Thirty Years in a LABYRINTH
In 1986, Jim Henson's last film couldn't find its audience. That was then.
It's easy to forget now, given how much of a beloved cult artifact it has since become, but director Jim Henson's genre-bending fairytale Labyrinth was a sizable disappointment upon its theatrical release thirty years ago. Despite advanced puppet effects, a story shaped with an assist from Star Wars guru George Lucas, and global superstar David Bowie headlining the cast, Labyrinth not only failed to recoup its then-lavish $25-million budget; its failure proved so painful for Henson that the man behind the Muppets would never again step behind the camera before his untimely passing in 1990.
And yet. Thanks largely to Bowie's visually striking Goblin King Jareth, an appealing performance by future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly, and the charming use of puppets and practical effects to visualize its fantasy landscape, Labyrinth has not only endured, but become exactly the kind of shared multi-generational experience that one would expect from both Henson and Lucas. And with the film returning to theaters for a brief run marking its thirtieth anniversary, there's never been a better time to retrace some steps along its road to becoming a cult classic.
As it happens, what would eventually become Labyrinth began with the fruitful collaboration between Henson and conceptual designer Brian Froud on the 1982 hit The Dark Crystal. That project, which Henson co-directed with fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz, was considerably darker than any previous item in the Henson filmography, and leaned heavily on Froud's innate design sense for fantasy worlds that were at once elaborate, menacing, and inviting. Vowing to work together again after The Dark Crystal, the pair began slowly building on the story-kernel of an infant captured by goblins. It would be another four years before the journey begun by that initial idea would finally come to fruition.
While children's writer Dennis Lee and Monty Python's Terry Jones would get story and screenplay credit on the finished product, Henson's friend George Lucas (eventual executive producer on the movie) also contributed key pieces, as did screenwriter Elaine May. All told, there were close to twenty-five versions of Labyrinth written before the filmmakers arrived at the one they put on film. With Bowie—Henson's one and only choice—locked in as the alluring antagonist Jareth, and Connelly selected, from an entire field of future stars such as Marisa Tomei and Helena Bonham Carter, to play female lead Sarah, cameras rolled in spring of '85 for release the following year.
Even with the many behind-the-scenes forces shaping it, the story is deceptively simple: Angsty sixteen-year-old Sarah is having trouble memorizing her lines for an upcoming play, struggling with the new stepmother in her life, and apathetic about having to watch her baby brother. Just a typical teen. But when her brother's incessant crying prompts her to wish that the goblins from her play would come and whisk him away, they do, and she's horrified. In trying to retrieve the baby, Sarah finds herself transported to the kingdom of the goblins, whose ruler Jareth gives her thirteen hours to find her way through his magic maze (that would be the titular Labyrinth) before the baby becomes a permanent resident.
When discussing Labyrinth thirty years removed from its original context, what sticks out the most is how refreshingly, deliciously tactile it all is. The technological limitations of the time made for a constrained, claustrophobic feeling that only heightened the tension. With the game-changing photorealistic computer animation of Jurassic Park still seven years away, these filmmakers relied on puppets, miniatures, matte paintings, and other kinds of expert movie magic to imbue their world with a singular reality that feels both immediate and dreamlike.
I was seven years old when I first saw Labyrinth, and captivated by it. I loved Bowie, I loved the songs, I loved the effects, and I'm pretty sure that was the exact moment I fell in love with Jennifer Connelly. Last night I watched it with my kids, and seeing my seven-year-old's absolute engrossment, I'm thinking that may be the perfect age to experience it: You're old enough to have a grasp of characters and story development, but young enough to take the artifice at face value, looking past the obvious rear projection and fakery of the puppets to simply be enveloped by the world Henson has imagined.
Of course, Labyrinth draws so heavily from the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" monomyth that it's easy to see why Lucas, who helped popularize Campbell for the modern era, was involved. More impressive still, especially given the time of its release, is that its focus on a female protagonist never feels like pandering, or playing like a "girl movie." From the moment she's introduced, Sarah is an intelligent young woman, neither portrayed in stereotypical terms nor baselessly sexualized. When the call to adventure beckons, she never loses her agency, even as sinister forces conspire to keep her from her goal.
In hindsight, it's kind of hard to figure out why Labyrinth failed to find an audience when it was released in summer of '86. Certainly the ingredients were all there for the kind of classic crowd-pleasers that both Lucas and Henson had made their stock in trade, but for whatever reason things didn't go that way. And while its reputation as an overlooked gem is now secure, the lack of box-office success may end up being one of the most important parts of the film's legacy. Though there are persistent, renewed rumors of a follow-up set in the universe of the film, for thirty years we've had no sequels, copycats, or pretenders. No "franchise." Just one story all by itself. Whether anything actually comes of those rumors, Labyrinth—like Jareth the Goblin King, and like the late David Bowie himself—exists in its own particular continuum. Never to be replicated, always to be appreciated.