Sony // 1986 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 29th, 2009
Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.
"I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave."
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, He's Just Not That Into You) is not a typical teenage girl. While most girls her age are going on dates and enjoying an active social life, Sarah is still stuck in the world of fairy tales. She loves fantasizing about living in the world of her favorite fairy tale, Labyrinth. One night, frustrated with having to babysit her little brother Toby, Sarah angrily wishes that goblins would just take her brother away so she could have some peace and quiet. Imagine her surprise with Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth) actually turns up and whisks Toby away to his enchanted castle in a mystical land.
Sarah immediately regrets her rash statement and vows that she's going to do whatever it takes to get Toby back. Unfortunately, she's going to have to work her way through an endlessly complicated labyrinth in order to get to the castle. To make matters even trickier, she only has thirteen hours to complete her mission before Toby is lost forever. There will be many obstacles and challenges along the way, but with the help of a cantankerous troll named Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson, Return to Oz), she just might be able to defeat the wicked Jareth and restore normality to her life.
I miss Jim Henson so much. His films and television programs had a unique warmth and wit that has been imitated by many but never recaptured. Though Labyrinth (Henson's final directorial outing) may not be a perfect fantasy film, its considerable charms are more than enough to compensate for the occasional weak spots and inconsistencies. I enjoyed the film a great deal during my younger years and was immensely pleased to discover that it's still holding up quite well these days.
To be sure, Labyrinth is certainly dated. When you hear the oh-so-cheesy synthetic music and see David Bowie's "Nancy Grace on a horrible hair day" appearance, there is no doubt that this will always be regarded as an unmistakable product of the 1980s. However, unlike so many films of the era, the dated elements are charming rather than agonizing. They actually feel rather appropriate, considering that Labyrinth is a story partially fueled by the mind of an American teenage girl living in the mid-1980s. It's near impossible not to grin when listening to the Bowie-as-teenybopper opening number, in which he empathetically wails, "Don't tell me the truth hurts, little girl/'Cause it hurts like hell!"
One of the great virtues of Labyrinth is that it remains a rewarding experience for viewers of all ages. Young kids will fall in love with the peppy music, wild action sequences, and colorful creatures scattered through the film. Teenagers and pre-teens (particularly girls) can connect with the emotional core of the film, as the protagonist has grown exasperated with being stuck in a thoroughly ordinary world with parents who just don't understand her. Meanwhile, adult moviegoers can appreciate the generous dose of sly wit provided by Terry Jones' screenplay and marvel at the construction of this world Henson has created (particularly the famous "Escher room" sequence).
If Labyrinth were made today (and who knows, it may very well get a remake given the desperation for ideas these days), the labyrinth and most of the creatures would undoubtedly be constructed with CGI effects. So much of the joy of watching Labyrinth is seeing that pretty much every single thing in the film is really there and has been constructed by hand. With the exception of a few green screen scenes (so obvious that they also retain a certain measure of artificial joy), everything is precisely as it seems. Perhaps it's just a fault of my brain, but when it comes to CGI creatures I have a harder time putting the fact that they are simply computer generated images out of my mind. Though I know that costumes are being worn and strings are being pulled in a Henson production, the fact that something physical is actually there makes all the difference in the world. Besides, Henson's team does such a fine job creating distinct faces and bodies for these characters that one can never complain about a character's lack of expressiveness.
Bowie was an ideal choice to play the Goblin King, as he seems like a perfectly natural fit amidst this weird world in which so few reliable rules apply. While it is somewhat unusual hearing the singer/songwriter perform some tunes in character as the evil Jareth and other songs simply as an unidentified musical narrator, Bowie generally excels in the part. Meanwhile, young Jennifer Connelly proves capably engaging as Sarah, though it's clear that she had not even begun to approach the considerable level of talent she would demonstrate as an adult. The credits are a little tricky in terms of the puppet characters, since multiple people were generally involved in making each character come to life, but suffice it to say that these supporting characters are reliably memorable and entertaining.
The film receives a pretty solid hi-def transfer. The image has considerably more depth and vibrance than it ever has before. The darker scenes are wonderfully clear and nuanced, while the 1080p detail gives viewers a great opportunity to see the many little personal touches on the puppets and sets that might be easy to overlook in standard-def. While there are some instances of scratches and flecks, overall the image is clean and colorful. Grain is present throughout, though it seems to be a bit heavier in certain sequences. Audio is quite strong, offering considerable strength and clarity to the fun soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and sound design is well-distributed, though I will note that the throbbing bass towards the end of the ballroom sequence is a bit overwhelming in contrast to everything else.
Most of the supplements on the disc are repeats from the previous special edition DVD: a commentary with Conceptual Designer Brian Froud, a 57-minute making-of documentary called "Inside the Labyrinth," a 28-minute featurette exploring the creation of the various puppets in the film called "Journey Through the Labyrinth: Kingdom of Characters," and a 30-minute featurette focusing on set design called "Through the Labyrinth: The Quest for Goblin City." The only new supplement is a picture-in-picture track called "The Storytellers Picture-in-Picture." This piece offers video interview snippets with a whole host of folks involved in the creation of the film. Though there is a bit of overlap with the other featurettes and documentaries, it's still well worth a look.
Much of the third act of Terry Jones' screenplay was scrapped, and it definitely shows. That delightfully Pythonesque humor floating through the film mostly vanishes, and instead we have a series of rather frantic action sequences that sometimes get a bit too hyperactive for their own good (particularly the battle scene in the village). While I love the Escher room sequence, the climactic confrontation between Connelly and Bowie is a bit disappointing considering the huge build-up to that moment.
Also, parents should know that Labyrinth may be a bit too much for younger children. Though it has a reputation as a family movie, there are an awful lot of fearsome creatures and violent imagery that might freak out the little ones. Incidentally, there's a scene in which young Toby is crying his poor little eyes out while David Bowie and a whole horde of monstrous puppets surround him. I'm willing to bet a shiny nickel that there was absolutely no acting involved.
Some may dismiss Labyrinth as a dusty relic of the '80s, but I greatly enjoyed revisiting this fun flick. The Blu-ray transfer is stellar and the disc tosses in a cool new supplement, so I'm definitely recommending an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG