24 February 2005 | mentalcritic
A relic of a time that seems wonderful by comparison
Oh dear, Jim Henson, you are sorely missed. Not necessarily because you went before your time, or even in somewhat rotten circumstances. No, it is because unlike the purveyors of so-called family entertainment these days, your work was actually entertaining to the whole family. When I was a lad, I used to think these films were childish and patronising. By comparison to what is being aimed at the children of my cousins, it is MENSA material, and I realise now that it was far more brilliant than I had previously given it credit for. Indeed, compared to the "you're not good if you don't have good feelings" rubbish that the likes of B'Harni fill the heads of children with, Henson productions deserve a medal.
At its heart, Labyrinth is a simple fable about how much we miss something once it is gone. A young girl wishes that her annoying stepbrother would disappear, only to find when he is gone that she misses him. Enter the Goblin King, played with a great malice by David Bowie. The challenge the Goblin King sets almost sounds like a video game. Indeed, one popular Commodore 64 game of the time set the challenge of collecting the pieces to solve a key puzzle to save the world in a certain time period. Labyrinth was even adapted into a game for the Commodore 64. In Labyrinth the film, this young woman named Sarah, played with a certain kind of brilliance by a young Jennifer Connelly, is challenged to navigate a massive labyrinth in less than thirteen hours, lest her brother become one of the Goblins.
It sounds like a very simple idea, and it is. What makes Labyrinth the under-appreciated classic that it is is in the details. As previously indicated, the leads are absolutely brilliant. While David Bowie chews scenery like there is no tomorrow, Jennifer Connelly gets so into her character that she makes it seem perfectly natural when she is interacting with some of Jim Henson's most ludicrous creations. The scene in which she rescues a giant yeti-like thing called Ludo is one of the most superbly-made things in the history of children's film. It is also worth noting that in contrast to the aforementioned normalism of B'Harni and his ilk, Henson's creations taught the valuable lesson that appearances are not the sum total of a living creature's character. Ludo looks like he could tear apart our protagonist, but his manner and speech show him as one of the most gentle and lovable characters ever depicted in film.
As you might guess from this film featuring David Bowie as the top-billed star, there are also a few song and dance numbers. Some of them, such as the magic dance number, are immortally embarrassing. Or at least, they would be, if not for two things. First, the suspension of disbelief that Henson so admirably achieves with his puppets is a real pleasure. Second, Bowie's golden voice could charm the paint off walls. When he sings "I saw my baby, crying hard as babe could cry", it stands out like a stark reminder of why this man used to be able to sign record deals worth tens of millions of dollars. It may even bring tears to your eyes.
If Labyrinth does have a weakness, it is in the closing reels. The final song from Bowie stretches the scene beyond its welcome, but it recovers nicely once Sarah returns to the real world. The compositing work in the Firey sequence is rather lousy, and the story seems to grind to a halt when they do their song and dance number. On the other hand, their song and dance number is still incredibly amusing to behold.
In all, I gave Labyrinth an eight out of ten. It is not perfect. In fact, I wonder if whomever designed Bowie's costume was not playing an elaborate joke upon him. But for all of its problems, Labyrinth is an underrated classic. One of the few films that is advertised as being for all ages, and can entertain audiences of that description. A great light went out in our world when Jim Henson passed away.