This afternoon I watched a special 30th Anniversary theatrical showing of Jim Henson’s final film, Labyrinth. I loved Labyrinth as a kid. It was the only VHS tape my grandma owned, and I watched it every time we visited. Seeing it in the theater was definitely an experience worth having. I was surprised to learn Labyrinth did not do well at the box office. I suppose seen for the first time through the eyes of an adult, it would seem like a silly movie. But to a child, it’s magical.
Henson’s puppets are finely crafted and the sets and characters are unique and entertaining. The music by David Bowie and Trevor Jones is outstanding. It’s a testament to the quality of the film that rather than be forgotten, 30 years later it’s being replayed in theaters around the nation.
Released in June 1986, Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), who must journey to the center of a complex labyrinth to rescue her infant brother, Toby, who has been kidnapped by Jareth (played by David Bowie), the Goblin King. Along the way, she makes friends with colorful characters like Hoggle, a dwarf; Ludo, a large hairy beast; and Sir Didymus, a tenacious Fox Terrier. The film was a commercial disappointment, losing $12 million. Depressed by the failure, Jim Henson never made another feature film. He died four years later, in 1990.
The 30th Anniversary theatrical showing included interviews with Jennifer Connelly (who was 14 years old in 1986) and Jim Henson’s son, Brian, as well as a look at the Henson collection at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. It showed the care and detail that went into making the puppets. In Labyrinth, two brass door knockers seem to come to life. The door knockers are not CGI: they were actually made of foam painted to look metal. The illusion holds up even on the big screen.
I’ve always thought that CGI hasn’t come close to the puppets, miniatures, and practical effects of the 1980s in terms of realism. There’s something too clean, too perfect and precise about CGI. Labyrinth does use some effects like matte paintings and green screen that look terrible, but overall the effects quality is solid. Interestingly, Labyrinth contains one of the first uses of a CGI animal in a film–the owl in the opening credits.
With a screenplay written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, the story of Labyrinth is mostly original. It draws from many fantasy sources, all of which are acknowledged by being put on display in Sarah’s bedroom. The audience glimpses elements that come into play later in the film scattered around Sarah’s room–showing that she (and hence the filmmakers) has created this world out of bits and pieces of art and literature. Prominently featured in the background is M.C. Escher’s lithograph “Relativity,” which is reconstructed in the Goblin King Castle later in the film. Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak also inspired elements of the film.
Labyrinth isn’t just a lighthearted fantasy: it’s about growing up and accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. Henson himself said he wanted to “make the idea of taking responsibility for one’s life – which is one of the neat realizations a teenager experiences – a central thought of the film.” Throughout the film, the Goblin King attempts to make Sarah forget about her baby brother and return to her childhood fantasies. Things reach a critical point when she is lulled into a trance by biting an enchanted peach and ends up in the clutches of a Junk Lady, who brings Sarah to her bedroom and shows her all her beloved toys. Finally, Sarah breaks out of the trance when she remembers she has to bring her brother home.
Early in the film, Sarah childishly protests “it’s not fair” whenever things don’t go her way. Finally, after overcoming the ever-changing rules and passageways of the labyrinth, she realizes life isn’t fair. “No it isn’t,” she tells Hoggle after he utters the oft-repeated line. “But that’s the way it is.” Similarly, Sarah breaks the Goblin King’s hold over her and her brother by telling him, “You have no power over me.” Here she realizes she must overcome her childhood fantasies and sometimes place the needs of others before her own. However, her fantasies will always be there to comfort her, “if she needs them.”
Even 30 years later, Labyrinth remains a wonderful movie and one of Jim Henson’s greatest cinematic achievements. If two people are responsible for creating the iconic images of my generation’s childhood, they are Jim Henson and George Lucas, who was Labyrinth’s executive producer. I was only five years old when the film was released, so I never saw it in theaters. I’m glad I had that opportunity.