The make believe play world created by young Sarah (played by a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly) is interrupted when she has to sit for her baby brother. Tired of the tyke’s crying, she threatens to summon the Goblin King and have him take the baby away. When this fails to quiet him, she blurts out “I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now!”
The room is infiltrated by playful goblins, the first of many puppets that populate the film, followed by an owl, which transforms into the Goblin King (David Bowie). He tells Sarah that he has taken the baby as a favor to her, but if she wants him back, she’ll have to make her way to his castle, which is in the center of a labyrinth.
The labyrinth turns out to be no mere maze, but a fantasy realm comprised of puzzles, illusions and fantastic creatures. Sarah meets a three-foot-tall groundskeeper named Hoggle, a seven-foot troll named Ludo and a fox-like character named Sir Didymus, who rides around on the back of a dog. These characters – all puppets – help Sarah, who has thirteen hours to reach the castle of the Goblin King before her brother is turned into a goblin.
Labyrinth was the last feature film directed before his sudden death by Jim Henson, who came up with the story with Dennis Lee and adapted a screenplay commissioned from Monty Python’s Terry Jones. Henson’s longtime collaborators Frank Oz and Dave Goelz were among the puppeteers, but, as in The Dark Crystal, the creature designs were based on conceptual art by Brian Froud to give the puppets a look distinct from the Muppets.
This is the closest I’ve seen a live action picture create a fantasy world on par with what Miyazaki is able to accomplish in his animated films. Henson’s storyline is even similar to what would become a Miyazaki trademark: the young teenage girl who enters a fantasy world to conquer her fears of growing up.
While the story recalls The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are – all which can be spotted sitting on Sarah’s bookshelf – the film’s look is unique as it is brilliant. Henson decorated his world using every trick in the book, from puppets both simple and highly advanced, to models, to optical effects, and even some early CGI. No other movie that I can think of combines all this craftwork under one tent, and for the most part, it looks terrific.
Many of the visual tricks were accomplished on set, not created inside a computer. For the trick where Bowie twirls a crystal ball down his arm and around his palm, a juggler hid behind Bowie and substituted his arm for Bowie’s in the shot, which had to be accomplished without the juggler being able to watch the ball. Today, the effects team would just figure out how to do it with a computer, but in 1986, you needed magicians who could figure out how to do it for real. This is art form that has been mostly lost from movies.
Miyazaki elects not to have his animated characters sing or dance, but Henson made the decision early to cast a rock star as the Goblin King (thankfully, Michael Jackson was not approached). This effect is a major buzzkill. Even if you can deal with the sight of Bowie walking around in tights with a ridiculous wig, his songs are atrocious. The synth pop sound and infantile lyrics took me right out of the movie.
I can respect that I am not the target demographic this was made for. The movie has a hold on a lot of women, many of whom drooled over Bowie when they were a girl and who probably fight over which is better, The Princess Bride or Labyrinth.
George Lucas served as executive producer and would have done well to learn from Henson while directing Star Wars: Episodes I-III. Where the performances in those films were listless, Connelly and Bowie’s performances are full of life. With creatures you can reach out and touch, and their puppeteers on set imbuing them with wit and energy, actors respond to them like they might another actor, not a special effect to be added later. For the viewer, this makes the film feel real. For me, this was the genius of Jim Henson.