LABYRINTH (1986)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Jim Henson

Written by: Terry Jones

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, Brian Henson, Ron Mueck, David Shaughnessy, Percy Edwards & Timothy Bateson

What do you get when you cross George Lucas with Jim Henson and throw in David Bowie? 1986’s cult classic LABYRINTH! This film has been enjoying a recent comeback thanks to its 30th anniversary (with multiple screenings in movie theaters across the nation) and also garnered extra attention due to the sad passing of David Bowie. To state it upfront, I don’t have much nostalgia for this film (I’ve only seen it once before) and actually grew up on repeated viewings of Henson’s darker effort THE DARK CRYSTAL. Sitting through this puppet-filled fantasy was a mostly fresh experience for me and I can completely understand why it has a big cult following behind it. The visuals are eye-popping, the fairy tale dream logic is beautifully bizarre, the songs are catchy and David Bowie’s Goblin King rocks!

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Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is a bratty teenager who’s been saddled with babysitting her infant brother. After becoming sick of the baby’s ear-piercing cries, Sarah wishes for the fictional Goblin King to kidnap her brother…only to discover that the monster isn’t as imaginary as she believed and her brother has disappeared. Sarah finds herself in a race against time to defeat Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie). This thrusts our teenage heroine into an ever-changing labyrinth filled with monsters, oddball allies, deadly traps and thirteen hours to save her sibling.

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Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH is style over substance, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Nearly every frame has some big special effect and great attention was clearly paid to tiny details. From an eyeball plant to a bog of eternal stench, Henson carefully crafted his puppets and environments. LABYRINTH’s creatures are far more demented and creepy than any of the charming Muppets. There’s something risky about LABYRINTH’s darkness that cements its place as an essential 80’s kids movie, a product of a decade where children’s films were downright nightmare-inducing.

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LABYRINTH is a simple fairy tale fueled by tons of spectacle. However, it also runs on goofy humor, heartwarming entertainment, and freakishly creepy moments. Humor comes from Sarah overcoming weird challenges and making unlikely friends, including brave-to-a-fault Fox Terrier Sir Didymus. Entertainment comes from lonesome Hoggle learning a valuable lesson about friendship and David Bowie chewing scenery like it’s going out of style. Creepiness comes in a variety of threats that range from death traps to a junkyard dweller with sinister motives. My pick for the film’s freakiest scene arrives in the Fire Gang, who sing a rather catchy tune while dismembering themselves and looking like Crash Bandicoot on crystal meth.

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The film’s problems mostly lie within Jennifer Connelly’s performance and occasional music video-like sequences. Though attempts are made to weave Bowie’s memorable tunes into the narrative, they stick out as their own creations for better and worse. The plot comes to a halt so Bowie can kick around a bunch of goblins and sing to a baby, then Jennifer Connelly has an EYES WIDE SHUT like dance number with Bowie, and you didn’t honestly think this film wouldn’t have a final confrontation set to a Bowie song? These moments are delightfully 80’s and crazy, but they don’t exactly propel the story forward. The less said about Connelly’s performance, the better. She’s not terrible, but she’s not good either. She’s just there. She exists as a bratty teenage girl and it’s hard to root for her in places.

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LABYRINTH is a beloved cult classic with noticeable problems. Jennifer Connelly isn’t likable and the story frequently serves as a blatant excuse for Bowie music videos. That being said, this movie’s sheer charm, 80’s effects, catchy tunes, Bowie’s scene-stealing, and a non-stop sense of fantastical fun keep it completely entertaining from start to finish. LABYRINTH is a rare movie in that there are obvious flaws, but the film’s fun factor elevates it above the grade it probably should be getting. This easily ranks above THE NEVERENDING STORY and LEGEND on the 80’s fantasy totem pole, though it might fall beneath Henson’s DARK CRYSTAL. LABYRINTH is worth entering for anyone who craves a crazy 80’s puppet-filled fantasy or simply wishes to indulge in Bowie’s most iconic movie performance.

Grade: A-

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