Three years after taking on the vampire genre, David Bowie entered the world of fantasy with Labyrinth (1986). It had several key names, such as Jim Henson and George Lucas, to help it receive mainstream press and media, but ultimately, it would become a box office failure. Now, 30 years later, how does the movie stand the test of time?
A musical fantasy film is always going to be a leap of faith. Throw in the puppetry work of Jim Henson and the risk becomes even greater. But, in the decade of the 80s and just four years after The Dark Crystal (1982), it seemed to have a chance on becoming a box office wonder. Add in the musical star power of David Bowie and the might of Lucasfilm, all of the key elements were there. However, with a budget of $25 million, the margin for error was slim.
The initial storyline ideas came from Jim Henson and designer Brian Froud before being turned over to Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. However, a team of other scriptwriters would ultimately rewrite much of it, despite the fact that Terry Jones maintained sole screen-writing credit. The basic story seems to be ripped from the pages of a fairytale as 15 year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, The Rocketeer) innocently wishes her brother Toby off into the hands of Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie). Sarah begs Jareth to return her brother but is given thirteen hours to make it through his labyrinth and find Toby in the castle…or Toby will become a goblin.
While the story is simple enough, it is actually symbolic of Sarah’s journey to womanhood and the need to leave her childhood behind. This becomes more obvious in the final scene where Sarah is seen frolicking with the residents of the fantasy world. And those creatures are the strongest point of this movie. Jim Henson did simply magical work, long before the days of CGI. From Hoggle, the dwarf who befriends Sarah, to Ludo and the legion of goblins, you can’t help but be entranced by the magical world around you.
Where the movie suffers is in the human cast. Jennifer Connelly was a few years away from becoming stunningly beautiful in The Rocketeer but her acting delivery is often very flat, which is painfully obvious in this film. David Bowie gave a good performance but I’ll admit, I cringed a little at the musical numbers. In my opinion, not his best work but his music video for the film was one of the better promotional pieces. His acting here is quite limited as he appears more for visual effect. A striking image but not necessarily one of the most animated characters when surrounded by the work of Jim Henson.
Henson and George Lucas worked closely together during the editing process of the movie. Overall production lasted primarily five months prior to the lengthy series of edits. By the time Labyrinth was released in June 1986 in the United States, anticipation was high but short lived. It spent only one week in the top ten. Despite a more appropriate Christmas season premiere in the UK and Europe, it failed to capture an audience.
Labyrinth has survived the initial failures to become a cult favorite over the years. Jim Henson lived long enough to see the early start of the growing appreciation for his work prior to his death in 1990. In recent years, there has been talk of another Labyrinth film but it appears now the movie will be in the style rather than a sequel or remake. And let’s be honest, if they go with CGI effects, there really won’t be any comparison.
I enjoyed this revisit as I hadn’t seen Labyrinth since 1987. It did seem dated and not as engaging as I had hoped it would be. Nonetheless, I do recommend any fan of Jim Henson or David Bowie to check it out and be your own judge. Watch the trailer on YouTube and start shopping as it is readily available on a beautiful Blu-ray edition. There is also an interesting documentary that gives a fascinating look behind-the-scenes and that you may find more enjoyable than the film itself.