A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 208 – Labyrinth

Labyrinth – September 24th, 2010

The trouble with doing this project in the manner in which we’ve been doing it is that while we’ve planned for some things, we haven’t planned for others. We’ve got Pi lined up for March 14th next year and we’ve got a slew of Christmas movies (many of which are season staples for me anyhow) and we’ve got two planned for Halloween weekend. We did Pirates of Penzance on Talk Like a Pirate Day and we did video game movies and Stand By Me for PAX East. But we’ve also been trying to do things when we find out it’s someone’s birthday. The thing is, we don’t have a calendar of birthdays we look at and plan for. We just pick a relevant movie when we find out about it. Sometimes we come up short.

I hadn’t realized how quickly we’ve whipped through our Muppet collection until I found out today was Jim Henson’s birthday and went looking for a movie to watch. Aside from the Christmas themed movies we’ve only got three left, I think. Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppet Treasure Island and Labyrinth. Huh. So we picked this. It’s a lovely movie in places and I like that it’s recognizably a Henson production without being necessarily a Muppet production. Sure, there are plenty of creatures in the movie who were made with the same techniques in the same place, but Kermit is nowhere to be found here. It’s more like The Dark Crystal than The Muppet Movie and it’s got Brian Froud’s aesthetic, but you can see Henson’s touch all over it.

Let’s get some criticisms out of the way first. Some of the effects haven’t aged well. In particular the scene with the Fireys is really painfully an obvious bluescreen-type effect. The lighting on the Fireys and Sarah is off from the background that’s been put in behind them and you can see a black border around the wispier parts of the Fireys’ heads fairly frequently. Which is a pity, as I like the Fireys as a concept and the puppets themselves are fun. When they go to chase Sarah they look great. But it’s distracting during their main scene. Sarah herself is more than annoying for a good chunk of the movie. I remember being thoroughly confused by her rapid turnaround in the beginning, from being sure her father didn’t care to being pissed when she realized he did. I suppose that’s the nature of being a teenager. I probably pulled crap like that on my parents. But it’s not endearing, and as the heroine of the story, I want Sarah to be someone I like and want to succeed.

Part of the problem is the story itself. It’s a growing up story wrapped in a quest plot – like so many are – and in order to show the character’s growth from petulant child to responsible young woman she’s got to start out petulant. After all, if she’s still doing A-OK as a child, then why the need for her to grow up? That being said, she whines a lot. Think of Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars, wanting to pick up some power converters. It’s that level of whining. I recently discovered a fantastic site full of old Apple II and Apple IIgs games and found that there was a game made based on this movie. It’s clunky and almost impossible to control without a joystick, there’s no manual and the menu controls take some getting used to. The movie sequence where a creepy Apple II graphic version of Jareth tells you that he knows all about you made me laugh my ass off. And then it endeared itself to me forever by putting “complain” in your action menu. It also gives you “adumbrate” and “manicure”, which I can only assume are eventually things you need to do. Who knows. I can’t get past the goblin guards with a mouse for control.

Back to the movie. For all that I’m not big on Sarah until about midway through the movie and I’m disappointed at how the Fireys look these days, I do love the movie. I love it so very much. I love it enough that I know it entirely by heart. I make reference to it all the time. It is one of my very favorites and if it hadn’t been Jim Henson’s birthday today I might have saved it for a really bad day as a movie to cheer me up. It’s that sort of movie for me. I probably could have reviewed it without watching it, even. I could just recite it from memory. It’s not complicated, of course, so that helps.

As I mentioned, it’s a quest story. Sarah is a teenage girl living with her father and step-mother and baby step-brother, Toby. Her parents leave her home to babysit for Toby and Sarah is feeling rather sullen about this. She makes a wish she surely believes won’t come true, that the goblins will come and take Toby away. And to her surprise, they do. Jareth, the Goblin King, appears and tells her he thought he was doing what she wanted, but if she wants Toby back, she’ll have to get through the labyrinth that surrounds the Goblin City and his castle. She has 13 hours. And thus begins the quest. She meets many friends on her way through, starting with Hoggle, a dwarf who works for Jareth. Then come Ludo and Sir Didymus. She encounters stranger creatures, like an old man with a talking hat and the aforementioned Fireys (who can detach their heads and limbs and toss them around), some talking stone heads who speak of doom and the helping hands, which I also count as a bizarre location. The hands, incidentally, are one of my favorite bits of the movie. They’re a tunnel of hands which work together to make faces which then speak. Fantastic bit of art, that. There are other bizarre locations, like the Bog of Eternal Stench and a junkyard full of memories. Sarah makes her way through them all to the final confrontation with Jareth.

I could probably do all sorts of analysis on this movie. Jareth’s a figure to study, and his relationship to Sarah is downright creepy when you really get into it. I mean, my illogical mind says “Sarah! Forget about getting the baby back! Stick with Jareth! Do you know who he is? He’s David Fucking Bowie! Look at his pants!” But my logical mind points out that his offer of being her slave if only she’ll do what he says is a rather icky coerced dynamic and would be a seriously unhealthy relationship long term. Not to mention the goblins. I mean, Jareth himself gets a distinct look of “I’m surrounded by idiots of my own design” before the Magic Dance number.

