Labyrinth (1986) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some scary images
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson
Director: Jim Henson
Screenplay: Terry Jones
Review published February 20, 1999
Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Hulk) is cast in one of her first starring roles as Sarah, a teenage girl who has grown tired of her stepmother and father leaving her home alone to babysit her infant brother, Toby. In a bout of exasperation, she wishes him away, and inadvertently summons the mythical Goblin King, Jareth (Bowie, The Hunger), who kidnaps the baby and steals him away into his fantasy realm. There, the baby boy remains hidden in a dangerous castle in the middle of an ornate labyrinth, and if Sarah wants a chance at getting the brother she really didn't want to go back, she must traverse the enigmatic trail before midnight, or the Goblin King gets to keep Toby forever.
Although considered a box office failure at the time of its release, Labyrinth has become something of an older children's classic over the years. Produced by George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Return of the Jedi), directed by Muppet maven Jim Henson (The Dark Crystal, The Great Muppet Caper), Labyrinth is a classic fantasy tale, in the mold of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, of one young girl's perilous quest through strange environs, although featuring songs by David Bowie and Henson's Muppet crew.
The screenplay is credited to Monty Python alum Terry Jones (And Now for Something Completely Different, The Life of Brian), who infuses the dialogue with camp and mirth, while an underlying sense of longing and sadness permeates much of this story, left mostly understated through the protagonist's absence of her beloved natural mother and her clinging to the happier times of her childhood. Somewhat dated by its synthy soundtrack, the film nevertheless delights on many other levels, including good casting of the leads, fantastic sets and costumes, great puppetry and pre-CGI special effects, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that future films like Shrek and the Harry Potter series would recreate decades later.
While Connelly is as appealing as a young actress could be in such a role, David Bowie is the one that commands the attention on the human side with his wild hair, androgynous costumes, and ridiculously tight tights. His songs aren't ranked among his finest works, but they are catchy in their own substandard fashion, and perfectly in keeping with the ambiguous nature that what we're witnessing may very well be one young mid-80s girl's vivid daydream, inspired from the book of the same name that she so enjoys playacting out of, come to life. Not to mention they provide a bit of levity to the "evil" side of things that makes his cajoling of the young Sarah into staying with him an appealing proposition.
Although most people remember Labyrinth as a fun fantasy flick, it's really more about a girl's emergence into womanhood, having to put away the childish things and dreams that gave her the sustenance she needed to cope with whatever ailed her. The creatures of the world of the labyrinth are evidenced throughout her bedroom, and pictures of her natural mother, who ostensibly worked as an actress in the theater that Sarah is a huge fan of, adorn her mirror. Some claim that Sarah's mother is pictured in one picture with David Bowie, which raises all sorts of connotations about Sarah's emerging sexuality and the confusion it causes her in trying to maintain her childlike innocence and naive outlook on life.
Labyrinth is a highly imaginative fantasy adventure filled with delightful performances and wildly conceived characters. Bowie and Connelly are excellent in their respective roles, and the film as a whole is championed by outstanding sets and designs. It's a wonderful adventure that seems to get better with age, and highly recommended for children of all ages.
©1999, 2008 Vince Leo