At 35, David Bowie’s Labyrinth Is Still A Fantasy Classic
After 35 years, Labyrinth is still a classic that showcases and celebrates the talents of Jim Henson and David Bowie.
The Jim Henson Company made its name through the loveable series and films of The Muppets. However, the production company took a darker tone in the ’80s as it began to work on fantasy films. These films included the incredible The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Unfortunately, these films didn’t perform commercially and reportedly saw Jim Henson sink into a slump. Nonetheless, both quickly achieved cult status, and Labyrinth – the last film directed by Henson – is a testament to the unrivalled creativity of the puppeteer and filmmaker.
Labyrinth’s cult success helped make the film a mainstay in my English class. While the film doesn’t provide too much academic substance, it did have that sweet runtime of 1 hour 40 minutes, which makes it the exact length of a double lesson. On top of the perfect length, the film delivered plenty for students to enjoy.
From the beginning of the film, it is clear that the film plays with expectation as it looks like establishing a historical setting before cleverly flipping into ’80s America. This kind of trickery plays a vital role in the film’s twist and turns, but fortunately, our lead character keeps us grounded.
The contemporary woes of our protagonist Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, are perfect, as she bemoans her stepmother and insists she shouldn’t be in trouble for getting home late. This makes her completely relatable as an archetypal teenager and it also makes the fantastical scenes that follow all the more engaging.
Stuck between fantasy and lamenting reality, Sarah enables the Goblin King, Jareth (played by David Bowie), to take her baby brother Toby. After plenty of thunder, and Bowie wearing a costume that would lay down the foundations of goth culture, we get a set of fantastic stakes.
Often films are criticised for a fetch quest, but when the prize is a family member, there is added tension. Not only that, but Jareth adds a ticking clock when he gives Sarah 13 hours to get Toby back. There is a real urgency to the story, and this makes it easy for us to get invested while Jareth/Bowie is up to mischief.
Throughout the journey, we are treated to songs from Bowie, the most notable song being Magic Dance, which on top of Bowie’s signature melodies has a synth line that absolutely slaps. The music helps tap into a foreign world that has its own set of rules and standards.
The realisations that life is ‘not fair but that’s the way it is’ and that the odds change suddenly, not only play into the mythos of the Labyrinth but act as perfect lessons for our teenage character. As a result, Sarah realises that she will need help through mind-bending challenges, and meets plenty of friends along the way.
The first companion that meets Sarah, Hoggle, adds plenty of humour with his obsession with jewellery and the fact that no one remembers his name. Other puppets such as the brave Didymus and the giant-but-sweet Ludo round off the group and make the journey more memorable as they navigate the magical and the absurd.
Along with her friends, Sarah faces talking doors, headless puppets and plenty of riddle-like puzzles. These challenges are not only amusing, but they allow friendships to be formed against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Throughout the campaign’s peaks and valleys, we get flashes to Jareth, and in every scene Bowie is brilliant. Oozing charisma, adding musical numbers and riffing with the comedic puppets enables the character to avoid the cliches of being a baby-snatcher. Instead, Bowie shows the loneliness of a king who has played a sinister game in an attempt to garner affection from someone who isn’t a goblin.
The seamless engagement between the actors and the puppets creates a truly unique world that feels real. This is added to by effects that still hold up today. The most impressive showcase of the creativity of the team behind the film can be seen in the final battle between Jareth and Sarah.
Visual spectacle is a key part of the world, and it is pushed to the limits in a scene that gives the appearance of Penrose stairs. The magic of the space is shown as Sarah ascends the stairs and descends the scenery in a captivating homage to M.C. Esche and a final battle for Toby.
On the back of the visually-impressive climax, Sarah bids farewell to her fantastical friends. The final scene encapsulates what Labyrinth does so well. It blends sincerity, lessons and joy seamlessly to create a memorable adventure.
Labyrinth ends with the message between the unlikely band of heroes as Sarah says, ‘I don’t know why, but every now and then in my life, for no reason at all, I need you.’ This bittersweet statement only becomes relevant with more rewatches and English classes around the festive period.
The film is incredibly rewatchable because it takes us to a different place with a whole new set of rules. With this in mind, we’ll probably always need Labyrinth.
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