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LABYRINTH (1986)

Labyrinth was an idea by Muppets creator Jim Henson inspired by the imaginative artwork of Brian Froud. George Lucas decided to lend his producing experience to the project. He would later say in the book "The Cinema of George Lucas" that it was a "movie that nobody really wanted" and they had to fight to get it made. What would set the project apart from most fantasy movies was that it would be a musical starring the legendary David Bowie.

The film used some groundbreaking techniques, including a computer animated opening title sequence. It tells the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (the very appealing Jennifer Connelly) who makes a wish for the Goblin King (Bowie) to take away her baby brother.

When we meet Sarah she is acting out some fairytale dialogue but gets it wrong (wonder if that will become important later on?) The pan across Sarah's collection of fairytale books near the beginning clearly set the film in the tradition of classic mythology, though with the modern twist of using Bowie's songs as part of the story.

Though Sarah acts like a downtrodden Cinderella type, in reality her life and her parents don't seem so bad. Sarah's brother disappears and then Jareth the Goblin King makes his big entrance, transforming from an owl. The Goblin King proceeds to show off by contact juggling with some magic balls (in reality, an experienced juggler stood behind Bowie and pretended to be his arms). The quest is set: she has 13 hours to solve the labyrinth and win her brother back.

As soon as Sarah is transported to the labyrinth, the stunning visual style of the film comes to the forefront. The film also puts some nice twists on familiar magical creatures; faeries appear as annoying bugs that need a dose of pesticide. Sarah meets Hoggle, an ugly, mean-tempered little being, who nevertheless aids her in her quest. Hoggle is a fascinating creation, with one of the most advanced animatronic heads to that date, sitting on top of a little woman in costume.

The first of several Bowie songs sprinkled throughout the film appears next. To avoid getting lost in the maze, Sarah takes an idea from Hansel and Gretel and draws lipstick arrows on the stone floor, indicating the way she has traveled. But this plan backfires when tiny creatures turn the stones around after she has gone (and call her an aardvark, though this is hard to understand unless you turn on the subtitles feature on the DVD).

Sarah encounters two doorways offering a choice of ways onward, only one of which is the right way. The doors have guards and she learns one always tells the truth and one always lies. Sarah seemingly outwits them by asking one guard if the other would tell her to go through this door (the answer would be the same no matter which guard was lying).

However, Sarah forgets that the guard could have been lying when he told her one of them always tells the truth (still with me?) and ends up in a pit of talking hands. This memorable image was dreamed up by writer and Monty Python alumni Terry Jones.

Jareth returns and, hearing that Sarah thinks things are too easy, speeds up time and sends some cleaner machines after them. The machines, with their relentless drill bit fronts are quite fearsome until, in a twist typical of the tone of the film, we see the non-menacing little people driving them.

One scene has several dancing pink monkeys with removable heads appear to annoy our heroes. After trying out a number of different methods in rehearsal for the dancing monkeys scene, the puppets were eventually performed by dressing both the puppeteers standing behind them and the background in black velvet. The background was then filmed on its own and the two shots composited together. While state of the art at the time, the scene looks rather dated now, more so than the rest of the film.

The heroes finally enter Goblin City. In a memorable image, two double doors close and a giant robot steps out of them. The robot was the largest puppet ever built at the time. It's an impressive creation. So begins perhaps the most epic Muppet battle in history.

The very clever design and cinematography of the impossible staircases in Jareth's palace recalls an M.C. Escher painting come to life. Jareth offers Sarah all her dreams if she gives up her quest, but she remembers her dialogue finally and tells him he has no power over her.

Back home, Sarah tells her friends she needs them and they all reappear in her room for the heartwarming ending. Jareth is watching the happy moment in his owl form, hinting Sarah has not seen the last of him.

The characters are all likeable. Ludo is a charming gentle monster. Sir Didymuss, a sword fighting doglike puppet that speaks like a British general, bizarrely rides a real shaggy dog (though the dog is also a puppet in some shots).

Even the minor characters are interesting, such as The Wiseman, an old geezer sitting on a throne of books.

The dialogue is wittier than that found in most kid's movies, thanks to the script by Jones. Jim Henson does a good job directing his first film focusing on humans. It's clear he was more comfortable directing muppets than real people, but overall it shows the late director had a unique vision that will be enjoyed for generations to come.

The few action scenes are well handled. The final battle comes as close to a war scene in a puppet movie as is possible without traumatising the kiddies. The menageries of weird and wonderful characters are a real treat for the eyes, and most of them are brought to life fairly convincingly.

Though not to everyone's taste, the songs are integrated with the plot remarkably well, and include such memorable lyrics as: "The power of Voodoo. Who do? You do!"

While on the surface Labyrinth is good-hearted entertainment for all the family, many have read the film as an allegory for a young girl escaping into fantasy rather than face her burgeoning sexuality. This is reinforced by the fact that many of the characters Sarah meets are representations of the toys in her room. And Bowie's quite obvious crotch bulge in many scenes certainly adds to that theme!

The son of artist Brian Froud, who designed the weird and wonderful creatures for the film, plays Sarah's infant sibling, Toby.

Labyrinth is not perfect and some parts of it have dated. However, it's hard not to enjoy a film with such an imaginative look and fun characters. It combines the magic of the Muppets with the more adventurous stories found in other Lucas productions.

Surprisingly, Labyrinth was not a big success at the time but has justifiably gained a cult following over the years. Indeed to many children of the 80's it's as fondly remembered as other Lucasfilm productions like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.


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