For a period in the ’80s, before Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought audiences back to old-fashioned big-budget fantasy films, America basically had two choices for those types of live-action dragon/fairy/elf stories: Ridley Scott or Jim Henson. Scott, of course, only got into fantasy to indulge his unicorn fixation before it was reinstated back into Blade Runner in the early ’90s. That really only leaves Henson doing it for the sheer imaginative love of creating new creatures on mystical quests.
Henson’s first non-Muppet feature film, The Dark Crystal, gave us a dark and immersive puppet-only world. Its box-office failure explains the step back from creepiness demonstrated by his next fantasy project, Labyrinth. Labyrinth has several Muppet-like qualities missing from Crystal: visible human performers, for one, plus singing and dancing.
Luckily for the audience, a huge portion of both duties are handled by David Bowie, who is perhaps better-suited than most rock stars to blending in with puppets and goblins. Bowie plays Jarreth, the Goblin King, who kidnaps Toby, the baby brother of petulant teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly). Though he does so in an appropriately villainous manner, Jarreth is actually fulfilling Sarah’s direct (if heedless) wish to be released from her responsibilities via goblin-related intervention. Immediately repentant, she must retrieve her brother by traveling through a shifting maze, theoretically leading to the Escher-inspired goblin castle at the center (babynappings aside, life must be good under Jarreth’s rule; I always thought goblins lived in caves or under bridges).
Along the way, Sarah meets a duplicitous troll-man named Hoggle, a talking fox called Sir Didymus, and a monosyllabic creature named Ludo, and they encounter many more chattering beasts and obstacles of all sizes en route to the castle. Their journey is standard fantasy mish-mash: a perilous quest with strong Wizard of Oz overtones. What makes the film work is not really the story, but the visual and aural delight of Henson’s creations: fiery birds whose heads and limbs detach, English-accented worms, and Sir Didymus riding into battle on a (real) shaggy dog.
The human additions, then, turn out not to add much besides cursory audience identification; future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly doesn’t work up much sympathy on her brave journey from wretched to tolerable. Bowie fares better, because he mainly has to look fabulous and sing some second-tier Bowie songs, which was second nature to him during the ’80s. (To be fair, the most memorable number in the film, ‘Dance Magic Dance,’ is a lot of fun and catchy as hell.)
Labyrinth is less transporting than Henson’s earlier semi-serious effort; it’s a charming world, but by the end of the somewhat overlong, episodic film you’re ready to go home. Still, it’s worth noting that unlike a lot of fantasies of this era, Labyrinth actually feels fairly timeless, rather than a particular decade’s dated evocation of a magical land. (Scott’s Legend looks rather more like an album cover today.) That it manages to do this with a pop star as co-lead is all the more miraculous. It all happens on a smaller, more handmade scale than we’ve become accustomed to in film fantasy, but Henson still creates a believable living environment for his film. It’s a shame he only made two pure fantasy films before his untimely death in 1990. Clearly his imagination was as fantasy land worth revisiting.
A new special edition DVD includes a commentary track, plus a second disc of making-of extras, including archival footage not included in the original cut.