Labyrinth is the hardest sort of film to review.
Why? Because it is a children’s film, through and through. Children cannot really watch films properly. They are slaves of the spectacle; anything that moves is going to amuse them. Do not try to give them more credit. How else do you explain not one, but two Baby Geniuses films? Labyrinth is certainly not at that level. It is certainly among the better “children’s” films. But how is it as a fantasy film?
The film features a young girl obsessed with fantasy named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly – this was only her third film in any substantial role) who hates her baby brother Toby (played by a baby). One day, after being left home to babysit him, she wishes goblins would come and take him away. To her surprise, Jareth, king of the Goblins (David Bowie) actually shows up to grant her wish. Sarah tries to take it back, so Jareth proposes a competition; if Sarah can get to his castle by guiding her way through the labyrinth in a certain amount of time, she will get her brother back. Sarah agrees, only to find the Labyrinth a lot more difficult to get through than she imagined. She is helped by the goblin Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) and a sort of Wookie creature named Ludo.
Yes, yes, I will discuss David Bowie’s performance first. It seems to be what most people think of when they think of in this movie. I can see why; David Bowie’s performance show everything that is right with this movie and everything that is wrong with this movie. Bowie is quite inventive with the way he portrays the character (to the point where it is impossible to think of anyone else in the role – maybe that is an actor’s greatest accomplishment) and turns the character into another one of his many personalities. Yet nothing is subtle about Bowie. He doesn’t so much chew scenery as he turns scenery into a Dagwood sandwich. Often, he is antagonistic for the sole purpose of being antagonistic. It is never said WHY he wants the infant, for example – he merely wants to create a conflict for Sarah.
That’s what a lot of the film is – it all looks incredible but only exists to look incredible and not as say, a reflection of Sarah’s psyche or fears. I suppose, at times, the film has a sort of homemade quality about it that might fit in with what a child creates – he or she would use items around them to create fantasy worlds. But then, the problem with Jim Henson is that his films always look like “Henson” films. Not always a bad thing, but this sort of film needed its own visual style in order to work. Here is an idea; Sarah is seen holding a teddy bear at the beginning of the film. Why not work that into the narrative some how? No, I am not saying that is the best possible idea for a film like this, but it would have helped link the fantasy to the real and thus turned the film into a sort of examination of Sarah’s psyche and an examination of the pressure she feels in having a new brother to take care of.
Currently, the film has only one example of that. An MC Escher drawing can be seen in Sarah’s room, and leads to a scene at the finale where Sarah must traverse down a similar stairway in order to escape Jareth. That could have led to some greater meaning, but is ultimately an example of style over substance. There is no reason to really have the stairs act in that manner – except for the simple fact for the filmmakers to show that they can. Is it a good filmmaking trick? Absolutely. Is it a good storytelling trick? No, it is not.
I am not sure if that was always the idea behind the film. I am interested in finding and reading a copy of the original script by Terry Jones (yes, the Monty Python performer) to see if there was originally any subtext to the material. I can imagine Neil Gaiman writing a wonderful script using the same material. But then, for each weakness the script displays, the film itself displays about ten good ideas and twelve perfectly executed special effects. It kind of makes me wish that Hollywood used the same style of puppetry today rather than just going into photoshop and making something on a computer. Each of the characters at least appears to have their own distinctive personality. They came to life in their own bizarre way, flirting with the line between studio artificiality and bizarre fantasy world. This is where the film is strong and why it should be revered.
I guess it all comes down to whether or not I recommend it. The answer is yes; it is far smarter than the average children’s film and adults can certainly sit through it. But it suffers the same problems that many children’s films suffer – it is not subtle and many of the items it presents mean nothing by themselves. Watch it, enjoy it, but do not walk away from it thinking it is one of the greatest fantasy films of all time.