Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth is one of those classic fantasy films that an entire generation has fond memories of growing up with. As one of those kids, I must have seen the film at least a few dozen times throughout my youth, and thoroughly enjoyed it as the vivid and bizarre experience it was always meant to be. Prior to rewatching it recently, it had probably been about ten years since I last saw the film, and with its recent 30th anniversary coinciding with the sad passing of David Bowie, it was the perfect time to go back and revisit a childhood favorite that I always had such affection for. But would it stand up to the test of time and still dazzle me as an older adult, or are those fond memories of the film destined to remain just that? Labyrinth tells the story of a teenager, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), who is forced to stay at home to watch her baby brother, Toby (Toby Froud), while her parents go out for the evening. In her frustration, she makes a plea for the Goblin King to come take Toby away, never imagining that he really would. She immediately regrets her decision and asks for him to be returned, resulting in Jareth (David Bowie), as the King is called, giving her 13 hours to solve a labyrinth leading to his castle and rescue the child, or else he will become a goblin. The labyrinth presents all kinds of interesting challenges, but with help from some friends she makes along the way, she never lets her determination waver in her quest to save her baby brother.

Coming back to a film like this after several years is something of a surreal experience, because you know it so well, and yet, there are parts that you just might not react to the same way as you did before. To be sure, Jim Henson’s extraordinary creations, in addition to his incredible team of puppeteers, are a large part of why the film works as well as it does, and are one of the top reasons why so many remember the film (undoubtedly causing more than a few nightmares for the younger crowd). Even after three decades, the creatures are still fascinating to watch, with the work holding up really well. Sure, there are moments throughout that are very cheesy and obvious (i.e. you can tell they’re trying to hide the puppeteers off screen), but that’s part of the film’s charm. It is a kids’ movie after all, though obviously its appeal has always gone beyond that of youngsters. Then, of course, there’s the mesmerizing presence of the late, great David Bowie, singing songs that most of us still know the words to after all of these years. The songs were always rather hypnotic, and somewhat catchy, especially when it came to Magic Dance. Aside from his astounding musical ability, Bowie just seemed like the perfect fit for a fantastical role like this, utilizing his intriguing personality to deliver a memorable performance that blends right into the mystical setting. Indeed, he too is another reason the film is remembered as well as it is.

In its follow up to the ambitious puppet wonders of The Dark Crystal, the Henson workshop rather lost their nerve and put regular human beings back in the middle of this maze of crazy-brilliant puppetry. Mind you, David Bowie cuts a spooky enough figure in that fright wig to fit right in with this extraordinary menagerie of Goth Muppets. And Jennifer Connelly, still in the flush of youth, makes for an appealingly together kind of heroine. And yet, this is a lesser adventure than Crystal, never quite as fully transporting for all its fine execution. Broadly speaking, it’s Alice In Wonderland made less trippy by its quest format, but still a picaresque through the heady world of Henson’s making. The Labyrinth itself, referencing Escher’s dizzying optical illusions, is a very literal nightmare world. The film is playing a distinctly Freudian game — after all, Sarah is plunging in puberty — that all of it might be going on in her dreams. A similar idea to that expounded in L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz, that her companions on this journey are merely living versions of her most reassuring bedroom toys. When she departs the land, she is finally departing childhood. Quite a clever notion to thread into a kid’s adventure, and you have to admire Henson’s reach, but he gets caught a little aimless, many of the encounters come to nothing, while the addition of Terry Jones to spruce up the scriptwriting team adds a strain of Pythonesque whimsy that feels awkwardly superimposed. Yet, Henson’s handsome gifts at giving his exotic puppets the spark of life and personality is an unsung form of genius, that remains sorely missed.

Labyrinth has stood the test of time astonishingly well, and it’s extraordinary looking back at the personnel involved; not only Henson, Jones, Froud, Bowie, Connolly and Henson’s team from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but also George Lucas as one of the film’s producers and as people who saw Being Elmo will know, it was also the first major production that Kevin Clash worked with Henson on. The resulting film is truly a testament to the creative energies of all involved, but most of all Henson who did so much in making high quality entertainment for people of all ages that was fun, imaginative, not afraid to be subversive in content or form, but most of all humane. It was Henson’s final feature film and a wonderful gift from a person who really did make you believe that even as you got older, everything magical that you treasured from your childhood and all your imaginary friends were never too far away. Should you ever need them, for any reason at all.

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One Response to “Into the Labyrinth”

  1. Quest Quilts April 10, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

    The one character who grew in importance to me from childhood to now is the Junk Lady. As a kid, I thought she simply meant not to put too much importance on “stuff”. As an adult I can full appreciate that not all baggage was physical.
    Yes, Labyrinth has aged well over the years, and I’m thrilled that I can watch it with my own kids now.

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