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MMYIF: Labyrinth

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Labyrinth
Directed by: Jim Henson
Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud
Released: June 27, 1986

Sixteen-year-old Sarah is given thirteen hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother Toby when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King Jareth.

What I Thought Then

This was another frequent rental. I didn't see it until I was maybe ten and I remember finding the whole thing weird and magical and also I was having some very confusing feelings about this Jennifer Connelly person. A lot of details have stuck with me, like Dance Magic Dance and the doors where one of the guards always tells the truth and one always lies.

What I Think Now

The last time I saw this movie was about ten years ago and I did not like it at all. For one thing, it's campy, and I have a very low tolerance for camp. As I mentioned in my post for The Muppets Take Manhattan, while Jim Henson was a talented visual artist, he wasn't all that effective of a storyteller, at least not in long form. His movies lacked long-running tension and were overly saccharine, instead feeling like a series of vignettes that would eventually be lumped together into something shmaltzy but kind of empty.

After watching Labyrinth again this week, I'm feeling more charitable towards it. Don't misunderstand me--it's still campy and saccharine, but I've come to terms with the fact that I'm simply not its target audience. This movie was made for pre-teen girls who love Renaissance Festivals and are coming to grips with the tension between having childlike wants and desires alongside adult responsibilities. The story holds together fairly well. I was surprised to see writing credit given to Terry Jones, late of Monty Python, although reportedly not much of his script made it onto the screen. It still feels more like a series of vignettes than a narrative, but the ticking-clock framework--Sarah has thirteen hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her brother--keeps the action moving along.

The movie's strongest when it's relying on visuals to tell the story. The ballroom sequence is especially effective here. It uses soft focus and slow-but-continuous cuts between ever-moving camera angles to give an atmosphere of disjointed dreaminess. The cinematography never feels threatening, but it never allows you to get your bearings either. The dancers are constantly laughing too loud and staring right at the camera in a way that feels just slightly unsettling, but you can't exactly put your finger on why. And then when Sarah shatters the illusion, background elements, including actors, are lifted into the air in a chaotic tableau that feels very much like something breaking. It's an incredibly effective sequence... that serves almost no narrative purpose. In fact, it often feels like parts of the script were assembled specifically to exploit visual gimmicks. On the other hand, the fantastical nature of this story lends itself well to that, so you can't really fault them for telling a story that was expressly well-suited to the medium they were using to tell it. Lean in!

But there are a lot of subtler visual things going on that I picked up on this time. You never see his transformation, but there is no doubt in your mind that Jareth is the barn owl that's flying around based purely on his costume and hair when he first appears. If you want to get really into the weeds, look at the hair of all the human characters. Sarah has long straight brown hair. Her stepmother has short red hair. On Sarah's mirror, there are many pictures of a woman with long straight brown hair, presumably her biological mother who died--we assume dead because there's no mention of custody and because mothers are always dead in children's stories as proscribed by Walt Disney himself in 1937. The pictures of Sarah's mother always occur in the presence of other things from her past and her childhood--which she's having a hard time letting go of. Her baby brother Toby has short red hair, so you know that he's really only a half-brother. And he is emblematic of Sarah's father moving on and starting a new family, something Sarah has been reluctant to do. You get the entire family dynamic, as well as a thematic framing for Sarah's character arc, with very little dialog about it.

I also appreciated that there was never any doubt about what Sarah has to do. She never even considers not going to save her brother (tellingly, she never refers to him as a half-brother, but always as a brother). Even though she wished for him to be kidnapped, he is her responsibility and she accepts that. Her arc is never about deciding not to be selfish, it's about having the fortitude to fix a mistake. And I think that's the right choice for this sort of story.

That said, there are cracks in the fa├žade. The puppets always look like puppets. David Bowie's presence is extremely cheesy, from his spontaneous musical numbers to his strutting around in uncomfortably tight pants and scenery-chewing delivery of his lines. In many not-so-subtle ways, the movie looks artificial to a modern eye. Also, the bog of eternal stench is an extended fart joke. So... it has its hits and misses. Overall, it's better than I remember it being? But it's still hard to see past a lot of the flaws.

Also, I could have done with a little less moose knuckle from Bowie. Just sayin'.

Recommendation?

It's dated and your affection for it is going to be highly contingent on nostalgia. I'm not going to say you should avoid it, but I don't know how easy it would be to take seriously. Honestly, this feels like a prime candidate for a remake.

Don't @ me.

Tune in next week to see a sci-fi buddy comedy and some robots in disguise...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through his the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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