Getting lost in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’, 36 years on

I’m old enough to remember that Labyrinth was actually kind of a flop when it opened in theatres in 1986, but I recall that I still somehow managed to watch it three times there before it faded away. 

I don’t want to be that guy, but I was into Labyrinth before it was cool, man. 

Jim Henson’s film is a swirling strange dream of a movie, with a grandly absurd David Bowie as the Goblin King and young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a girl who accidentally loses her baby brother to the goblins’ realm and has to get him back. I loved it as a kid, and still adore it as an adult, but with a very different perspective on it all now. 

Watching Labyrinth over the weekend on the big screen at the glorious Hollywood Avondale for the first time in decades, it still seems to me a beautifully askew little fairy tale. All fairy tales are written by adults, and all fairy tales on some level are about the end of childhood. 

Several years ago, I watched Labyrinth for the first time in ages and it didn’t land as well – it felt a bit clumsy and halting on a small screen. I realise now that the big screen is a far better venue for Henson’s imagination, where you can appreciate the dazzling CGI-free puppet work and intricate set designs, where Bowie’s haughty sneer and Connelly’s unforced sincerity seem stronger, realer. The puppet characters are a quirky joy, especially the hulking Ludo and my favourite, the frantic Sir Didymus. 

It’s also all proudly weird, which I think is what appealed to me as a teenager – from distorted goblin designs to the cavern full of sentient hands to the creepy Fireys dancing with their separated body parts, it doesn’t feel very Disney-fied like so many young adult fantasies. Bowie takes a character that could be ridiculous (that wig!) and makes him charismatic – it’s hard to imagine possible alternative casting like Sting or Mick Jagger being quite so effective.

Bowie’s mournful songs and Trevor Jones’ score are all more adult and yearning than most kid-movie soundtracks, with Bowie’s “Within You” one of his most underrated, intense love songs. The sexual subtext of Sarah’s coming of age is right up in your face as an adult, because honestly, you don’t cast David Bowie and put him in rather tight leotards without expecting some kind of reaction, do you? 

At the time, Labyrinth was not a success. It barely opened in the box office top 10 in June 1986, beaten by the likes of Top Gun and Karate Kid (franchises that were of course, never heard from again). In Bowie’s career, it was considered part of the long post-Let’s Dance slump that included pre-grunge band Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down. (I disagree, of course, and Bowie’s firm willingness to reinvent himself makes this era stronger in hindsight.)

Yet somehow, Labyrinth endured. Part adult reverie, part teenage girl fantasy, part childhood toy-filled romp, Labyrinth still sits uncertainly next to the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Sarah’s final rejection of the Goblin King still has power – “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave,” he tells her. She knows better, and chooses her own path. The King’s somewhat twisted affections are rejected.

There’s been talk over the years of sequels, prequels or sidequels to Labyrinth. Frankly, I really do hope it never happens. We’ve a tendency to wring out that ‘80s intellectual property until it’s exhausted, and the intimate pre-digital charm of Labyrinth can only be diluted by shoving it through the unquenchable content machine.

There is more sadness in watching Labyrinth now than there was when I was a teenager, at the other end of the telescope – sadness that the campy, imperious Bowie is gone, that Jim Henson’s dream of puppets ended too young, that we all, in the end, grow up. But there’s also joy, in knowing you were there, once, and nothing can erase the memories of the labyrinth of getting from there to here. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

One thought on “Getting lost in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’, 36 years on”

  1. I took my daughter to see Labyrinth when she was twelve, and I’m not sure which of us enjoyed it most, although for different reasons. I’ve seen it once since on the small screen, and for me it didn’t loose anything in the “translation”. There’s not many films I can watch on the large screen as, being autistic, the senses are easily over stimulated. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve had to abandon part way through.

    I’m not sure what it is about Henson’s puppets, but I find them more personable than CGI generated characters. Perhaps because each character has one or more individuals animating them and projecting something unique from their own imagination?

    Labyrinth is a movie I would like to see again, with or without the company of grandchildren.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: