Movie Monday with Luke: ‘Labyrinth earns cult status through Bowie’


Luke Ulatowski, Staff reporter

When you hear the name Jim Henson, what do you think of first? It’s most likely the comedy supernova “The Muppets,” which in the six decades of its existence has evolved to cover every form of media several times over. If you hold your childhood dear, maybe you think of “Sesame Street,” the preschool-aimed Muppets offshoot that’s been going strong since 1969. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re one of the devoted few who just can’t forget 1986’s “Labyrinth.” A cult classic, this film surpassed Henson’s other fantasy endeavors with the star power of a particular non-Muppet.

Labyrinth takes place in modern times (in 1986), following a fantasy-obsessed teenage girl named Sarah (played by an up-and-coming Jennifer Connelly) who, annoyed by her baby brother Toby, wishes he would get kidnapped by Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie), her imaginary boyfriend of sorts. To her surprise, her wish comes true. Sarah has thirteen hours to find her brother in Jareth’s twisted labyrinth of puzzles and monsters before Jareth turns him into a goblin.

There are other characters in the film. They’re all puppets. Even with the dedication fans express for this film, you’ll never hear the name of sidekick Hoggle, lancer Sir Didymus nor the brawny Ludo. The few human characters heavily overshadow Henson’s technical work due to the nature of the story. I didn’t have to mention Hoggle in the synopsis since he has no relevance to the plot, despite overtaking Bowie in screen time. This is a story about a girl growing past her imagination for the sake of her family, faced with the ultimate roadblock: Sexual fantasy, in the form of Bowie. While the friends and enemies Sarah comes across throughout the labyrinth serve as little more than technical displays, joke-makers and action-starters, Jareth represents a shameful part of her, running not only the plot but elaborating on her otherwise rather understated character. This is not Connelly’s movie, this is Bowie’s.

Bowie served as much more than an actor in this film, as well, providing the soundtrack. This film would certainly qualify as a musical, with five original lyrical songs, each of which eat up an entire scene. Bowie’s style remains unchanged from his usual glam rock prowess, exemplified by the flashiness of his character; painted mascara, skin-tight pants and all. Catchy songs are a guarantee, but the real beauty of it comes from the deeper intricacies of the character Bowie plays in every song. He’s the perfect object of female lust, desperately trying to hold onto his objector to keep her from taking his prey. It’s like a rock opera put to film. The highlight is “As The World Falls Down,” a love song full of promises of comfort and protection. The song is backed by Sarah caught in a trap: A bubble made to look like a ballroom, with Jareth waiting to dance with her. He promises to protect her as the world falls down, so the only way for her to escape is to bring the world down herself by popping the bubble.



A still from Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” (1986)

Moments like that are where Henson’s fantasy setting really shines. Elsewhere, it’s more of a mishmash of narrow brick paths with the occasional whimsical but not quite admirable obstacle, such as a bog that farts and smells really bad. The musical sequences in this film make up for the relative lack of material exemplified in the rest of the scenes. The plot sounds unique and interesting when you focus on the basics, such as the conflict between Sarah and her imaginary boyfriend and her pursuit of her brother. However, what comes between? “The Wizard of Oz.” Yeah, that’s basically it. Sarah meets three companions over the course of a journey from point A to be point B, hopping over zany obstacles. While the labyrinth does indeed look like a labyrinth (though it is in need of higher walls), the film doesn’t capture the feeling of a labyrinth due to the linearity of the progression. That is, until near the end in Bowie’s musical finale, “Within You,” in which Sarah must brave a gravity-defying, Escher-inspired mindscrew of a room to reach her brother as Jareth looms around every corner. The tension is consuming. Perhaps the rest of the film could’ve been as interesting as that scene if Jareth was a more active threat. The clock ticking down to Toby’s transformation existed the entire film, but it was ignored for leisurely strolls and making conversation with an old man who wears a chicken on his head.

The companions she meets lack the distinctiveness and depth of the ones found in The Wizard of Oz. I need to bring up Hoggle again; there’s really, really nothing to him. Even his design. He’s a very generic old troll with no business being anything other than a background character, but again, he comes in second for screen time. He provides childish humor and a half-hearted “unlikeable loser to somewhat-hero” arc to fill in the large gaps between Bowie’s musical sequences. During such sequences, it’s easy to think you’re watching a much more adult, meaningful film. Then you’re shot back to Hoggle falling on his face, an introduction to the next boring twenty minutes of waiting. I understand this is a family film, but I’m also of the opinion that children deserve intelligent media just as much as adults. This is not Hoggle’s movie. This is Bowie’s.

SHOULD YOU WATCH IT? Well, do you like David Bowie? I do. Bowie’s soundtrack and performance are well worth sitting through the boring, kiddy parts, earning Labyrinth it’s cult status. Just make sure no one catches you watching. You’ll also enjoy if you’re a fan of practical effects, but don’t expect to come out talking about those. If you’re interested, the movie is available on Netflix.

WATCH IF YOU LIKE: David Bowie. Okay, if we’re only going by movies here, there’s Bowie’s other big musical film, Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” The music in “Labyrinth” isn’t toned-down just because it’s family-aimed. If you appreciated Jim Henson’s work in his next-biggest fantasy film “The Dark Crystal,” you’ll probably appreciate this as well.