Friday, July 31, 2009

“Oh don't act so smart. You don't even know what an oubliette is.”

In 1986, Jim Henson was firmly rooted as one of cinema’s premier masters of visual experimentation and storytelling. He’d had success with The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, cementing his family-friendly cred, and 1982’s Dark Crystal (which I’ll get to at another time) proved that he had solid narrative chops as well. Labyrinth was a merging between the kid-friendly Henson and the visually experimental Henson. It also involved David Bowie.
A self-centered teenage girl doesn’t want to be stuck babysitting her baby brother, and wishes that the Goblin King would take him away. Oddly enough, this actually happens, and the girl realizes just how stupid that idea was. The Goblin King offers a game to her. If she can navigate her way through a strange labyrinth to his castle in thirteen hours, she’ll get her brother back. If not, then the little rugrat will be gone forever and (presumably) become a goblin himself.

Sarah: A very young Jennifer Connelly is our Heroine on a journey of self-discovery. In the beginning, she’s, well, kind of a bitch and a drama queen, which is the point, since her character arc is all about coming of age, growing up and taking some responsibility. She also learns to appreciate help when its offered and other morally upstanding kind of concepts, but its mostly done organically through the story.

Hoggle: The first person Sarah meets on her journey (aside from Jareth), Hoggle’s something like a janitor for the guy, a short, dwarf-like character (without the beard) and a self-professed greedy coward. Hoggle’s got a jaded personality and some great one-liners and ends up learning the most from Sarah during the course of the movie.

Ludo: A large, orange-furred gentle giant of a creature that Sarah ends up rescuing from some goblins. He becomes something of a mono-syllabic cousin of Chewbacca’s from that point on, providing considerable muscle and is somehow able to call/animate rocks (they’re his friends) which is really handy at least thrice in the movie.

Sir Didymus & Ambrosius: I love Didymus. He’s a small, doglike creature with an eye patch and an overdeveloped sense of honor and will never back down from a fight or run away regardless of the size or number of opponents. He rides a dog named Ambrosius that is much more sensible than he is when it comes to facing danger. Sarah meets Didymus when she tries to cross a bridge that he’s guarding.

Toby: Sarah’s baby brother. Being a baby, he doesn’t say much and is more or less the Macguffin that drives the plot of the story.

Jareth, the Goblin King: “Goblin” isn’t exactly how I would automatically think of David Bowie’s famous androgynous appearance. Fey, even Elven, maybe, but not really goblin. Perhaps he’s their king because he makes them and therefore rules over them. Regardless, Bowie chews scenery with the best of them in this, mixing menace, glam rock, his slightly stilted accent and quite a bit of sexual tension into his interactions with Sarah. The end result is a villain that is both charismatic and more than a little bit creepy, mixed in with the old folkloric idea of dangerous magical creatures that will snatch away children should they be invoked.

The Labyrinth Denizens: Ok, there’s a lot of the damn things, all of them imaginative, well-realized and mischievous. A scarf wearing, cockney speaking worm, a pair of sentient doorknockers, two-headed guards, a crazy old man with a talking hat, the Fireys that can toss their heads around, and so on. However, just for their sheer awesomeness merged with creepiness, I have to give the film’s Badass nod to the gestalt personality of the Helping Hands. A vertical drop lined with hundreds of gray hands that can morph into various faces and talk. As a rather simple visual effect, they stand out as a truly original character(s) in a sea of impressive characters.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Again, the special effects of this movie can’t be stressed enough. Puppets, full-sized costumes, sets and various camera tricks make Labyrinth a feast for the eyes. They don’t really make movies this way anymore, and it’s a damn shame. It only uses obvious CGI once in the film, with the owl flying over the opening credits. The only scene where the blue screen effects are somewhat painfully obvious is the song and dance number the fireys have before they try and rip of Sarah’s head. Still, despite that scene Jim Henson definitely had a tremendous eye for not only visually interesting characters, but also for visual storytelling in general. Various scenes within the labyrinth stand out as very well shot (particularly the helping hands, like I cooed about above) but I think the most impressive is the M.C. Escher inspired confrontation with Jareth at the end. Its trippy as hell, but damn if it doesn’t look awesome, AND its hinted at by a poster in Sarah’s room at the very beginning of the movie, which is a great touch.

The character designs were created by Brian Froud with Jim Henson, Dennis Lee and Terry Jones (yes, THAT Terry Jones from Monty Python) handling the script writing, and there’s a lot of wit to be had. A few scenes and character are rather Muppet-like in their personalities (which is to be expected from the crew who created the Muppets) but it never really feels like you expect Kermit & Fozzie to drop in unexpected, which is a testament both to the writing, and to the puppeteers that made up Henson’s crew for both projects. The pacing is overall very smooth except for a few scenes that linger a tad longer than needed (like the Firey song)

Its been a while since I talked about sound effects for a movie, but here another standout job has been done to give plausibility to the sights on screen. Non-human characters sound appropriately inhuman, but there’s never any cheap “booga booga” sounds/voices.

As for the soundtrack, the original score by Trevor Jones is standard 80s kids movie synthesizer kind of stuff, which doesn’t overpower the story, but doesn’t exactly become overly memorable. On the other hand, the original songs by David Bowie are actually rather catchy. Sure, it can get a little bit goofy in places, but damn it all, “Magic Dance” is still stuck in my head.

Labyrinth may tell a fairly archetypical storyline of coming-of-age, self-discovery and the value of friendship, but how it tells that story is the key to the film’s delight. And it is delightful. It handles the story with a deft lightness and a technical expertise that deserves respect. The special effects are still excellent, and the gentle, dream-like nature of the film is just so friendly that it invites repeat viewings. Absolutely recommended.

Heh, "the exitement of David Bowie"

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