Labyrinth (1986) review

Labyrinth (1986) Original

I have to admit something. For a long time, this film didn’t remind me of the babe. You know, the one with the power. What power? The power of voodoo and all that. However, now that my three-year old niece has become a new full-on Labyrinth fan, and can quote it with ease, I can safely and with confidence say that this film does now remind me of the babe. I don’t know if she has the power of voodoo yet. I’ll get back to you on that one. It’s great that she loves the film though, because there is something still adorably fresh and sparkling about Labyrinth, despite (and of course, because of) all the 80’s trappings.

Fantasy and 80’s cinema went hand in hand very nicely – okay, not all of it was great, but it still had sweep, magic, spectacle and imagination, and even though we live in a time where the likes of Lord of the Rings has proved that there is an enormous audience for this kind of thing, there doesn’t seem to be that many great fantasy films out these days. Back then, we had Dragonslayer, Krull, Willow, Legend, The Dark Crystal, Ladyhawke, The Company of Wolves, The Princess Bride, Excalibur…. okay, not all of them are classics, but they had a consistency to them. Like one of them, you’ll most like the others. There was plenty to enjoy. Labyrinth, with the exception of The Princess Bride, was the most tongue-in-cheek and funny of the lot. It helped that the script was by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, who has a lot of fun playing around with fairytale tropes and standards, with plenty of great sight gags. Director Jim Henson and his team’s brilliant puppetry skills are second to none – we get a totally believable range of characters, beautifully voiced, be they tiny (and very unhelpful) worms, depressed door knockers (these look amazing, the really do look like talking metal – beat that, T-1000) or our main cast of creations, more of which below. The only bum note is a very dated looking sequence where a bunch of fire monkeys try to decapitate our hero – actually, that’s less to do with the puppets than the special effects attempted to try and get them in the same shots as Jennifer Connelly. Yeah, this is one of her early roles – not her earliest, as we’d already seen her as the young Deborah in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and she’d played the lead in Dario Argento’s bonkers paranormal/telekenetic/simian slasher/serial killer horror Phenomena, and her performance is a straight-up anchor mooring all of the eccentricity around her. Seriously, she’s the only character in the film who doesn’t attempt to provoke a laugh. This is a good touch, stopping the film from going over the edge into outright comedy.

The plot is simple enough – our angsty, and let’s be fair, quite annoying protagonist Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is very upset that her baby brother Toby gets all the attention, all the love, all the cute close-ups and none of the babysitting duties. Oh, how she wishes Jareth the Goblin King would take him away. Fair enough. Except he actually does, and the Goblin King is none other than David Bowie in an astonishing wig and very revealing tights. He jiggles his balls about a lot too, but that’s nowhere near as rude as it sounds. Anyway, Sarah instantly regrets her rash decision, but Jareth won’t go back on their deal, not unless she can work her way through the labyrinth that leads to her brother, and in 13 hours too. On her way, she encounters all manner of fantastical creatures, including a fairy-killing coward named Hoggle, a Donkey Kong-like gently beast named Ludo, an idiotic knight called Sir Didymus and his adorable canine steed Ambrosius, the latter shifting from being a real dog to a hilariously fake puppet depending on the danger he’s in. These are fantastic creations, a true testament to the genius of their creators. Oh, and there are songs. David Bowie songs!

And they’re fun, you know? What do you mean, they’re not ‘Life on Mars?’? Yeah, but ‘Life on Mars?’ isn’t ‘Magic Dance’, which is, as you all know, the song that reminds us of the babe. The version on the soundtrack album is better than the one in the film though – I always thought the goblin vocals were a little weak in the film – like, proper crap even. They sound better on the CD, and when they’re totally un-salvageable, Bowie just sings their lines instead. Despite all that, ‘Magic Dance’ is, with the exception of the Bowie-written-but-not-sung ‘Chilly Down’ (the one with the fire monkeys – not great), the least impressive of the songs here. ‘Underground’ is properly fantastic – all six minutes of it. It sounds great blended with Trevor Jones’ score over the opening credits, sounds better a few minutes later as Sarah runs back home in the rain and is your classic example of brilliant closing credits music. It also throws in, convincingly, a gospel element in the chorus, while Bowie even adds the decidedly risque lament ‘no love injection’ into a kids film theme, which I never noticed as a child. The gorgeous, dreamy ‘As the World Falls Down’ is one of the most unabashedly straightforward love songs Bowie has ever created – it was almost going to be a single (a video was made for it) but was pulled at the last minute, which was a shame as it could have been a success. Indeed, this and ‘Magic Dance’ are the two most downloaded songs in Bowie’s entire canon, probably because of their inexplicable absence from any singles compilations since. Anyway, ‘As the World Falls Down’ is really lovely, and it really works in the film too. The dramatic ‘Within You’ (not to be confused with ‘Without You’ from Let’s Dance) works incredibly well as a song in its own right – in the film it’s one of many bravura touches during its wild climax, and you might be too dazzled by all the Escher imagery and baby-in-peril excitement to realise it’s one of his best songs from this era.

As for Bowie’s performance – he’s still got that ever-so-slightly awkward line delivery which we all love anyway because it’s David Bowie and his awkwardness is endearing (prime example – ‘Turn back now, Sarah!’ about ten minutes in). However, he is still a magnetic performer – he’s the only one who could get away with that costume of his. He has a whole sequence where he’s singing to a few dozen goblins and still looks cool. He looks goofy and, in the spirit of things, quite pantomime, but he looks damned good too. He always did, didn’t he? I love David Bowie. Always have, always will.

The film is similar to Neil Jordan and Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves in that it focuses on a girl on the cusp of adulthood, at a time where one must decide whether or not to put childish things away. While in the other film this process is unavoidable (and treated with outright horror at times, especially at the end), here there’s a bit more resistance to accompany the seduction. One of the best sequences in the film is when Sarah is lost in a masquerade ball, made dizzy by all the debauchery around her and pursued by Jareth – she denies his romantic advances, and considering this is a man approaching 40 pursuing a girl of 15, there’s nothing icky or uncomfortable about this bit (this is her dream, not his). The film ends in direct polar opposition to The Company of Wolves – almost flippantly, you could add, but what’s wrong with prolonging childhood a little longer? Besides, Goblin City’s residents know how to throw a party.

Issues I have with the film? That fire monkey bit. Actually, they’re not on fire, but their fur is all ‘flamey’ I suppose. The Bog of Eternal Stench bit, which is mostly brilliant (you can almost smell this sequence), has a moment where some helpful stepping stones emerge from the bog so that Ludo can make it to the other side in safety. Yet the stepping stones emerged from the bog, and lest we forget, if you touch even a little bit of the bog, you’ll smell bad forever. Ludo walks all over bog-covered steps! If it was one of the other characters, I’d have almost forgiven it, because they’re wearing shoes and could have thrown their offending footwear away afterwards, but Ludo’s barefoot! Maybe he stinks already. I can’t imagine him taking a bath that often, and all that fur must be an absolute nightmare to maintain. Yeah, that’s a real minor nitpick blown up to paragraph-sized criticism, but I can’t ignore it.

Overall, Labyrinth is a splendid, utterly lovable entertainment for girls and boys, kids and adults – it wasn’t a hit back in ’86, but it has become a serious cult film, with a vengeance – in London, there are Masquerade Ball screenings! Put together with The Princess Bride, and you have a double-bill of utterly wonderful, self-aware (but still full of heart) fantasy comedy cinema that’ll have you wondering why they don’t make them like this anymore.

PS: That milk bottle sight gag is so, so, so wonderful.

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