Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Labyrinth

16. Labyrinth (1986)
Dir: Jim Henson

The last film directed by Jim Henson before his untimely death, 'Labyrinth' is just one of many visually stunning creations by this genius of entertainment. Henson created the Muppets, truly one of the most important creations in television history, mesmerizing children and adults alike on shows such as 'Sesame Street', 'The Muppet Show', 'Sam and Friends' and 'Fraggle Rock'. These colourful puppet characters were brought to life by Henson and his team of puppeteers and writers with a magic unlike any in the medium. The Muppets truly seemed to live, their personalities realised down to the tiniest detail and their material far more sophisticated than the average children's fare. Everything Henson created was a labour of love and, though his creations have lived on after his death, in truth they've never captured quite the same magic as the projects overseen by him during his lifetime.

The success of the Muppets inevitably saw them transfering to the big screen in a trio of great films, the first of which ('The Muppet Movie (1979)) is a true classic. But Henson was not about to rest on his laurels. He decided to try his hand at darker, fantasy material aimed at older children and young adults. As well as a great, sadly under-discussed TV series based on Greek myths ('The Storyteller' (1988)), this shift in tone also lead to two feature length treasures directed by Henson: 1982's 'The Dark Crystal' and 1986's 'Labyrinth'. 'The Dark Crystal' is a truly remarkable piece of work starring an entirely puppet cast and featuring groundbreaking work with animatronics. It is held by many as one of Henson's greatest achievements. However, I have decided to focus on the second film, 'Labyrinth', because it was a critical and commercial flop and is still considered by the majority of people to be a bit naff even to this day. The balance needs redressing!

'Labyrinth' stars the young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a bratty teenage girl who feels hard done by because she occasionally has to babysit her baby brother Toby when she'd rather be acting out her obsessive fantasies about a make-believe world ruled over by Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie). When her spiteful wish that the goblins would take Toby away is granted, she has just thirteen hours to find her way through a labyrinth to Jareth's castle and rescue him. Along the way she inadvertently learns many lessons about growing up and undergoes a maturation and the first stirrings of sexual awakening.

Plotwise, then, 'Labyrinth' is skillfully constructed but nothing especially original. Sarah is hardly the first girl to follow Alice down the rabbit hole or wrestle her way to allegorical adolescent revelations. But the major reason for the film often being considered a joke is the casting of David Bowie as the Goblin King. Beautifully made up and costumed (with a much-discussed bulge in his trousers that looks like Jim Henson lent him Gonzo), Bowie struggles his way through one of the most singularly unconvincing performances ever given by a rock star dabbling in thespianism. Fortunately, although he doubles up as a sort of villain/romantic lead, Bowie does not actually have that much to do except be hamilly evil or smarmily seductive and as long as he doesn't open his mouth, he just about gets away with both.

Bowie's ludicrous performance has upped the camp, cult status of 'Labyrinth' but robbed it of critical appreciation. Nevertheless, it's more than worth having him there for the songs he contributes to the soundtrack. 'Magic Dance' (aka 'Dance Magic'), performed in collaboration with his goblin yes-men, is the big number that everyone remembers but there's also great number's like 'Underground' (which plays over the credits) and 'Chilly Down', an indecipherable but infectious reggae song. There's also a couple of forgettable tracks in 'As the World Falls Down' and the terrible 'Within You' ("Your eyes can be so cruel... Just as I can be so cruel". Yeah, great line there, Bowie!) but given that this soundtrack fell between the making of the two worst albums of his otherwise phenomenal musical career, it could have been much worse.

But to focus too much on Bowie's presence would be falling into the trap that has lead to 'Labyrinth' being so underrated. Jennifer Connelly, who went on to become an Oscar-winning actor, is also a sticking point for many but she gives a perfectly adequate performance and gracefully allows herself to be upstaged by her numerous puppet co-stars, for whom she shows a genuine affection (watch her struggling not to laugh when the Fun Gang try and take off her head!).

And therein lies 'Labyrinth's' magic. As it opens, 'Labyrinth' looks like it's going to be an endearing but unremarkable little rites-of-passage fantasy but about seven minutes in suddenly the camera cuts away to a screen completely filled with goblins. At this point, the viewer sits up and really starts to take notice. Jim Henson's puppets and puppeteers transform a quite good script (by ex-Python Terry Jones) into a visual feast. Henson's direction and the evocative sets create an appropriately dream-like atmosphere against which the various fantasy creations dazzle us.

I was thoroughly mesmerized by 'Labyrinth' as a child and it's testament to the timelessness of Henson's puppet work that it looks every bit as great today as it did then, even if the flaws in other areas are more apparent. The animatronic work that was so groundbreaking on 'The Dark Crystal' has come on in leaps and bounds, as evidenced in the astonishingly intricate puppet of Hoggle, a cowardly dwarf who accompanies Sarah on her journey. Hoggle's face is covered in detail, from his excessive wrinkles to his expressive eye, which make him at least ten times more emotionally convincing than Bowie. Sir Didymus, a lionhearted fox who turns up to aid Sarah in the latter half of the film, looks every bit like a real fox, save for his eyepatch, clothes and the fact that he's riding on a dog!

The sheer amount of supporting puppet players makes 'Labyrinth' a constantly surprising and exciting experience. You don't know who's around the next bend. It could be a shambling old wiseman with a bird for a head, it could be a couple of door-knockers who's occupation also renders them both with serious disabilities, it could be a badly blue-screened gang of terrifying red creatures with detachable body parts and a penchant for taking off people's heads! The latter sequence, the primitive early stab at blue-screening notwithstanding, is one of 'Labyrinth's' most remarkable scenes, in that it's totally and utterly pointless, surreal and frightening. The Fun Gang (or Fieries, as they are called in the credits) only exist to sing Bowie's 'Chilly Down' and morbidly detach pieces of themselves for our disgust/delight. It's like an 80s music video has been awkwardly transplanted into the film. Many would site this as a flaw and, really, it is but its also an example of what makes 'Labyrinth' such a winning experience. It's packed with ideas because Henson obviously balks at the idea of restricting imagination in the name of narrative coherence.

It's fair to say that my love of Jim Henson makes me biased when it comes to 'Labyrinth'. If you're not impressed by puppetry, no matter how groundbreakingly beautiful, 'Labyrinth' probably isn't going to have much effect on you. But for anyone else, it will be a fun experience at the very least. I'd never call 'Labyrinth' a 'classic' or a 'masterpiece' but it is a visual treat enhanced by just enough wit and decent storytelling to elevate it above being simply a moving museum.

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