Nostalgiathon: Labyrinth (1986) – Bring Back Puppets
Posted on November 14, 2012
Over at Cinema Schminema and Andy Watches Movies, the 2012 Nostalgiathon is bubbling away nicely. The challenge? To watch a favourite childhood movie through adult eyes. So here’s my contribution, a review of Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s 1980s puppet phenomenon starring pop legend David Bowie.
When I was a kid, Labyrinth was the teacher’s choice for rainy playtimes and the build up to holidays. The video (as it was back then, none of these dvd things) was never played from the beginning but instead from where the last class left off. I never saw how Labyrinth started or even how it ended. For me, Labyrinth became an elusive movie – I didn’t even know it’s name.
As I grew up and began to fall in love with movies I finally learned the title of this magical little film. I bought myself a £3 bargain bin copy and quickly took it home to watch. It was just as fascinating to me then as it had been when I was young. I watched it again this weekend to see if the magic was still there. It was.
Why then is Labyrinth so good? The story is simple enough. Fifteen year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is looking after her baby brother when she wishes the goblins would come and take him away. Little Toby is duly whisked off to Goblin City and Sarah is visited by the Goblin King (David Bowie). ‘You have 13 hours in which to solve the labyrinth before your baby brother becomes one of us forever,’ says the chilling Bowie. And so Labyrinth becomes a film journey through a maze of many different puzzles and strange encounters. Sarah is joined by an array of enchanting characters from the cowardly Hoggle to the giant, furry Ludo. Ultimately, Labyrinth is a story about growing up and taking responsibility – something Sarah realises she needs to do.
What makes Labyrinth so appealing is its attention to imaginative detail. The sets are incredibly rich, from the eyes that grow out of the walls, to tiny talking worms. Labyrinth represents imagination overload and it’s no surprise that many of its creations appealed to me as a child – take the Bog Of Eternal Stench for instance, what child is not going to be impressed with that? But there’s also plenty of intelligent and unexpected creations in Labyrinth too, including a wall of ‘helping hands’. Everywhere in Labyrinth there is something extraordinary to look at. Everything is alive. From canon balls to javelins – creatures make great props in the Goblin City. Of course this creates much slapstick that makes the film funny as well as fascinating.
All of this detail becomes even more incredible when, as an adult, I begin to appreciate the sheer mass of talent needed to create it. At the time, Hoggle was the most technically developed puppet ever made. It took five performers to operate him, with his facial expressions, mouth and movement being controlled independently. Ludo was also the largest puppet the team had ever worked with – he had to be remade to reduce his weight so that he could be worn by just one man. Then there’s the volume of puppets that had to be made. Over 100 pairs of arms and hands were produced to create the ‘helping hands’ and the Dance Magic music scene required 48 individual goblin puppets operated by 53 puppeteers.
Where Labyrinth begins to fall down is with the introduction of the Fire Gang – petite fire monsters who can detach their limbs and reassemble them on each other’s bodies. This idea posed a problem for the puppeteers who had to operate the puppets from behind, making them visible to the camera. The solution was to dress the puppeteers in black velvet and film them against a black background, adding the scenery in later by computer. For the time this was a ground-breaking approach but today it appears crude in comparison with the superb visuals in the rest of the film.
Bowie’s purpose written pop songs are part of Labyrinth’s charm, accompanied by surreal, music-video-style scenes. Yet today they also feel like a weaker aspect of the film, having dated more severely than the story based elements.
Labyrinth might be eccentric but it’s also very funny. While Jim Henson and Dennis Lee came up with the story, the screenplay was written by Terry Jones who had also worked on Monty Python. This off the wall type of humour is paramount in Labyrinth from the man who talks to his hat, to Sir Didymus who rides a dog that clip-clops and neighs like a horse. I have to say here that Sir Didymus is my favourite of all puppet creations in Labyrinth and beyond. For those of you who haven’t seen Labyrinth, he’s a super cute, super polite and immaculately dressed fox who’s not the brightest of the bunch but who certainly has the most courage.
The verdict? Labyrinth is a creative movie that casts magic over children and adults alike. For the most part it’s lasted well – the innovative and technologically advanced puppets are as impressive today as they were in 1986. Labyrinth is a must see for all fantasy fans and a film you can still enjoy sharing with the little ones.
When I think back to my favourite movies and television shows from childhood most of them used puppets or models – Labyrinth, Muppets Christmas Carol, Jason and the Argonauts, Fraggle Rock, Moomins. Today I fail to experience the same excitement for CGI dominated movies like Avatar. Perhaps that’s because I’m grown-up now or maybe it’s because deep down I know that CGI creations aren’t real. There’s a magic about Sir Didymus because he does exist, he moved within his own environment and that makes him feel more special. There’s a texture and richness to puppets that makes them feel more alive. All I can say is bring back puppets – they might be a bit bonkers but they’re simply magic.