DIRECTED BY: Jim Henson
PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.
COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).
There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, talking door knockers, and an old man with a chicken for a hat. Heck, even the cannonballs in this movie are Muppets.
Set design is another huge asset. The labyrinth itself, which includes occasional mythological guardians posing logic puzzles, evokes Lewis Carrol , while the finale takes place in a beautiful M.C. Escher reflexive dreamscape with relativistic gravity and staircases headed off at paradoxical angles. The intricate visual details give the film a high degree of re-watchability: keep an eye out for the illusion where stone outcroppings form a human face when viewed at exactly the right angle. Bowie’s musical contributions turn out to be a wash: “Underground,” which plays over the beginning and end credits, was a radio hit, and “Magic Dance” is a playfully wicked little baby-taunting tune, but to a large extent the 80s synth/drum-machine pop style does little more than date the film.
Of course, we wouldn’t be reviewing this pic if there weren’t some delightfully weird nonsense moments to tickle your bizarre bone: a gnome spraying flowers to rid them of fairy pests, goblins tormenting a horned beast with dentures on a stick, and a dream-inside-a-dream at a masked Renaissance ball are a few of the highlights of kiddie surrealism. And, given Labyrinth‘s carnal awakening subtext, we’d be remiss if we didn’t spotlight the scene where Connelly plummets down a shaft filled with gnarled hands that paw at her; it may be unintentional, but it looks a lot like a vertical variation on the climactic hallucination from Roman Polanski‘s sexual repression epic, Repulsion.
Which, of course, brings us right back to the most curious element of the film: Bowie’s ambiguous role as a libidinous villain, who the heroine both hates and desires. The Goblin King Jareth represents both the young girl’s seductive childish fantasies and her slowly-stirring real-world sexual desire. Heck, one minute Bowie the sexy goblin is basically taking the girl to her fantasy dress-up prom, and in the next he’s trying to woo her back into a state of pre-erotic childhood whimsy by shapeshifting into a grandma gnome and plying her with plushies from her toddler days. The symbolism of Bowie’s character changes almost as often as a 14-year old’s mood swings, but that’s actually the perfect accompaniment to a movie which simultaneously expresses nostalgia for childhood together with a resolve to move forward into the world of adult responsibility. It’s something everyone whose gone through adolescence can identify with, and Henson’s decision to leave the tape off his heroine’s bosom allows his fairy tale to blossom.
Besides “Sesame Street” and “the Muppets” honcho Henson, Labyrinth saw contributions from a host of talents. George Lucas was the executive producer. Terry Jones (from Monty Python) wrote the original screenplay (although the final shooting script was changed quite a bit, with input from Lucas among others). Illustrator Brian Froud, who designed the sets for Jim Henson for Dark Crystal, again worked in the art and costume departments on this film—and loaned his infant son Toby to play the stolen child.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by “TVO.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)