly as Kermit and
company. The story is not what you’d call original, taking cues from Alice’s
Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Maurice Sendak’s
books, and The Chronicles of Narnia. But Henson makes it clear to the
audience what has influenced his imagination (and Sarah’s). Most all of
the characters and elements in the movie are foreshadowed by the objects found
in Sarah’s room near the beginning of the film. And, as with most fictions,
the greatness of the story is in the telling, not in the plot.
The near mythical coterie of talent that came together for this movie is on
the level of the group that gathered around Lord Byron and Mary & Percy
Bysshe Shelley. How else to describe a movie that has the heart and imagination
of Jim Henson, the music of David Bowie, and wit from the mind of Monty Python’s
In addition, there is Brian
Froud, who did the character and costume design (others may know him for
his illustrated books like Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book
and Good Faeries/Bad Faeries). The cinematographer, Alex Thompson, was
the eye behind the camera for two of the 80s’ other enduring one-word fantasy
movies, Legend and Excalibur. In a bizarre bit of sci-fi synchronicity,
the dance and puppet movement was choreographed by none other than Gates McFadden
(back then her first name was Cheryl) a.k.a. Star Trek’s Dr. Beverly
Crusher. And then there are the talented unusual suspects that have worked on
just about every Henson project.
The result is a strange and wonderful animal. Henson put his craftsmanship
and technical knowledge to work to create a highly detailed fantasy world in
which "nothing is as it seems." A Labyrinth full of oubliettes
and secret doors, stone and mist, guides and scavengers, riddles and hallucinations.
The trademark Henson humor is still intact, but it is edged with some more adult
elements. If you watch Henson’s early work (Time Piece and The
Cube) you get the sense that his Muppet work only hinted at the full scope
of his fluid imagination and sense of visual experimentation. I’d be the
last person to call The Muppet Show kid’s stuff, but with The
Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson pushed into more complex and textured
territory, dreaming up the most impossible things, and then making them real,
without the help (except for that owl) of CGI.
There are, of course, some missteps in the Labyrinth, missteps that
people who see the movie for the first time as adults are likely to find cloying.
I’m trying to think of some, but I’m having a hard time being objective.
David Bowie’s codpiece is a bit…obtrusive. There are four musical
sequences. People tend to react badly the first time Bowie breaks into song,
but the remaining three numbers are spellbinding. Sarah is extra whiny and childish
for the first half hour, but in the same way that Luke Skywalker was in Star
Wars. You can’t tell a coming-of-age story without starting with immaturity.
Neither Labyrinth nor The Dark Crystal were box office successes.
People didn’t want Henson’s slightly scary fairy tales. They wanted
the Muppets. The poor reception for two films that Henson had so lovingly crafted
was something that depressed him to no end.
Jim Henson’s extraordinary spark has been gone from this world for a
decade. I wish I had met him. Not just so I could beg for a job at Henson’s
Creature Shop. But so I could shake his hand and say, "You know those movies
that you made that nobody watched? Thank you so much for making those movies."
Inside the DVD:
Normally, a DVD whose only extras are a few trailers and one "making
of" documentary could get a grade no higher than a five. However, the documentary,
"Inside the Labyrinth", which clocks in at about an hour, more than
makes up for the lack of a commentary track (I think the most recent VHS release
has a highly edited version of the documentary).
A majority of movie documentaries that get put on DVD fall into two categories:
(1) The shameless promotional "making of"s that appear on channels
like VH1, MTV, and Bravo that are 90 percent cheerleading and 10 percent substance.
(2) The documentaries that are made specifically for DVD years and years after
the movie was released, and usually amount to 60 minutes of talking heads.
As far as I can tell, "Inside the Labyrinth" was made to air on
television to hype the release of Labyrinth. But in 1986, I don’t
think they had yet developed the hollow "please come see this movie"
style that splices a few flashy visuals into an endless parade of interviews
with a cast and crew who evidently have nothing better to say than "I think
this movie is going to be great" or "Suchandsuch a person is really
But "Inside the Labyrinth" actually takes you behind
the scenes of virtually every major sequence in the Labyrinth. And what’s
strange is that once Henson has rolled up his sleeves and shown you all the
tricks, the magic that he does seems all the more amazing. There are extensive
sequences showing how the characters were built and operated. Yet, even after
Brian Henson (Jim’s son) shows you exactly how Hoggle the dwarf was made
and operated, it’s still nigh impossible to look at Hoggle as anything
less than a living being.
If I had watched "Inside the Labyrinth" back in 1986 before I saw
the movie, I would be angry that there were so many spoilers. But its not 1986,
so "Inside the Labyrinth" is pure gold.
It’s eerie, watching Jim Henson, talking about the things he loved, and
interacting with Brian. Whenever I see him, I just want to give him a hug. Maybe
it’s because he looks like my dad. Maybe it’s because he sounds so
much like Kermit. Or maybe it’s because, during his time on earth, he created
so many wonderful things.
DVD Rating: 7/10