A teenage girl is given 13 hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King.
Jim Henson and artist Brian Froud so enjoyed working on The Dark Crystal (1982) together that they agreed to reunite for a “lighter weight picture”, which became Labyrinth. Canadian children’s author Dennis Lee was duly hired to write a novella that Monty Python’s Terry Jones could adapt into a screenplay, but despite Lee retaining a story credit, his work was mostly discarded by an unimpressed Jones, who instead crafted one of his own inspired by Froud’s concept art.
Henson’s ambitions for Labyrinth didn’t align with Jones’s quirkier vision, however, so in truth the shooting script included many contributions from the likes of executive producer George Lucas (Star Wars), writer-director Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid), and writer Laura Phillips (Fraggle Rock). Over two years, an estimated 25 treatments and drafts of the script were completed, with the finished product something of a hodgepodge trying to satisfy too many people. That it remained comprehensible and became a cult classic is something of a miracle.
Issues over nailing the tone weren’t helped when similarities between Labyrinth’s story and Outside Over There, a book written by acclaimed author Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), was noticed as production got underway. In both, a young girl’s baby sister is taken away by goblins. Fortunately, Henson avoided having to shut Labyrinth down and settled the dispute with Sendak’s lawyers out of court, adding the sentence “Jim Henson acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak” to the end credits. Of course, Labyrinth is a melting pot of ideas and archetypes from centuries of European folklore and decades of children’s fantasy storytelling (ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland, which are both homaged).
Sarah (Phenomena’s Jennifer Connelly) is a 16-year-old girl obsessed with fantasy, who’s on the cusp of adulthood but held back by the comfort blanket of her daydreams. Remembering she has to babysit her infant brother Toby (Toby Froud, real-life son of the aforementioned Brian), Sarah rushes home to begin her chore, which turns into a nightmare during a loud thunderstorm because frightened Toby won’t stop crying. In a fit of pique, Sarah makes a grandiose wish for her annoying brother to be taken away by goblins, just to shut him up, and is disturbed when Toby promptly vanishes. She’s then confronted by a bizarre man named Jareth (David Bowie), proclaiming himself the Goblin King, who suggests a deal that’ll enable him to keep little Toby forever. But after Sarah refuses he reluctantly gives her 13 hours to navigate an enormous labyrinth to find her sibling before he’s lost to her forever.
And so begins Labyrinth, which for the majority of its runtime is a parade of amusing, weird, imaginative, crazy, frightening set-pieces for Sarah to overcome as she ventures deeper into the maze to reach Toby and defeat Jareth. She soon meets a crabby dwarf called Hoggle (Brian Henson) who becomes her guide, and together they rescue a large hairy beast known as Ludo (Ron Mueck), before all three join forces with a swashbuckling fox called Sir Didymus (Dave Goelz, David Shaughnessy) who rides an English Sheepdog called Ambrosius. There are lots of puzzles, mind-games, bizarre occurrences, frustrating setbacks, and alarming strangeness along the way, which gives Labyrinth an enjoyable atmosphere. It often flirts with slightly more adult concerns than the preponderance of ‘Muppets’ would have you believe going in.
Key to this is David Bowie’s genius casting as Jareth, which became an iconic performance and is one of the most memorable roles of 1980s family movies. Bowie’s showbiz persona was built around his eccentricities as a songwriter and musician, and these all play into his fascinating take on the androgynous Goblin King. He’s a dandelion-haired trickster whose lilting voice and tendency to burst into song gives Labyrinth an indelibly weird villain.
Occasionally, the film pushes its oddness further than expected, particularly during a dazzling masquerade ball where Sarah spurns the sexual advances of Jareth and is consequently flung into a dark junkyard where she’s brainwashed into thinking her adventures were just a silly dream. But it’s the sort of bold choices that adults enjoy watching because it gives the film some added thematic weight, and kids love because it’s touching on ideas and feelings that are a little beyond their full understanding.
