For the record, when I initially chose to do a review for Labyrinth (1986), I didn’t have a clue it would a) go up a week later than I originally planned, or b) be out just after Mr. Bowie’s birthday. But whether by chance or design, I think it was simply time for me to get caught up on what I had been told many times was a ‘classic’ fantasy film. So what did I think?
For folks out there who have yet to bask in the majesty of David Bowie’s mullet-tastic ‘do, here’s the run-down. Jennifer Connelly plays Sarah, a whimsical if bratty teenager who is stuck babysitting her baby half-brother, Toby. She wishes him to be taken away by goblins, only for the fabulous Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and his minions to show up and grant her wish. Sarah sets off on a quest through the labyrinth of the film’s title to reach Jareth’s castle, before Toby is turned into a goblin forever. Dancing puppets, some 80s billowy shirts, and Bowie’s crotch ensue.
First things first. Jennifer Connelly’s rather forced take on teen angst leaves a lot to be desired. The role of Sarah acts more as a viewer avatar rather than a fully-formed character in her own right. It’s disappointing as I like having a hero/heroine I can actually get behind – there were moments I found myself genuinely hoping Sarah would fail hopelessly, if only to see what would happen. The true shining stars of Laybrinth are the puppets and, of course, Bowie’s Goblin King who is something between theatrical villain and drag queen (with a dash of crop-wielding male dominatrix).
The next thing that hits me about this film is the aesthetics. The multiple environments of the labyrinth are gratuitous, over the top and, in a lot of places, downright disgusting. Every glitter-stained backdrop and stench-filled swamp is like something straight out of a fairy tale – which is part of the charm. Here though – I have to digress into a personal quibble – I don’t think that the current CGI can be a satisfactory substitute for filming real-life models. The best comparison I can come up with right now is a recent fantasy epic (something about a hobbit and a mountain, you know, the usual). Without going too off-topic, I enjoyed the film itself but the computer-generated villains, while gruesomely depicted right down to the last pixel, irritated me. And after watching Labyrinth, I realised why.
Labyrinth has certainly dated (not least the fashion trends) and it’s own fairly ropey film trickery is a little jarring. But the puppets and the settings are refreshingly real. This film may be much older and produced on a much smaller budget than Peter Jackson’s second stab at epic story-telling manages to create goblins and monsters and stink-filling bogs and glittering forests that hold all the disgusting and putrid detail of their computer-generated counterparts. Personally, I think they did it better. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think there’s something that a real model or set has that, right now, a computer generated image can’t always compensate for.
Finally, the soundtrack. I’ve left this part until the end because this will probably be the most controversial sticking point – I enjoyed the music, really I did. I just didn’t find any of it to be necessary to the story. Some of the songs were fun, certainly, and I particularly enjoyed ‘Magic Dance’ but the rest of the songs felt like whimsical diversions, and sometimes, as in the case of ‘Chilly Down’, they just completely knocked me out of the narrative flow. I think the film would probably have done just as well without most, if not all of the musical numbers, as they certainly didn’t add anything in particular to the flow of the film.
Overall, I really enjoyed Labyrinth. It’s certainly not the most intellectually challenging film, but it’s definitely entertaining. I do feel I probably lost some of the joy of it by watching it as an adult, rather than as a child, but I can understand why this movie has such a nostalgic attachment to those who got the chance to view it growing up. ‘Labyrinth’ is unashamedly fantastical, stoutly refusing to bend to logic or reason, and can be read whichever way you fancy. Is Sarah delusional, falling into psychotic hallucinations prompted by adolescence and the loss of her mother? Or is the Goblin King and his Escher-inspired castle as much a part of the real world as the suburbs in which Sarah and her family live? Even though the film never directly brings up these questions, it is quite up to the viewer to decide.
Personally, I prefer the second option – I prefer a little bit of magic.