by Patrick Bromley
It's a tricky thing, this "It Came from the '80s" column, because it speaks directly to the memories and nostalgia of much of this site's readership. These are the movies many of us grew up on, and, as such, they hold a place in our hearts that's unique and separate from every other movie we see. When I write about a movie I like (such as the previous column on Flash Gordon), I'm just reinforcing everyone's affections. Preaching to the choir. When I'm less enthusiastic, though, I'm not just being critical of a movie -- I'm attacking people's memories. This is not my intention, of course, but that's the way it's often interpreted. It's because we feel protective of the movies that meant something to us when we were young. We take this shit personally.
So I thought it best to get one of these "less enthusiastic" responses out of the way early on in this column.
F This Movie Fest lineup. It's got production design by
Brian Froud. It's written by Monty Python's Terry Jones. It's produced
by George Lucas. Seeing Jennifer Connelly in Career Opportunities made a man out of me. Yet the movie still leaves me kind of cold.
From its opening moments, it is VERY HEAVILY hinted that the events of Labyrinth are just the fantasies of a teenage girl. We see a collection of stuffed animals that represent a number of characters we eventually meet in the movie. There are books prominently on display: Where the Wild Things Are, The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (why that one and not Alice in Wonderland I can't say, since the latter would be more appropriate). Sarah, the Jennifer Connelly character, appears to have decorated her room wall to wall with foreshadowing.
Part of my problem with Labyrinth is that all of the character work for Sarah is done in the first 10 minutes of the movie. She's set up as someone interesting -- a flawed, believable teenage girl who escapes to the park to act out elaborate daydreams, loses track of time, shirks her responsibilities and fights with her parents about having to babysit. She is not, in traditional Hollywood terms, "likable," but she is identifiable to young people, who know what it's like to feel a storm of emotions at once and lash out at those around you simply because you don't know how else to express what you're feeling. Labyrinth then goes even further with this and has Sarah WISH HER BABY BROTHER WOULD BE TAKEN BY GOBLINS. She doesn't just want to run away to somewhere she can be understood. She is selfish. She wants not just to create a new universe for herself, but also to be the center of the real one she currently inhabits. Again, this is something kids can connect with (hell, adults, too). She makes a cruel, childish wish, and even though she doesn't really mean it, she can't take it back. Her bluff is called. Toby is stolen, and Sarah must enter the labyrinth and rescue him from the castle of the Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie).
From this point forward, all of the messiness of Sarah's character disappears, and she just turns into a girl trying to navigate a maze and rescue her brother. Her character does not inform her choices or her quest. She is not shown to learn or grow, really. There's not even much of a sense of why she wants to rescue Toby. Is it guilt over having wished him away? Is it a sense of responsibility? Does she actually love him? I'm guessing all are true, but none of them are explored or even really hinted at. Instead, we get to watch her team up with big-headed Hoggle, big-hearted Didymus and just plain big Ludo, puppet creations of various sizes and effectiveness, and travel through the labyrinth's many obstacles. Plus there's a musical number every once in a while.
And let's not confuse "inspiration" with "imagination," either, because Labyrinth has imagination to spare. There is an endless series of creature designs and set pieces in the movie, so that even if the story doesn't always work, at least there's something neat to look at. The blending of puppetry and live action is probably the best we've ever had, and, as in The Dark Crystal, Henson and his team excel at world building, even when that world feels overly busy and arbitrary at times. The nature of the movie's plot dictates that it be episodic: Sarah
and her companions meet a new creature or face a new obstacle, a
resolution is reached and the group continues forward. But what Labyrinth ultimately
feels like is Jim Henson's sketchbook loosely transcribed into
screenplay form. It's just a bunch of ideas and character sketches
mashed together into a structure that will support them. Some really work and burn right into your brain, like the pit Sarah falls in that's made up totally of disembodied hands that grab and pass her along, making "faces" with their fingers when they want to speak. It's creepy in that good way that kids' movies were capable of being in the '80s. A chase around some Escher-esque staircases is the stuff of nightmares. Another sequence, in which Sarah encounters The Fire Gang, a collection of bird-like muppets who detach their own heads and throw them around, is just an excuse of the movie to stop cold for a musical number -- that is, until the Fire Gang begin to chase Sarah in the hopes of detaching her head. That old creepiness sneaks back in. Labyrinth could have used more of it.
This moment is undercut even further by the following scene, in which Sarah begins to dismantle her room (ever so briefly) and let go of the fantasies she's been holding on to. So Labyrinth has actually been a story about a teenage girl's transition to adulthood? She says goodbye to childhood flights of fancy and takes responsibility -- for Toby, for herself. Ok. I'll buy it. Then Ludo and Didymus and Hoggle show up in her room (this, again, is in spite of the fact that the opening of the film implies this whole journey has been a teenage girl's fantasy) and say that they'll be there for her if ever she should need them in life. Makes sense -- she may have to grow up, but that doesn't mean that she must permanently lose touch with her inner child. It's a sad, sweet sentiment -- one that the movie pretty much immediately shits on so that it can end with a big fun puppet dance party. Saying goodbye to the puppet characters would have made the ending bittersweet. Ending on the dance party suggests that Sarah hasn't grown or changed at all.
In conversations I've had about movies, Labyrinth is almost always brought up in conjunction with The Dark Crystal. Often times, they're discussed as being of a piece. Two sides of the same coin. But then there are those fans of one movie that insist you choose one over the other -- it turns into a Beatles/Stones debate. If I have to pick one, it's The Dark Crystal for me. That movie has its flaws (and they are significant), but is so much more sophisticated in its design and its approach. Henson isn't just trying to make a puppet movie; he's attempting to make a viable fantasy film that just happens to be told with puppets because it allows him to create the world he wants to create and tell the story he wants to tell. I want Labyrinth to improve on what Henson accomplished with The Dark Crystal; instead, it feels like a step backwards in so many ways. Labyrinth is targeted more directly at kids. It has a tendency to pander. Instead of Crystal's gorgeous and iconic Trevor Jones score, Labyrinth gives us a handful of David Bowie songs that play like music videos in the movie (Jones does contribute a score, but it takes a backseat to Ziggy Stardust). Instead of memorable and scary villains like the Skeksis, it offers a rock star doing a movie star part. Most importantly, though, The Dark Crystal had vision to spare. It felt like Henson and Froud had spent years dreaming it up and painstakingly bringing it to the screen. Labyrinth feels like a bunch of leftover ideas strung together.
I'm not suggesting that Labyrinth is a bad movie. It's far, far from a bad movie. There's a ton of stuff to like in it. It's bursting with imagination, even if that imagination is unfocused. The songs are good, even if they feel out of place. It is light years better than much of the children's fantasy movies of the '80s, and puts just about any non-Pixar children's movie of the last 25 years to shame. It's not bad. It's just a movie that has all of the signifiers of a special movie, but which never manages to be very special.
Got a movie you want to see covered in It Came From the '80s? Let us know in the comments below.
Don't forget to order tickets for the upcoming F This Movie! screening of Die Hard in Chicago on August 2nd.