There’s no wonder Labyrinth has ben reappraised over the years by those who first saw it in the ’80s (mostly on VHS), who now recognise the deeper meaning of the story now they’ve grown up. It’s a fantastical coming-of-age tale for Sarah, who’s on the brink of womanhood and a sexual awakening (symbolised by the unnerving yet alluring Jareth). She’s pulled between inevitable maturity and moving forward in life (if only to escape her horrid stepmother), yet can’t put away the amusements that have sustained her through childhood.
The labyrinth itself offers her a way to do just that, by going on the most imaginative adventure one could imagine, but with the twist it’s real and her own brother’s life is at stake. While obviously Toby’s sister, she nevertheless demonstrates maternal instincts in coming to his rescue and refusing to give up the quest, no matter how tempting Jareth makes it for her to quit.
Away from the oddball characters and theme of transitioning out of childhood, Labyrinth is perfectly entertaining as a visually dazzling romp. The film would be made with digital characters and CGI backdrops today, but its combination of practical sets, matte paintings, and Henson’s familiar brand of puppets (again put through the filter of Froud’s designs), give it a wonderfully grounded feel. (Although Labyrinth does actually contain the first computer-generated animal on film, with the owl in the opening sequence.) But the largely old-school techniques ensure you’re right alongside Sarah on her journey because everything is so tangible, so it’s exciting to see what’s around every corner. Even the fact Connelly’s clearly interacting with puppets doesn’t matter because the Escher-inspired labyrinth is perhaps a make-believe realm born of Sarah’s fertile imagination anyway. There’s a clue to that in how her bedroom contains stuffed animals, dolls, figurines, and bookends that evoke characters and creatures inside the labyrinth. Her dog Merlin even becomes Sir Diddymus’ steed Ambrosius. But perhaps most intriguingly, a newspaper clipping shows ‘David Bowie’ as the man her famous actress mother ran off with, which puts a rather Freudian slant on why she imagines that same man as the child-stealing but enticing Goblin King.
The British humour and wit, likely remnants of what Terry Jones brought to proceedings, is also distinct throughout and makes Labyrinth feel akin to the likes of Time Bandits (1981). It’s certainly an easier watch than Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, which always felt a little too dark and unsettling in comparison to Labyrinth’s colourful quirkiness and more accessible storyline.
Labyrinth has certainly hung around in the public consciousness, but it’s primarily something middle-aged parents remember fondly and continue to revisit with their own children. It’s also a great movie to introduce present-day kids to, who are starved of movies containing this level of practical craftsmanship behind them. And the dark vein of weirdness ’80s kid’s movies had (remember Return to Oz?) is on full display; best exemplified by the genuinely frightening sequence when Toby is taken during a thunderstorm. One could walk in mid-scene and think you’re watching a full-blooded horror film, were it not for the occasional cutaways to a gang of wisecracking goblins.
Sadly, this was the last movie Jim Henson directed before his untimely death in 1990, and while Labyrinth was a creative high point the movie wasn’t a hit with audiences. It opened in eighth place at the US box office, then dropped out of the chart in its second week, eventually only grossing $12.7M. Variety later reported it made a similar figure at the international box office, but that means is only just recouped its $25M production budget. Its box office failure caused Jim Henson some depression according to his son, Brian, but Labyrinth did become a popular ’80s video rental and gained more love and respect in the ’90s after he passed away.
Decades later, a two-day event called the ‘Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball’ has been held annually since 1997, where fans attend in cosplay inspired by the film’s ballroom sequence, and its ongoing popularity on home video formats and streaming has resulted in a sequel being put in development. Screenwriter Nicole Perlman (Captain Marvel) has been attached to write the follow-up since 2016, which appears to be a genuine sequel and not a reboot or remake. Unfortunately, David Bowie’s tragic death in 2016 means Labyrinth II will be denied arguably its most unforgettable component, but young Jennifer Connelly went on to become an Academy Award-winning actress… so one presumes a story about a middle-aged Sarah’s own child having to venture inside the labyrinth is on the cards…
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UK • USA | 1986 | 101 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Jim Henson.
writer: Terry Jones (uncredited: Jim Henson, Laura Phillips, Elaine May & George Lucas) (story by Dennis Lee & Jim Henson).
starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Christopher Malcolm, Shelley Thompson & Natalie Finland.