The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider Jim Henson’s live action puppet fantasy Labyrinth.
With five seasons of the Muppet Show behind him and Fraggle Rock an ongoing success, Jim Henson was a recognized creative genius who could afford to do some experimentation with perverse puppets when he partnered with producer George Lucas to direct Labyrinth in 1986. The story of a teenage girl (a young Jennifer Connelly) who has to navigate the titular maze after her infant brother is whisked off by the Goblin King (David Bowie), Labyrinth predated a few other cult fantasy-quest favorites, like 1987’s The Princess Bride and 1988’s Willow. Labyrinth opened, with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Top Gun already in theaters, to decidedly mixed reviews: The Times called it “a fabulous film” which “is in many ways a remarkable achievement,” but other critics, like Roger Ebert, found its plot and premise far less compelling than conceptual designer Brian Froud’s puppet characters.
Kids born in the early eighties who discovered the film in the years after its release; eighties teens; Bowie obsessives.
“It’s only forever,” David Bowie sings as Labyrinth’s opening credits roll, and that’s about as long as I feel I’ve known this movie. It’s difficult to place when I first saw it, likely at age 10 at a sleepover birthday party. Upon later viewings I’d latch onto the more adult humor in the Muppet dialogue, but initially I was totally drawn to Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah. Sure, Sarah was whiny and annoyingly beautiful and gave spectacularly wooden line readings, but, as her meticulously designed bedroom suggested, she was also smart and imaginative (the Maurice Sendak, Wizard of Oz, and Grimm books the camera slowly skims over), creative (the Escher and Cats posters on her wall; her scrapbook of theater Playbills), and a little lonely. But watching the movie now, for the umpteenth time, it’s abundantly clear that the movie’s first half-hour is pretty tedious. Even Bowie’s grand entrance — the first of many times that the movie firmly grounds itself in the past by using a combination of fluttering curtains, that maniacally flapping barn owl, and Dramatic Synthesizer Chords to indicate something crazy is about to happen — is now more laughable than startling.
Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, on the other hand, is still pretty dead-on casting. In Henson’s making-of documentary that now bookends the Labyrinth DVD (watch it for fascinating stuff about how the puppets function, plus hilarious footage of Bowie learning to dance from a choreographer who Henson hoped would teach him “black movement,” and yes, he means African-American), he mentions briefly considering Michael Jackson or Sting for the part, and, well, thank goodness Bowie was apparently immediately onboard. There was something difficult to define but menacing about Labyrinth when I was younger, and Jareth’s sinister, androgynous charisma likely had something to do with it. Plus, if anyone could maintain a shred of intimidating dignity while wearing Jareth’s insane wigs, feathered capes, and, as the Washington Post poetically put it, “over-revelatory” leggings, it’s the Thin White Duke.
That said, thank the Lord this didn’t represent the height of Bowie’s talents. The bad synth music and clunky special effects feel very dated, culminating in the final eyesore, the Escher scene in which a clearly fake Bowie doll scales upside-down staircases and Sarah ultimately floats to safety, bad-music-video-style. While the songs do have a minor-key chill that fits the world of the labyrinth, the lyrics are, in most cases, utterly nonsensical. “Underground” might be the most egregious example (“too much rejection/no love injection” — gah! Really, Bowie?); “Chilly Down,” the Fire Gang’s song, is at least mildly amusing in its ridiculousness (“Good times, bad food!” Huh?). “Magic Dance” is still the catchiest, which maybe explains why we heard a drunk girl in the West Village recently loudly telling her friends, “You remind me of the babe! What babe? You babe!”
Despite the “Magic Dance,” though, when I surveyed women my age it was pretty evenly split between girls who were full-on weirded out by Bowie (that would be me) and those who considered Jareth part of their early sexual awakening. It’s no wonder: Labyrinth is lousy with male sexual imagery, and Bowie’s tight-fitting pants are just a part of that. It’s near impossible to get through a scene in Labyrinth without seeing a phallus of some sort. Sarah’s guide Hoggle’s bulging nose happens to usually be at crotch-level when they’re speaking; the talking-bird hat sticking up out of the head of the old, Yoda-esque wise man Sarah encounters (“It’s so stimulating being your hat” — har, har); the wrinkled, flesh-colored tiny monsters on the ends of sticks who nip at Ludo the gentle giant; and, well, the entire pivotal masquerade scene.
About that scene (which you can watch below): As a kid, I thought Sarah’s dress super pretty but found the whole scene generally off-putting; now, it’s obvious to me why it’s often read as the metaphorical rape of a virginal girl. Let’s be honest: Sarah eats a peach (of all the fruit in the world!), goes into a druggy trance, and envisions a ball in which she’s wearing the most frou-frou of white dresses, surrounded by cackling men in (phallic-nosed) masks, dripping white candle wax everywhere, and Jareth, who lies in wait while his floating voice sings “As the World Falls Down.” It’s the one song in the film whose lyrics make a shred of sense: “As the pain sweeps through/makes no sense for you/every thrill has gone/wasn’t too much fun at all.”
But even though this scene is creepy, there’s something refreshing about how Labyrinth offered up a different kind of heroine than the other Disney princess movies. Sarah’s ultimate goal is not to fall in love or find a husband (even the Princess Bride’s intelligent and feisty Buttercup will, a year later, make true love her endgame). Before she enters the labyrinth, Sarah’s male objects of adoration are of the Arthurian, unrealistic variety: her teddy bear, after all, is named Lancelot (and her dog, Merlin). The labyrinth teaches her that there’s no knight in shining armor who’s going to come to her rescue, especially when it comes to matters of brain-power (the two sets of door knockers who present her with classic logic puzzles). As for her male companions, Hoggle is a self-hating slob; Ludo, the beast whom Sarah saves from captivity, is a gentle giant with brute strength but little brain; and Sir Didymus, whom I continue to find the most endearing and clever of the labyrinth’s creatures, is straight out of Monty Python — a Napoleonic fox terrier who, despite his fixation on gallantry, has a cowardly sheepdog (a labyrinth double for Merlin) for a steed and cannot smell his way out of the Bog of Eternal Stench.
This is part of what ultimately tips Labyrinth in the direction of holding up: the enduring charm of these not-quite-like-the-other Muppets, a mix of the utterly grotesque and the more typically Muppet-y cute. (The British worm Sarah meets when she first enters, the tiny, profane creatures, one saying, “Your mother’s a fucking aardvark!,” who try to confuse her, and the Fire Gang, the creatures with detachable body parts who run around naked and try to take Sarah’s head off.)
The other part is Sarah’s not totally happy ending. In the labyrinth and in Sarah’s real life, her greatest fear is one that follows many of us into adulthood: of being forgotten. The most frightening place in the labyrinth is really not the farting Bog of Eternal Stench, but the Oubliette, “a place where you put people to forget about’em,” as Hoggle says. That’s what first sets Sarah off, in the beginning: not that her baby brother is annoying, but how she feels ignored. At the end of the movie, as at its beginning, Sarah is still alone. It’s still poignant when all the labyrinth Muppets appear in her mirror to tell her that, “should you need us,” they’ll be right there for her to conjure up. As Sarah says, at some point in her life she’ll be lonely and need some Muppets around. I know I’m still grateful that, should I need them, Labyrinth’s are still here.