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You don’t even know what an oubliette is.




You know, I had it in my head that Terry Jones directed this, in his typically slip-shod, cheerfully imprecise manner. It turns out the Python only furnished the screenplay, and Jim Henson was responsible. This was his third and final feature, following The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal. If the latter suggests someone who could successfully conjure worlds, we have to remember it was co-credited to Frank Oz (also fairly restricted as a stylist, and most au fait with the comedy genre). The real point of Henson directing his creations is that he can concentrate on his creations. Any aspirations toward a refined visual palette are right out the window.

Which probably suited George. When I revisited Back to the Future, I noted that the “Steven Spielberg Presents” executive producer tag wasn’t quite all that during his ’80s heyday; while the hits were very big hits, there was also a fairly significant quantity of shrugs or outright detritus. However, his pal George Lucas makes him look like an unqualified titan. George’s two franchises were reliable, of course, even if increasingly less miraculous as the decade progressed, but anything else he touched instantly appeared to evaporate in a puff of averageness – or worse, risibility. I’m less convinced this was a case of duff concepts – although none of them have the whiff of inspiration about them – than it was a failure to appoint key personnel. Namely directors.

Of course, with Labyrinth being a Jim Henson production, one Jim himself was helming, Lucas’ say in casting the director was surely moot. Notably, though, he’d previously set his targeting system on remote by opting for the extremely malleable Richard Marquand on Return of the Jedi, after the conscientious Irvin Kershner had made a movie of much greater artistic acumen than George ever envisaged. While Kersh had been asked back, it’s quite evident from the sloppy plot and makeshift visuals that Lucas was minded to get the job done in a no-frills way. The same thing would then happen with Willow, a potential franchise that probably had its work cut out for it imitating Lord of the Rings but wasn’t helped any by the less-than-journeyman stylelessness of Ron Howard, then best known for gentle fantasy comedies. He entrusted mega-bomb Howard the Duck to writer pal Willard Hyuck. It was almost as if Lucas was intentionally running in the opposite direction of artistry or flair. And so it is with Labyrinth, which probably had the most promise on paper – in as much as it’s a very familiar coming-of-age, fantasy-world idea – but largely wilts on the vine of indifferent execution.

What Labyrinth wants to be is Time Bandits, but since Gilliam was fully-fledged auteur at this point, Henson likely figured any cut-rate Python would do. There’s ambition, but none of it conceptually of a piece. Which is why we get some nice creature and design work – the false alarms, for example – and set construction – the Escher stairways are lovely, but Labyrinth does nothing with them, whereas Doctor Who’s Castrovalva realises the same concept limply, yet is first rate in terms of integrating the idea into its plot – but negligible atmosphere. There’s no sense of danger, because Henson strings proceedings along at a larky pace. Where The Dark Crystal kept its head above water due to an inescapable strangeness, Labyrinth is expressly intended as a medley of the familiar while doing very little to make that a bonus. Even the more ’80s flourishes – the inescapable New Romantic flavour of the mask ball and David Bowie’s Goblin King – suggest a production that saw the light of day two or three years too late. 

While Ridley Scott’s Legend was hollow at the core, it was absolutely encompassing in its realised world. Here, you’re never less than conscious Henson is filming on a set, in a studio (the exception being the woods where Sarah takes a nap). You might argue that’s an intentional nod to The Wizard of Oz (much of what’s here could happily walk off the sound stage and into Return to Oz) but there’s none of that film’s iconic freakishness. Nor songs. Yes, Dame David – currently awaiting sentencing – was on hand to pen the tunes, but at his least creatively energised. Hence this being in the midst of a period when he seemed far more comfortable dabbling in screen acting than putting anything into his albums. 

David’s revolving balls are the most famous thing about this, attempting to escape his goblin tights (he allegedly stuffed several pairs of socks down there). That and his Naymor fright wig. It has to be said that, while his presence is amusing – he’s very much delivering a Bowie self-caricature amid the face cake, one that wouldn’t sound out of place in Bowie to Bowie or a Steve Wright in the Afternoon sketch – he isn’t remotely sinister. 

As for the effects of Jared’s packed pants, the coming-of-age heat is curiously underpowered (in contrast to the metaphor-rich The Company of Wolves). Sarah is supposedly 16, but Connelly was 14, and Hollywood tends to prefer keeping its pederasty under the carpet. As a consequence, the attraction she’s supposed to have for Jared is on the coy side, a masked ball pop video glance aside. In the Jones original script, Jared declared he would rather have a queen than goblin prince; he conceived Jared as keeping others from getting to his heart, meaning he wasn’t so all-powerful. The consequence was that Jones didn’t “feel that it was very much mine”. When Bowie came aboard, Jared became an all-singing, all dancing mockney (Jones was tapped again after several rewrites to up the humour, since Bowie felt it was a bit dry). Jones also particularly regretted the production showing the centre of the labyrinth too early. 

To mull the case for the defence with regard to Labyrinth nursing nefarious motives, it’s worth considering that, while Lucas was a Black Hat (now White Hat), Henson was, it seems, a White Hat, and had previously been inspired by the Seth Material – although quite how and where within the script eludes me rather – in conceiving The Dark Crystal.

Revisiting the picture, the part that surprised me most was how vehemently Sarah wants shot of her little brother (much more so that Bowie throwing an obvious dummy baby Froud in the air). Significantly, she isn’t responsible for his fate in the Jones version. Brian Froud came up with goblins stealing babies. Presumably, it was also his idea to have his son bawling his eyes out on camera. What to make of a child-snatching goblin king generally? It didn’t raise an eyebrow then, since it has a literary tradition behind it, but anything involving child abduction and Hollywood now instantly raises flags. What did Jared want with him? To make him a prince, per Jones? And what to make of Bowie’s lyrics seeming sung to Toby, regarding the babe with the power of voodoo and blue babies. The best bit of that sequence, obviously, is when Jared kicks the muppet.

There are numerous good ideas and some engaging characters, but never a sense of coherent whole. That terrible CGI owl over the opening credits ought to have been a harbinger of throwing anything Labyrinth’s way and seeing what stuck. There’s crudity (a pissing dwarf, Hoggle) and filth (the Bog of Eternal Stench sounds like something from The Princess Bride, only less funny). There are Gilliam midgets, but not quirky, interesting ones. We get the “One always tells truth, the other always lies”, which at least undercuts its renown – “I don’t know, I’ve never understood it” – while the well of hands suggests Doctor Who’s The Ultimate Foe (showing in the UK at about the same time this opened there). There’s a ropey muppet dance routine (Chilly Down, the Bowie track he didn’t sing), although the Trevor Jones score is actually pretty good. The giant friendly beast Ludo is Chewbacca by way of Neil from The Young Ones. Best of all is monocular fox Sir Didymus (voiced by David Shaugnessy), Don Quioxte meets Peter O’Toole (and quite possibly an influence on Ice Age’s Simon Pegg-voiced weasel Buck).

As noted, Labyrinth is overtly playing on tropes – since they inform Sarah’s fantasy world – but no one involved is ever having fun with them in an enriching way. Not in the infectious way William Goldman did in The Princess Bride or Tom Stoppard in Shakespeare in Love. Irene (Shelley Thompson) complains she “treats me like wicked stepmother”. Sarah’s room includes Maurice Sendak’s (he brought an action over similarity to Outside Over There, which we see on the shelf) Where the Wild Things Are, and The Wizard of Oz (also Alice in Wonderland and Grimm’s Fairy Tales). There’s Escher’s Relativity, a Goblin King doll, The Nutcracker, Princess and the Goblin, a stuffed fox, a Robin Hood fox, a fiery doll and a maze. It’s The Usual Suspects, basically. Or The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Jay Dyer attempted to suggest all this meant something but fell short of admitting defeat. It is, apparently “packed with Kabbalistic, Jungian and hermetic symbolism”. So only “Seemingly a childish mish-mash of various fairy tales into a puppeteer’s hodgepodge”. Except, when you read his analysis, you end up tending to the latter of the two takes. Weak sauce like a “penchant for such masonic myopia” via phallic/ masonic images, as opposed to Bowie’s cocktail sausage: “Bowie enters as an owl in a flurry of glitter and spandex nastiness as the androgynous, calling to mind again alchemical doctrines, where the union of opposites into one is seen as the highest form of unity, relating to the sublime source from which all arises, the One”. Except… his pouch. Owls. Labyrinths. Jung. Plato. I rather like his suggestion of Sarah’s entrapped mind reflected in the use of Escher, the artist’s work lending itself to a Mobius strip of eternal recurrence whereby, “For the psyche, it raises questions of immateriality and what, exactly, consciousness is”. But none of this is very nourishing. Rather than anything deeper, Dyer has to admit Labyrinth is a a rather rudimentary example of scraping the sexual awakening barrel. When Sarah eats a poisoned apple, it’s because she’s read Snow White, not because of the River Lethe.

As noted, the movie wasn’t a hit. Wiki will tell you it did very well in the UK, so someone needs to tell Salty Popcorn to amend their box-office figures. It has, of course, attained much-beloved cult status since, just like every ’80s fantasy movie, even Willow. Until the Disney sequel series, that is (so perhaps Labyrinth 2 will strike it a fatal blow). Last word was that Scott Derrickson was on board, which might actually be interesting. 

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