Sunday, March 2, 2014

Labyrinth (Review)

Director: Jim Henson

Company: Jim Henson Company, Lucasfilm, TriStar Pictures

Year: 1986

Country: United States, Britain


Should this film be remembered as a flawed box office flop or a beloved cult classic?

Often considered to be the spiritual successor of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is a far more lighthearted (and often rather goofy take) on a young teenager's wild imagination and European fairytales. The script for the film was conceived by both Henson and George Lucas and was inspired by the children's book, Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak (author of Where the Wild Things Are). It featured many great special effects with complex puppetry and animatronic characters brought to life from the drawings of Brian Froud, a renown fantasy artist. Labyrinth also had cutting edge CGI effects and featured David Bowie in a staring role.


Well, cutting edge for 1986 anyway.

Despite all of the talent involved, Labyrinth was initially a box office disaster, only earning back $12,729, 917 for its $25 million budget. The failure of the film to capture the favor of audiences or critics upon its release was so profound that Jim Henson did not direct any other feature films before his death in 1990. Despite this disappointment, however, the movie has gained a steady following over the years and has become a cult classic among fantasy fans and Bowie lovers. For some reason, a sequel in the form of a manga was even published by Tokoyopop between 2006 and 2010. In 2012, another graphic novel company, Archaia Studio Press announced that it is in the process of developing a comic book prequel for Labyrinth.

Labyrinth opens with an barn owl spying on Sarah Williams, a teenage girl who is reciting lines from her favorite book (which is also called Labyrinth) in a park. After realizing she is running late, Sarah rushes home to babysit her younger brother, Toby. Sarah becomes increasingly upset when she is confronted by her impatient stepmother and discovers that her teddybear is missing from her room. She finds the toy in her Toby's room and angrily tells him that she wishes the goblins would take him away. Toby suddenly vanishes. The owl flies into Sarah's room and reveals himself to be Jareth, the king of goblins. He tells the alarmed Sarah that she must make her way through his labyrinth within thirteen hours if she wants her baby brother back. He then transports Sarah to the front gate of the labyrinth.

Sarah meets many strange creatures during her journey, three of which decide to travel with her. Hoggle is an obstinate old dwarf who is secretly a spy for Jareth. He is torn between his loyalty to his master and his friendship with Sarah. Ludo is a large and slowwitted but gentle yeti-like creature whom Sarah takes pity on after he is tormented by a gang of goblins. And finally, Sir Didymus is a small yet chivalrous (and often rather illogical) fox-like knight who rides an Old English Sheepdog. Despite receiving help from her new and rather unusual friends, Sarah must overcome several obstacles along the way, such as a Knights and Knaves logic puzzle and the notorious Eternal Bog of Stench. She must also beware of Jareth himself, who has taken a liking to Sarah and constantly tries to convince her to stay with him... 


…Apparently, its because no girl can resist 'the excitement of David Bowie'.

If Jareth's labyrinth has one thing going for it, it is a visual marvel. This is no surprise given the production studio and budget behind Labyrinth. While the sparse CGI that appears in this film is obviously dated, its practical effects have aged very nicely. Brian Froud's designs may not exactly be cute, but they have certain rough charm to them and transition well to the screen. The techniques used to bring the various inhabitants Labyrinth to life are technically a huge step up from those used in The Dark Crystal four years prior. The various sets and backdrops in this movie are also clearly a labor of love. (The art geek in me also loves all of the references to M.C. Escher.) Once Sarah is taken to the front of the labyrinth, it truly does feel as though she has stepped into another land.


It's easy to got lost in the scenery of this movie.

There are, however, several things that hamper this movie's entertainment value. For one, the various David Bowie songs that pop up through out the narrative simply don't suit the visuals at all. (And, for the record, I do enjoy most David Bowie songs.) Yes, it was the '80s. Flamboyancy and Glam Rock were in, but they don't have the timeless sort of quality that one would expect from a fairytale story. On a similar note, this film is rather, well, campy. Again, that may be part of the nostalgic appeal of Labyrinth for some, but it makes everything on screen seem faker than it should. Many of the goblins and other creatures in the film, for instance, are voiced with high pitched, grating cartoonish voices which disengage the viewer the moment he or she hears them. It also doesn't help that the sound effects in this film haven't aged very well either.


It may be cheesy as hell, but just try and get it out of your head.

David Bowie songs and goofy tone aside, many of the characters in Labyrinth are either flat or annoying. This is certainly the case for the film's protagonist. While Sarah's family is briefly introduced at the start of the film, the audience is not given enough time to know or fully understand them or the situation. Sarah's behavior towards her family thus comes off as very bratty. This would be more tolerable if Sarah's character were to develop more over the course of the film, but unfortunately, it doesn't, at least not by much.

Sarah, being the protagonist, does of course learn certain things on her quest. She makes amends with her brother and becomes more appreciative of her 'boring life at home'. However, she complains quite a lot through her journey and relies a bit too much on her companions, making decisions of her own only when the plot requires it. Sarah's portrayal by Jennifer Connelly leaves much to be desired. Perhaps if a more experienced actress took the part, the character would have faired better.  Like several other fantasies about young girls entering bizarre worlds (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland), Labyrinth is symbolic of the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, Sarah is a hard heroine to admire. Perhaps Labyrinth should have followed one of its side characters instead.


Somehow this is not as intimidating as when Gandalf says it...

While Labyrinth is aesthetically pleasing and sports many unique visuals, it won't be remembered as one of the greatest fantasy films ever created. The film's narrative is rather muddled in places, it is too campy for its own good, and its protagonist leaves much to be desired. Still, I cannot bring myself to hate this film. The concept of behind Labyrinth is rather unique and its distinctive visual style allows it to stick out from several other mediocre fantasy films released in the same decade. (Apparently, Labyrinth was initially pitched as The Wizard of Oz meets Where the Wild Things Are.) Maybe Labyrinth would be more enjoyable if it was watched muted and the viewer were to imagine what the characters were saying. While The Dark Crystal may not be as accessible to causal film viewers than Labyrinth, it is ultimately a more ambitious and, dare I say, better film.


I still wish they published this magazine though.

Rating: 3/5