This being the first of two reviews of David Bowie’s most prominent on-screen roles.
With The Dark Crystal now under his belt and not necessarily proving the financial blockbuster its backers had hoped for, the forever animated Jim Henson was undeterred. His audience, accustomed to the felt pop-post-modernism of The Muppets, was unsure of what to do with the film, a threatening and often nihilistic puppet fantasy that was, at the time, by far the most ambitious undertaking by Henson and friends. Luckily, even if his audience didn’t “get” The Dark Crystal, Henson was exactly aware of what to do with his audience: namely, appeal to them without necessarily sacrificing his own personal infatuations as a filmmaker looking to cram his Germanic fairy tale fixation into a quintessentially post-Disney world.
Thus was born 1986’s Labyrinth, a commercial and critical failure that Henson most certainly did not know how to cope with, and the belated cult bestowed on the film only arrived soon before his untimely death in 1990. By some accounts, Henson’s world had been shattered, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would rescind into sub-par productions headed by non-Hensons for its mid-career slump, and indeed, something of its death-knell. Sure, bubbly and often effervescent Muppet-branded productions would come and go, but never again would one of the most buoyantly cinematic purveyors of blissful filmic magic attempt a project of this artistic integrity or bold, bellicose cinematic adventurousness ever again. With Labyrinth, one might say the world lost something special.
Which is a weight no film ought to bear, but if Labyrinth isn’t quite masterpiece enough to overcome the pall that looms over it, Henson’s project remains a euphoric icon of not only mid-’80s cultural excess but also mid-’80s cultural wonderment. Fitting for a decade where American film was not exactly at its most complex, Labyrinth refrains from the baroque contortion and conflagration of The Dark Crystal, instead opting for a more intimate play in the key of an Aesop fable. Admittedly, “Young girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), wishes her baby brother away, said brother is taken, and she must journey into a fantastical otherworld labyrinth and arrive at its center before time runs out to return her brother to her possession” is not exactly Citizen Kane. But, then, “bon vivant idealist curdles into grotesque malformation of human corpulence and malcontent” isn’t exactly Citizen Kane, either.
But Orson Welles’ unimpeachable cinematic mind using that outline as a clothesline upon which to hang some of the most diabolically perfect craft in the entirety of American film? Now that is Citizen Kane, and it does well to remember that no film ought to be reducible to its plot outline. If Labyrinth prefers to let its titular obelisk do the talking, essentially, then we must confront the far more important fact that it whispers some of the sweetest nothings in the entirety of its decade. By straightening some of the coils of The Dark Crystal, and indeed even reducing the tale to its barest of postures, the film instead adopts a more freewheeling, childlike state of mind where space, place, and imagination preside over typical conventions of rising and falling narrative action. It isn’t quite the case that Labyrinth is merely an excuse for its production design; more-so, it’s an excuse for production design to expose emotional registers and thematic flexibility. It isn’t a setting in search of a story; instead, it’s setting-as-story.
Writing about Labyrinth, one needs to be careful not to resort to the comfort of a cavalier name-game in regards to behind-the-scenes details. But the two figures of utmost importance, Henson’s puppeteers and costumed actors aside, are production designer Elliot Scott and illustrator Brian Froud, who together achieve the unenviable feat of a constructing a world that is at once lived-in and touched by the whimsical fingers of childhood imagination. At once abandoned and ramshackle, the titular labyrinth is a remarkable curiosity of pure cinematic craft-work, populated by a murderer’s bestiary plucked and pulled in minute details from folklore the world over yet not reducible to any one mythology.
As whimsical as many of the designs are, the thing that stands out about Labyrinth is how ferociously unhinged it can be when it aspires to it. Creatures big and small are not only fluidly animated but viciously undomesticated throughout; there’s a menacing quality to their desperate bids for attention and an unquiet-mind tempo to their often cathartic, manic restlessness. All of which, of course, is presided over by David Bowie’s Goblin King, a figure of not only plastic Machiavellian malevolence but an indisputably sexual, carnal energy throughout. It does well to remember that, as much as Labyrinth is “about” Sarah growing into herself as an adult, it is also unmistakably a picture precipiced at the intersection of the infantile and the mature, and thus the presexual and the sexual.
We’ve had thirty years now of ribbing about the obvious cod piece/cobra/lead pipe/cucumber/country shoved into Bowie’s pants, but the detail is singular in its expression of Sarah’s budding sexuality and her fantastical view of a deranged denier of innocence who would necessarily be reduced to over-exaggerated, primal impulses. The juxtaposition of the diaphanous carnal layer subfuscously brewing underneath an otherwise innocent tale is, for one, visibly intoxicating as an unkempt mood, and secondly, a noticeably perfect expression of the film’s core themes. That Bowie’s singing in the film, as well as his full-bodied, vampishly campy vocal and physical performance, triangulates the slithering, the sensual, and improbably, the sorrowful in its otherworldliness is no small secret lurking in the film’s loins.
That thread of entangled danger running through the otherwise wholesome, inauspicious Labyrinth corrodes some of the sweetness of the production like a lightning bolt to a pillow, and the resulting film is all the better for it. No one would call it a horror film per-se, but it is never far from the memory of those canted, expressionist Germanic fables where children had to understand fear to reclaim their semblance of sanity. Connelly, not the most naturally gifted of performers in her early teenage years, slides elegantly into the caricatured nature of the piece where broad physical gestures and slightly stilted line readings expose a mind confronting an unnatural world and reacting in kind. Her fear, and her overpowering that fear, is the diffident heart behind Labyrinth, but as the horror grows, the heart grows in kind. Labyrinth isn’t the most astute cinematic fantasy. But its demented energy often recalls the cinematic mystique of the silent German quasi-horror fables upon which Henson always drew inspiration from (along with screwball and the Marx Brothers, naturally) to incontrovertibly effective results.