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Time Traveling: Labyrinth

October 18, 2009

Ed. note: TBTS’ “Time Traveling” column takes a second look at movies or television you may have, in fact, forgotten over the last many years. Anything you touch in this column may irreparably change the course of the  future, so please use caution.

Let’s say it’s 1986. You’re a Hollywood executive doing lines of coke off the cover of Spy magazine and listening to Wang Chung when an idea comes across your desk that is almost too absurd to believe.

The pitch isn’t exactly simple: it’s a twist on the Persephone in the Underworld story, for teenagers, featuring the puppetry of Jim Henson. It’s written by Monty Python‘s Terry Jones and Tootsie’s Elaine May, and it’s about a girl who hates her toddler brother so much she wishes that goblins would take him, which they do. Oh, and David Bowie will play the “Goblin King,” who breaks into snappy pop songs from time to time.

Hey, at least it’s not another Police Academy sequel, right? Let’s greenlight it.

The idea behind this column is to address movies you’ve forgotten, but I’m guessing there’s a fairly slim chance you ever forgot Labyrinth. You may have just shifted it to a part of your brain where you keep things that you couldn’t exactly process fully as a child. At least that’s where I kept it. I always loved it, but there was something about it I think even then I couldn’t grasp.

And really, as a ten year-old, how could I grasp a finale in which David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly and a baby square off inside a giant M.C. Escher painting as Bowie lobs magic crystal orbs everywhere?

The film, in case you forgot, features a young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a prissy teen who doesn’t want to be bothered with watching her baby brother, so she wishes that goblins take him off her hands. When they do, Sarah is charged with traversing a mystical labyrinth to claim him back from the castle of Jareth, the Goblin King (Bowie). Along the way she meets a hoarding troll, a gentle yeti-type creature, some lanky and boisterous bird-men with exchangable limbs, a terrier who thinks he’s a knight and other odd creatures.

Labyrinth seems to be a hodgepodge of several things that don’t really quite fit. On one level, it’s a Jim Henson movie with a hybrid of muppet-style characters and extras from The Dark Crystal, alternately funny, cute and dark. On another level, it’s a rather threatening tale as Sarah navigates the maze with Bowie alternately attempting to throw her off the path and/or kill her. It also, unfortunately, suffers greatly from a clear influence by the music video industry of 1986, which means there are a lot of preening dance moves (courtesy of King of Preen Bowie) and the classic 80’s video cliche of the new-wavey and sexy “masked ball scene.”

That said, Labyrinth still seems to work on some level, though it’s difficult to tell on which level it works. It’s just wacked-out enough to make you marvel at how it must have come together, though it’s never entirely “fun.” It’s just rather odd, overall, which was part of its charm then and now.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Bowie’s acting career of playing aliens and other oddballs was quietly wrapping up, Connelly would go on to capture the hearts and minds of young men everywhere when she would be the hottest woman they’d ever seen five years later in The Rocketeer, and it was not only one of Henson’s last darker projects, but one of his last projects altogether before his death four years later.

Labyrinth doesn’t get a lot of replay these days on television. Its soundtrack, which isn’t great but a must for the avid David Bowie collector, recently appeared on iTunes. And it’s rarely brought up even among die-hard movie fans. In short, your kids will never see or hear of this movie unless you show it to them. As a film, it’s an anomaly that seemed strange then, seems strange now, and yet in all that strangeness it was, in fact, strangely fascinating. What do you remember of it? Seen Labyrinth lately? Got any acid? We could watch it again right now; it would be awesome. I’m just sayin’.

The Re-assessment: In the eighties, Labyrinth was cool because it was a hip, eighties-flavored Alice in Wonderland and because you loved muppets. But at eight years old, you probably didn’t know much about David Bowie.  In 2009, Labyrinth is cool because it was a weird, eccentric, dark fairy tale that not only combined muppets, which you loved, and David Bowie, who you now love and can appreciate more than you ever could as a child. Check it out again — you’ll be surprised how well it’s held up compared to, say, Spacecamp.

  1. Sean Gilroy permalink
    October 18, 2009 5:31 pm

    I showed this to my kids a couple of years ago and they went through a phase where they absolutely had to watch it every day for a few months. I still like it a lot, but I could really do without seeing so much of Bowie’s package. What the fuck were they thinking with those pants?

    • October 18, 2009 5:36 pm

      It’s funny, I thought the same thing. Those pants should have made it PG-13. They were way too scary for anyone, much less young children.


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