So despite my love of David Bowie, ultimately Sarah makes the right choice, taking Toby and going home a changed person. More thoughtful and less selfish. But still playful, as we get to see at the very end. I like that there’s a balance allowed. She doesn’t have to be An Adult right away. She can party down with her not-so-imaginary friends. That’s cool. And I say not-so-imaginary because while one can draw obvious parallels from the toys and art in her room to what she encounters in the labyrinth (Escher’s Relativity being the most awesome example, but there’s a Firey, Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Didymus, Jareth, Sarah’s ballgown and I believe some photos of David Bowie with Sarah’s mother) the goblins and Ludo and Sir Didymus and Hoggle all show up in her room themselves. It’s a blurry line.

It’s a really gorgeous movie too. The visuals are stunning in many places and the practical puppetry is fantastic. I love Hoggle’s moral development and I love how ultimately sinister and seductive Jareth is. I love the connections between the labyrinth and Sarah’s imagination. I love the Relativity scene. Like, I could watch the entire movie just for that scene and David Bowie singing Within You. I was a kid and a teen who lived deep in my imagination a lot of the time. It’s what makes The Neverending Story resonate with me so much and it goes for this movie too. More so because of the female protagonist. I might have issues with her, but she’s really a strong female character at the end, saying no firmly and brooking no argument. And that’s just one reason why I love it. Complaining and all.

September 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment


September 24, 2010


Today is Jim Henson’s birthday, so we decided to watch a Jim Henson film. We’ve reviewed a few of them by now and if you’re reading this blog then you probably already know how much I love Jim and all his works. This movie, however, exhibits an altogether different set of skills that he had than some of the more personal works we have looked at like The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie. I’ve always felt that this movie is less about Jim Henson’s vision and creativity and more about his power to inspire people and bring them together to work on a collaborative project.

There are so many great names attached to this project. The goblin designs are directly from the illustrations of Brian Froud. The screenplay was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. George Lucas acted as producer. Jennifer Connelly was not a household name at the time, but she would go on to star in a great many wonderful movies and eventually win an Oscar, so it’s fun to see her just starting out on her career. Of course mega super-star David Bowie stars as Jareth the goblin king. There are the usual teams of talented artists and puppeteers. And helming the whole thing, managing the armies of goblins, overseeing the entire project there’s Jim Henson. I think it was in the book Jim Henson: The Works that he was quoted as saying “Whenever I find somebody more talented than I am, I hire them.” He was a man who could inspire loyalty and love and could make amazing things come to life as a result.

I have to say that I like this movie more as a performance piece than as a coherent whole. For some reason it never really captured me when I saw it in the theaters. It’s strange, really, because this movie is filled with things that you would think were custom tailored to appeal to my sensibilities. It has a lonely girl who surrounds herself with toys and books and lives in fantasy worlds. It has a great cast of characters and a lot of humor. It has a magical fantasy realm full of magic, puzzles and deception. But I was never drawn into it in the way that I was by, say, The Neverending Story. I’m not altogether sure why. I’ve always sort of wanted to like the movie more than I actually do.

On the other hand, I am mesmerised again every time I watch this movie by the technology and the performances of the puppeteers. This movie is a showcase for what can be accomplished with “wiggling dolls” and features just about every different type of puppet ever conceived. There are simple hand puppets, there are rod puppets, there are complex remote-control servo operated puppets (a technology that started here with Hoggle and became a mainstay of the Henson Creature Workshop used in movies like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and the Dinosaurs television show.) There are tiny puppets that are dangling on wires. There is the colossal gate guard that stood twenty feet high. This movie was Jim Henson demonstrating just how versatile and creative he could be in his chosen profession.

In many ways for me this movie is less a film that I watch to be drawn into the world and carried along with the adventures of the characters, and more a series of vignettes designed to highlight the talents of the people who made the film. Take, for example, the Fireys. They were performed by teams of black-clad puppeteers against a black velvet backdrop so that they could come apart and be brought back together in strange ways. It’s a classic puppeteering technique and one that Jim had used for some sketches on the Muppet Show. (For a more recent and very cool example check out “Matrix ping-pong”) Or look at the Helping Hands! They’re the most basic form of puppet ever – just hands put together to look like faces – and they’re my favorite part of the entire movie.

I also see this movie as a sort of passing of the torch. Jim’s son Brian performed the voice of Hoggle and was credited with puppet coordination. Oh, what it must have been like to be Brian, raised surrounded by puppets and muppeteers. I’m always delighted to see him taking some joy in his father’s world (his Dr. Van Neuter is one of my favorite new characters in the Muppet family for example) and if you watch the special features on this film you can see a wonderful bond between father and son as they work together. You should watch those features just to see Jim and Brian demonstrating the helping hands to some of the other puppeteers. Jim invited Brian to show what he has brainstormed with some of the other performers as ways to create faces from just hands and he practically glows to see Brian at work.

If I were a bazillionaire I would put together a Broadway show of this movie. There are so few special effects here. Jim chose to do the vast majority of the performances directly in front of the camera and most of the effects are practical. The giant mechanical gate guard was an actual twenty-foot-high puppet driven by vast hydraulics. The goblin city and the labyrinth are sometimes matte paintings, but are more often practical models and forced perspective. I think it would be amazing to see many of these things performed live. Maybe bring the puppets out into the theater itself and bring the audience right into the labyrinth. I really do feel that many of the things in this movie would be more enchanting and wonderful live and in front of you than trapped on a movie screen.

September 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment