What I think about this film doesn't matter. The important thing is that when I was the target audience, I thought it was a masterpiece. I still have huge reservoirs of gooey affection for it based on those childhood memories and as far as I'm concerned, it did its job. If I used to think it was awesome, then it is. Simple. Case closed. How it stands up to rewatching for me as I am today is of merely academic interest.
Surprisingly it lost money at the box office back in 1986, although since then it's arguably become something of a cult film. Let's go through the important people here:
1. Jim Henson. This is the last movie he directed before his death in 1990, you know. Obviously I'd love for him to have made more films, but as with Mozart, I find satisfaction in knowing he could never have done anything better than this. The visual invention here is simply brilliant. It's out-Gaimaning Gaiman, throwing out impossible ideas with such richness and density that for an hour and a half you'll forget how the real world works. Hoggle's door. The fractured face, which is actually one of several faces hidden in the film and I still haven't managed to spot all of them. The illusory wall! The helping hands! Sometimes it's working on Alice in Wonderland logic, as with the inch-long talking worm who invites Sarah indoors to meet the wife. How was she supposed to fit inside? You don't doubt that it would have happened. However it would be a mistake to cite Lewis Carroll as the only source, when it's equally drawing on Cinderella, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz
, Maurice Sendak, M.C.Escher and of course Monty Python.
2. Terry Jones, who worked on the script. Apparently less of his work made it into the finished film than I'd thought, but even so you can practically taste the subversive fun. When we first meet Hoggle, he's pissing in a pool and killing fairies with a spray gun. The rules of the Goblin Kingdom are gleefully unfair, cheating at every opportunity as with the sneaky paving stones. (I was laughing myself silly over those.) People lie, steal, blow things up and even at one point swear. "Will you listen to this crap?" Okay, I'd be happier if they hadn't thrown in that last one, but the overall point still stands. Kids love mischief. This is a land of mischief. You could drive the U.S. Army through the space between this film and Disney.
3. Jennifer Connolly, who's both good and bad. Admittedly these days she's an Oscar-winning actress, but in this film she's a fifteen-year-old girl who clearly doesn't know what she was doing despite by then being several years into her acting career. She'd done Dario Argento's Phenomena the year before, you know. However oddly enough, none of this matters. She's not playing Hamlet. For the most part she's simply being asked to be a brave, likeable fifteen-year-old girl and, whaddya know, she can do that. Her performance works. Note for instance that she's being a horrible brat at the start of the film, yet Connolly keeps you on her side throughout. She never turns you off by overplaying the whiny bitchiness. I thought she did well.
4. David Bowie, who's even worse than Connolly. Other candidates for the role were Sting (hmmm) and Michael Jackson (MY BRAIN HURTS). He brings his slightly inhuman Bowieness to the role, but unfortunately he also brings the fact that he's not an actor. That's the main difference between him and Tim Curry's Frank N. Furter, you know. Otherwise they're both glammed-up drama queens with a musical entourage and perhaps a obsession with the deflowering of innocents. I don't hate Bowie here or anything, but I can't pretend that his line delivery is even competent. He has extreme hair. He's weird. He also wrote lots of music which gives the film enormous character even when I don't particularly like it. The film loses steam whenever they stop the plot for another music video, but on the other hand there's something awesome about having a rock soundtrack to what's basically a fantasy muppet movie. As incidental music, it kicks arse.
5. George Lucas paid for it. Danny John-Jules (Cat from Red Dwarf
) did some Fire Dancer voices, while Dr Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation worked on the choreography. There's also a voice cameo for Michael Hordern.
I admire the story. On one level, it's a shameless quest structure in which the entire world's cheating, almost everything is arbitrary and there's no reason at all why the film couldn't have been ten, a hundred or a thousand minutes long. However it also has a surprising amount of heart, thanks to its theme of friendship. Hoggle's the key to this. He's never had a friend before, which isn't surprising since he's a ugly little bastard who repeatedly sells out Sarah to the Goblin King and keeps telling her to go away. In the end, their relationship is charming. The Goblin King's arguments at the end don't make a lot of sense, but if you're going down that route then you'll go blind thinking about all the possible interpretations of his relationship with Sarah. There's a can of worms that wasn't meant for the target audience, methinks. There's even a message of "material things aren't what's really important" with the junkyard goblin who tries to tempt Sarah back to the real world.
The film also avoids the structural flaw that plagues this kind of anarchic fantasy. Beauty and the Beast
, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz
... all of them are fundamentally disappointing when they bring us back to normality at the end. There are various different ways of trying to get around this problem, but Labyrinth's is the simplest and most satisfying. Sarah simply calls out to her friends and they jump into our world, go apeshit and party in her bedroom. This is the perfect ending, not to mention providing additional subtext for those who'd like to read the David Bowie character as representing Sarah's pubescent temptation.
You could run a good distance with a The Wizard of Oz
analogy, by the way. There are analogues for most of the main characters, except that the Labyrinth versions go further with their defining character flaws. Sarah is Dorothy, Toto is Merlin/Ambrosius, Sir Didymus is a comic inversion of the Cowardly Lion, Ludo is the Scarecrow and Hoggle is the Tin Man.
This film is awesome. It loses something if you're aware of the quality of the acting from... well, everyone. There are also iffy audio levels and some dodgy back-projection with the fire dancers. However it's also so damn good at what it does that it deserves to be carved on a mountain. Its goblins should have been scary, but they're also funny and adorable in their own evil pig-ugly ways. Nothing dies, even when squashed flat and then blown up. I love this film. It's gallumphing glollops of invention on a screen.