Turn left and right, then left again,
Through passageways unknown to men,
Escorted by the walls so wide
That hedge your path on either side.
It’s left again, or was it right?
Dead ends about, despite foresight,
And going forth and going back
Will likely both lead you off-track.
The walls can lie, the clues mislead,
In hopes that you may not be freed,
But when you round the final bend
And then at last you reach the end,
Perhaps you’ll find your former pen
Worth wandering through once again.
MPAA rating: PG
You know what Jim Henson’s Labyrinth most reminds me of? The Wizard of Oz, with muppets. I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that similarity, but I never noticed it when I first saw Labyrinth years ago. The film also explicitly credits Maurice Sendak for inspiration, so Henson had some true children’s classics to draw from as he endeavored to craft one of his own. Whether it is one might be up to each viewer’s nostalgia and “inner child,” but it’s at least a cult classic for some.
In only her fourth movie role, Jennifer Connelly plays Dorothy, I mean Sarah, an imaginative fifteen-year-old who gets fed up with her annoying baby stepbrother Toby (Toby Froud) and wishes he were taken away by goblins. Naturally, she is shocked when he is actually spirited away by the Goblin King Jareth (alluringly hairy David Bowie), who challenges her to make it through his huge labyrinth to save her brother. Like The Wizard of Oz, she braves various obstacles and misadventures, while gaining three companions along the way, who manage to save her after she’s trapped in a dream, not unlike Dorothy in the field of poppies.
Bowie may have been one of the big draws for Labyrinth, but in all honesty, the real star is Henson’s puppetry. The sheer number of fancifully designed creatures is impressive, and some boast a “how did they do that?” mastery, such as Sarah’s first grudging friend Hoggle, who apparently had a dwarf in a costume but a face radio-controlled by a team of puppeteers. (When his name is misremembered as Hogwart at one point, I couldn’t help but wonder if J.K. Rowling had been taking notes.) The characters can be alternately cute and grotesque, so when baby Toby is crying surrounded by partying goblins, I doubt there was any acting required. The other part that jumps out at me is the door riddle with the two guards that either lie or tell the truth. I remember that riddle being asked at camp once, and no one could remember the answer. Heck, I’m still not sure I understand its logic. While the film’s box-office disappointment hurt Henson, he had much to be proud of here, since the puppets outshine the humans for the most part.
Attractive as all get-out, Connelly handles her interactions with them earnestly, but her early “curse” against her brother is so over-the-top, it’s hard to believe she went on to win an Oscar. Bowie, on the other hand, is suave and charismatic from start to finish and strangely fits in with the goblins better than expected. Along with the wonderfully ‘80s-sounding soundtrack, he gets to sing too, with the most memorable tune being the endlessly catchy “Magic Dance.”
I feel that Labyrinth might have been one of my fond favorites too if I’d seen it more than once when I was a kid (like The Neverending Story), since its mixture of dark fantasy and puppet silliness only worked so far watching it now as an adult. By the end of Sarah’s coming-of-age journey, though, it’s hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia as Hoggle and her friends offer to be there for her, “should you need us.” That’s exactly what childhood favorites are for, reminding you “every now and again in…life, for no reason at all” of the adventures that once so enthralled and enchanted you, even if you know they’re things of the past. Labyrinth may be uneven overall, but it’s still a triumph of puppetry skill and set design, notably a staircase maze modeled after the work of M.C. Escher. Perhaps I just need to revisit it myself a few more times for the magic to fully hit me.
Best line: (Sarah, a true teenager) “That’s not fair!” (Jareth) “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is?”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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