Hashtag Bowie Week continues unabated today with my thoughts on Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. I briefly considered taking a break last night to watch and review President Obama’s State of the Union address, before I realized that napping would be a more promising endeavor. I could think of no better future than the one in which I woke up from said slumber to a world of magical puppets and a freaky-deaky musician whose raw sexuality could not even be contained by what is ostensibly a family fantasy/adventure movie.
After a brief medieval fakeout at the start of the film, we are introduced to Sarah (Connelly), a modern teenage girl enamored with fairy tales – to the point where she sees her life as one. She has a step-mother she assumes means her ill-will and a father who is barely heard from, let alone seen. Left to babysit her infant half-brother, Sarah finds herself wishing the presumably imaginary Goblin King would come and take little Toby away. So imagine her surprise when the monarch actually appears in the beautiful visage of a pansexual glam rocker named Jareth (Bowie, of course). Jareth takes the baby, refusing to return him to Sarah unless she can solve the supernatural maze (Supernatural Maze is arguably a better title) surrounding his castle in 13 hours (not to be confused with Michael Bay’s upcoming exposé about the Benghazi attack – stay tuned). And so she does, picking up Wizard of Oz-ian companions along the way, all under Jareth’s watchful (and lustful?) eye.
Sarah is a truly awful character, though to some extent that is intentional. I mean, teenagers generally suck as a rule, but Sarah is extra whiny, extra dramatic, and extra smug. Obviously in 2016 it has become very clear that Jennifer Connelly is a great actress (it’s really too bad that like most actresses over 40, Hollywood has decided she is too old), but such a conclusion would have been much more difficult to make 30 years ago, as her line readings are as wooden as any I have ever seen.
And so it is incredibly easy and enjoyable to contrast Sarah with Jareth. Despite the fact that the Goblin King is Labyrinth‘s supposed villain, it is much more fun to watch him do his thing (mostly brood and juggle fushigi) than it is to watch Sarah do hers. Bowie is so invested in the role, lending the picture its strongest performance, even during the ridiculous musical numbers (he owns “Magic Dance” despite the fact that no one really ought to). Combine the actor’s commitment with the fact that his character is seemingly in love with a 15 year old girl (“Fear me, love me, do as I say – and I will be your slave”), and it suddenly becomes very clear why Jareth’s is the crotch that launched a thousand pre-pubescent libidos.
Even more than Bowie, though, the real star of the film is director Henson and the awesome practical effects throughout the feature. The various puppets on display are fascinating. There are traditional hand-operated puppets, full-body puppets, puppets made of human hands, and more. Diverse and entertaining, the puppets run the gamut from funny to fun to even kind of frightening – see: the Fireys, who are able to remove any and all body parts at will. And it’s not just the creature effects – the production design overseen by Elliot Scott is intricate and beautiful; the labyrinth itself is really well-conceived, as are all of the various environments within, which Sarah and her companions visit.
These tactile aspects of the movie seem to be the main focus of the production, to the detriment of the rest of the picture. The movie is full of shoddy dubbed dialogue and what is now groan-worthy compositing work. But the problems are most evident in the script: the pacing problems are clear in moments such as the instantaneous introduction and implementation of plot (aka the labyrinth) out of nowhere and an extended sequence toward the end wherein Sarah forgets who she is and just waltzes aimlessly with Bowie for what feels like 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of funny moments within Terry Jones’s screenplay, but the problems are greater than the high notes; the biggest issue goes back to the character of Sarah. I just can’t bring myself to put most of the blame on Connelly – the same way I don’t blame Natalie Portman for most of the Amidala issues in the Star Wars prequels (incidentally, Labyrinth was executive produced by George Lucas). Friendship and maturity are clearly intended to be themes in the movie, but they aren’t really backed up by the content. The audience is supposed to perceive that Sarah has learned and grown through her experience in the labyrinth, but we don’t really understand why she learned that lesson. This is what makes her character so essentially frustrating.
It’s okay though – Labyrinth is more than its story. It’s an experience. David Bowie and Jim Henson teamed up to create something that only the two of them could have done together. It’s sad to think about the fact that we’ve lost them both now; the world is different without their unique brands of optimism and thoughtfulness. Luckily their legacies remain. So even though Labyrinth has a lot of problems, its distinct and singular vision earns it three out of five inappropriate bulges: