A Review by Noah Antwiler
You'd think if anyone had caught a fantasy flick as off-the-wall goofy as Labyrinth, it'd be me. I was rather shocked to discover the gaps in my own movie experience, especially since I consider myself a major film buff and a true nostalgic for the 80s. Most of my behavior and witty repartee is based on such gems as Robocop, Big Trouble in Little China, Willow, and Highlander. Yet somehow I'd missed out on those Brat Pack movies like Young Guns (a movie that plays exactly like an Aces & Eights group led by the trigger-happy psychopath), and decade-defining movies like The Karate Kid. How do you grow up in the 80s and not see Karate Kid?
I know quite a few gamers who would handily list the Jim Henson fantasy movies of that era, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal as major gamer influences. But interestingly, none of them would go so far as to call them good movies. Most of them even said they were pretty bad, but they own it anyway. I know one guy who got to his video store several hours before opening so he could get first dibs on the re-released special edition of Labyrinth, as if there would be a major rush on the Best Buy that day of nerds clamoring to hear the digitally-enhanced "Magic Dance." They weren't taking pre-orders? Madness!
It's probably for the best that I didn't see Labyrinth until now, because after watching it I know I wouldn't have liked it at the age of six. It's one of those films that either enchanted you as a child or really creeped you out. Just as some people have an irrational fear of clowns, I always found Jim Henson's Muppet designs-- aside from Kermit and the Sesame Street gang-- to be ugly and more than a little disturbing. It may seem like a silly complaint; most of the muppets in Labyrinth are goblins and are supposed to be ugly, but in my opinion it made the movie too weird and scary for kids and too annoying for adults. Like Dane Cook.
Henson's a phenomenal artist, and I don't think I've ever seen such detailed, expressive puppets. It says a lot for his craft that I'd rather take his puppets than ten million dollars' worth of Gungan CG from Industrial Light and Magic. It's still hard to duplicate the sense of substance lacking with those computer-generated constructs.
The movie is still hideous in nearly every respect. The puppets are great and the set design is surprisingly complex, but somehow the movie never lets us forget that at all times that's exactly where we are: a set. Not a fantasy world. I've never thought it was possible for a movie to be over-lit, but at all times it seems like the whole maze is carefully lit by overhead racks of fluorescent lights. Here, especially with puppets and a dark fantasy realm, you'd think a director would want to experiment a little with shadow if only to conceal the painfully obvious strings visible in about a quarter of the shots. The horizon on every exterior shot terminates after about a hundred feet at a pink/purple matte painting.
The story doesn't really make much sense, even in relation to most nonsensical fairy tale logic. It's about a bratty teenage girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) at that peculiar angry hormonal age where every kid thinks nobody understands them and there are open threats of death against any family member who dares enter their room (as if anyone really wanted to). In a particularly strange moment of jealousy, she wishes aloud that the Goblin King would take her noisome baby brother away to his castle and out of her life. It's an odd wish, no doubt one that Sarah didn't expect would actually come true any more than Coily the Spring-Sprite callously spirits away mankind's entire knowledge of springs because one idiot wishes they didn't exist.
Unfortunately, goblins have an elaborate intelligence network arranged in every house around the world, waiting for just such an impulsive wish to occur, and they spring on Sarah instantly. Jareth the Goblin King (rock legend David Bowie) appears and claims the kid. Sarah has a problem with this, naturally, but the King claims his hands are tied according to fairy law. Shouldn't have made that wish, babe. You know how sadistic fairies can be with semantics when it comes to wishes. There isn't much of an appeals process. If she wants him back, she can haul ass over to his castle in the magical realm, braving his interminable labyrinth and the notorious Bog of Eternal Stench to get him.
David Bowie (The Prestige) is, by far, the most supremely awesome part of the movie. Not only is he one of my favorite musicians of all time, he delivers a fantastically offbeat, mysterious performance as the Goblin King. It helps that he's given the best lines of the film ("It's only forever, not long at all,") but the film also features some charming dance numbers. Henson would have been wise to double the musical breaks, because they're all catchy, entertaining scenes that easily outshine the rest of the movie. Although if you ask me, making the King and his Goblin subjects so cheery and peppy makes them quite likable I grew to like Jareth more than the petulant Sarah, which isn't really what you're going for with an antagonist. It just seems like the Goblins are mucking about and having a good time, and Sarah's out to ruin the party.
Bowie is, however, forced to wear horrifyingly tight spandex pants that show off his man-package so prominently it would make Spinal Tap weep. He dresses in towering boots, shimmering pants, a lord's tunic with massive hang-glider lapels and a majestic shiny cape, along with purple and white eye shadow. So basically he's not dressing any differently than he did during his glam rock idol days in the 80s. Heck, I'd dress like that every day if I could. And then I'd change my name to an unpronounceable symbol of male virility.
Anyway, Sarah soon meets some help in the form of a warty dwarf named Hoggle, who was busying himself killing angry biting fairies by spraying them in the face with pesticide. I like to imagine Hoggle is in the middle of an MMORPG mob quest, grinding out fairies for XPs so he can level. It's okay, they're probably the angry rabid pixie-fairies from the Fairy Meat game. The movie always seemed to me to be more about Hoggle than anyone else, because he's conflicted over his secret loyalty to the Goblin King and his growing affection for Sarah, who treats him as a friend even though he doesn't really deserve it.
The labyrinth never plays fair with Sarah. It's rife with hidden passages and warded by spiteful guardians who pose riddles to her, and screw her over anyway when she guesses the right answer. I'm talking about the classic riddle most people have heard of, but few people remember the right answer to: two sentinels each stand before a door. One always tells the truth and one always lies. One door leads to the castle and the other leads to certain death. What single question can you ask to ensure that you know which door is which? There are a few ways around this one, and a few flaws in the setup. How can we trust that one always lies and one never lies, when one of them is telling us this and we can't necessarily trust him? Rest assured, she chooses correctly but gets unfairly sucked into a pit anyway.
After that little incident, I say that Sarah should stop playing fair if the maze won't. Just climb up on top of that wall and cheat!
This leads her through a mob of talking, grabby hands (don't ask), and eventually to a forest populated by a coven of bouncing creatures who force her to endure a prolonged dance sequence. The special effects are horrid here, with everyone crudely blue-screened over a phony backdrop. These beasties have a peculiar physiology, possessing detachable, interchangeable heads that they have endless fun throwing at each other and bouncing off the ground. Sure, this is cool, but one would think the novelty of chucking your own head against a wall would wear off fairly quickly. Once you've played your first game of basketball with your own head, I'd think you'd have that urge out of your system. And a lot of brain damage.
Yes, I'm over-thinking a movie with Muppets in it.
Sarah also encounters a wise man with a talking ostrich-head hat, from whom she learns exactly nothing useful, and rescues a big red sasquatch creature named Ludo from the torments of the Goblins. Ludo reminds me a lot of the Camp Chaos spoof cartoon of Metallica's James Hetfield, who constantly yells "Fire baaaad! FIRE BAAAAAD!" She also befriends some kind of one-eyed rat-thing with delusions of eloquence who jousts on a shaggy dog. None of these are as cool as they sound.
They work as a team, and in fact the sidekicks do almost all of the fighting for her when they're opposed by goblins and mecha-golems while Sarah swoons and acts helpless. Just once I would have liked to see her line up one of those puppets and punt it forty yards. They're fricking goblins. Most of the time they don't even have a full hit-die. Most of my characters fart hard enough to accidentally cloudkill six or seven goblins behind them.
The Bog of Eternal Stench must set a record for the most consecutive inappropriate sounds of the human body venting excess gas in history. For about ten minutes, the scene has a constant backdrop of belching and farting as the bog roils all around the heroes, as well as loud, wet butt-rattlers whenever they take a step across the fetid water. And I thought the camp beans scene at the beginning of Blazing Saddles was excessive. I would have gone a lot farther with it. Projectile vomiting, constant dry-heaves from the stench. Let me have an R-rating and I could make this movie glorious!
The penultimate scene in the Goblin King's castle is a visually impressive scene in the movie (perhaps the only one) where Sarah pursues her baby brother through the castle's architecturally-impossible M.C. Escher-esque staircases while Bowie navigates around easily, singing a mournful tune. I keep wishing that the movie had focused on the King more, as he's easily a more interesting character with unexplored motivations. ("Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous?")
See? Genius writing there. The worst part is the anti-climactic ending, where Sarah simply declares "you have no power over me" and returns to her room, brother in tow. How is that supposed to stop the king of the goblins? It didn't work for Freddy Kreuger. Is it too much to ask for some kind of magical duel or epic sword fight?
What I want to know is why nobody's ever bothered to write a setting variant to White Wolf's Changeling game that takes place in the Labyrinth world. Package it with a Bowie CD and some glam makeup. Now that's an RPG!