Thursday, July 26, 2012

It Came from the '80s: Labyrinth

by Patrick Bromley
Ok, so I'll probably get hammered for this: I've never been crazy about Labyrinth.

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.
There are so many reasons why Jim Henson's second non-Mupppet, live-action movie Labyrinth seems to be made just for me. If you read/listen to F This Movie! on a regular basis, you already know that I grew up obsessed with Henson and all things Muppet. I'm a big fan of The Dark Crystal, as evidenced by its inclusion in this year's 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.
It's not just Sarah whose character work is shoddy, either. I have never been a fan of Hoggle, either in design (mostly because he looks like a leftover from John Carl Buechler's Troll, released the same year) or in execution. Ludo is fine, but too much of a familiar type: the gentle giant, the Chewbacca of the group. The best of the main characters is Didymus, the tiny, eyepatch-wearing puppet who rides a sheepdog like a horse and is constantly readying for battle. He feels the most like a Terry Jones creation (he'd almost be at home in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but even he doesn't enter the movie until it's more than halfway over. David Bowie certainly brings star power to his role as the Goblin King, but not much else. He's not colorful. He's not menacing. He's not interesting or entertaining. He's David Bowie in a hair metal wig and an elaborate costume. Had his performance been something really special, it could have elevated all of Labyrinth along with it. Instead, it's pretty much in keeping with the rest of the movie: an interesting idea, great to look at, but lacking in inspiration.

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.
The ending, in which Sarah breaks free and gets her brother back simply by realizing that Jareth has no power over her, doesn't really work, because it doesn't tie in to any of the themes of the movie. This isn't a movie about Sarah breaking free from authority; if anything, it's about her learning to take responsibility and, in some way, respect the authority of her parents. The only way the resolution works is if there is some sort of -- and I hate to say this -- implied sexual tension between Sarah and the Goblin King (there are, it seems, a LOT of people who fantasize about this; doing a Google Image search for stills from Labyrinth turned up some very disturbing fan "art"). There is a loooong scene in which Jareth tempts Sarah with the possibility of becoming his queen, but he's just appealing to the wannabe princess in her -- the fancy dress, the beautiful castle. It's not about a sexual awakening, which is probably too adult a theme to find its way into Labyrinth, even on a subconscious level. But that's really the only power Jareth could have had over her. If not that, what impotence is it that she recognizes in him?

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.


  1. F*** You Patrick. You are dead to me!

    "Ludo Sad"
    We all are Ludo, We all are.

  2. The last time I tried t watch Dark Crystal I couldn't get into it at all; mostly because the characters seemed to be repeating th same dialogue. I need to give it another try. Labyrinthon the other hand is a favorite, I showed it to my young half-brothers who grew with the Lord Of The Rings movies and they loved it. I think it IS special, its disjointedness adding to the feeling that it's a dream story. Bowie's sex-appeal is not that evident because Sara isn't interested in sex yet, she's happy with the fantasy of this King falling for her. I think he's great in this movie. I could have done without Dance Magic Dance though.

    How can you not love Hoggart?

    Thinking about it, that ending does seem problematic. Maybe it means that Sara is growing up but that she's not ready to become adult quite yet. Or that she'll stay stuck in her fantasy for ever and ever - these things can happen.

    Would love to see you take Sir Ridley Scott's Legend down a peg or two.

    1. I won't argue The Dark Crystal with you. Lots of narrative problems in that movie -- and you make a great point about the characters repeating the same things. To me, it just feels like a better-executed and more complete vision than Labyrinth. Plus, I think it has a lot to say politically, but I want to save that for my Dark Crystal article.

      Again, it's all a matter of taste and personal reaction. I think David Bowie is fine, but I think we're all reacting to the fact that he's David Bowie and carries certain baggage along with him. Have a no-name actor give the exact same performance and I don't think any of us are remembering that character. But that's just me.

      Your readings of the ending are valid, but at odds with one another. That was the point I was making: the movie tries to have it both ways.

      I will definitely do a piece on Legend, though I suspect it's going to be more positive than you might like (if I'm reading your tone correctly). I think Legend does a lot of things right that Labyrinth doesn't, actually. They might make interesting companion pieces.

    2. Interesting point about Bowie, but why is bringing baggage a hindrance? To me that's the same point about Nicholson's Joker, why does on-the-nose casting have to be a bad thing?

      The most loved film actors in history have tended to be those who had personalities that audiences want to see again and again. If you see a movie with David Bowie because you like David Bowie and you like it more than you would have if someone other than Bowie had played the role, I don't see how that weakens the film experience.

      I say this as someone who enjoys actors more than films themself. I do watch movies usually because of who is in them. If I were to chose between a Z-movie with Bela Lugosi's name above the title or the latest Oscar bait staring Mr. and Mrs "Different In Every Movie", I'm going with the guy I like.

      Take "Legend" (please). I do not like that movie, but I LOVE Tim Curry's performance. I actually own that film just for his scenes, because he's brilliant.

      I don't know art, but I know what I like.

    3. I don't think the David Bowie baggage that he brings to Labyrinth is a hindrance. My point was that it's precisely the reason why we like him in the movie. Without that (if it was just some unknown actor, like I said), the performance would be BLAH and forgettable. I might not have been clear on that.

    4. @Patrick I really never thought about the ending until you brought it up.It makes sense when you're a kid... I guess this is where nostalgia kicks in. LEGEND aged really badly for me, hated it the last time I saw it. Like I said in the TFTN podcast about Ridley Scott (self-promotion time!) to me it's like a glass bauble (maybe one of Bowie's hehe) : it's beautiful to look at but nothing more. Easily my least favorite Ridley film. Maybe you should also tackle THE NEVERENDING STORY to complete the 80's ''kid's fantasy'' trifecta.

  3. The best part about Labyrinth is the Flight of the Conchords "David Bowie from Labyrinth" joke: