As Den of Geek was kind enough to point out, today is the 25th anniversary of Labyrinth! Which makes today, that all-important silver birthday, Labyrinth Day. Why no, we’re not all dressed up in our finest capes, eye shadow and mullet wigs. What would possess you to think that?
Labyrinth stands out proudly in a very special category of children’s films labeled “They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore.” The current generation has been blessed with Pixar, but live action films for kids today have been limited to unimaginative yarns such as Spy Kids and The Diary of a Whimpy Kid. In the shadow of those relatively forgettable stories, the fervent sort of possessiveness and love that films from the Labyrinth generation still inspire serve as proof of how the filmmaking landscape has changed in the past three decades. And all of this with weird CGI, non-sensical pop (how does one “chilly down” again?), and all the glitter you could embed into a stone wall.
There are certain key elements that make this movie, and they can be paired down in pieces: Bowie, Connelly, Henson and Froud. Okay, Lucas helped too somehow. Combine all that with a story from Terry Jones and you’ve got a collaborative effort that really is the sum of its parts. Combine only two or three of those things and you’d have a completely different film.
Let’s start with Brian Froud; if you’ve never seen the book detailing all the background Froud laid out for the Underground goblins, I highly recommend you pick it up, or flip through it at a book store. The man’s imagination never quits, even when he’s coming up with names and functions for characters that spend most of their time on screen getting kicked or knocked over. His blueprint illustrations are what make the puppets in this film (and Dark Crystal) such a treat to watch. They’re undeniably weird-looking, but strangely cuddly at the same time. And, you know, if he hadn’t volunteered his baby to play Sarah’s brother Toby, who knows if they ever would have been able to find a toddler who could handle being around those goblins for hours on end .
Jim Henson’s desire to bring puppetry into a more adult milieu led to his pursuit of both Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which were targeted toward a teenaged audience. Though Labyrinth did not fair well at the box office, Henson deserved more attention for what he was trying to bring to cinema. In a perfect world, he believed in puppetry and CGI working together to create intricate characters that would dazzle all ages. Without his innovative talent, we would never have been treated to a wall of helping hands, forest gangs who play croquet using their heads and limbs, or cannonballs with feet.
Jennifer Connelly may have won an Oscar and become all legitimate and cool, but most of us saw her first as Sarah, a selfish young girl who wished her helpless baby brother into the hands of the Goblin King. For all that she whined, she was a relatable protagonist, particularly to anyone who was ever accused of getting ‘lost in their head’ as a child. Her fear of and attraction to Jareth, the king in question, was a perfect reflection on the confusion that so many of us feel when we realize that we’re not quite children anymore. Interestingly enough, Terry Jones has claimed in interviews that the original conception of Jareth was a creepy, decidedly unattractive character. Much more of a Rumplestiltskin than a rock god. Just another one of those places where collaboration came in and saved the day .
Which brings us to our sparkling, leather-and-cape clad Goblin King.
In a live-by-request concert that David Bowie did sometime in 2002, one fan proclaimed her love of Labyrinth to the glam king’s bemusement: “I could make a joke about tights,” he said, “but I won’t.” Indeed, he doesn’t need to because every joke that could have possibly been made about those tights has already been made, more than once, most often on the internet where you can readily access them. We joke because we can’t admit how hypnotized we were as children (and still are to this day) by the sight of Bowie in tights. Don’t worry, this is a safe place—there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bowie’s first foray onto the silver screen, The Man Who Fell to Earth, allowed him to simply be an actor; contractual differences prevented him from writing the soundtrack and the film’s director later claimed that he felt it was a good thing—it allowed the audience to be able to separate him from his larger-than-life musical persona(s). Labyrinth, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraced Bowie’s roots, letting his voice drive the film from opening CGI effects to closing credits. Many of the themes were love songs, and while there is always a fair amount of snickering/cringing to be had over his leering at 14-year-old Sarah, the love story aspect of Labyrinth somehow comes off chillingly. By the end of the film, you begin to wonder what sort of being Jareth is, how long he has been lonely, what’s so special about Sarah to him, or if he just does this for all the ladies because it’s his thankless job in this strange netherworld.
And when you consider that Sting or Michael Jackson might have ended up with the role instead of Ziggy Stardust, you can’t help but shiver at the inherent wrongness of it. (The universe where Jackson was Jareth, incidentally, is the same universe where you’re doing the Starlight dance.) No one else could have imbued that role with the same sinister glamor. Is Bowie truly Jareth, or is it the other way around? Whatever the case may be, it seems that he’s still writing the Goblin King’s songs.
Just remember: don’t go wishing for things when you don’t mean it. The world isn’t fair. Friends are worth forgiving and will always be there when you call. Happy Birthday, Labyrinth.
Now do the Magic Dance!
Emily Asher-Perrin does a great Jareth impression whenever someone ends a sentence with “nothing.” (Nothing? Nothing, tra-la-la?) You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.