Film review – Labyrinth (1986)

5 April 2012
Labyrinth:  Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connolly) and Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie)

Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connolly) and Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie)

In the quarter of a century that has passed between Labyrinth first appearing in cinemas in 1986 to now being digitally remastered, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to suggest it is on its way to becoming a children’s fantasy classic. Similar to the books loved by the film’s young hero, which include Peter Pan, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are, Labyrinth is a wildly inventive and imaginative adventure story combined with a parable about maturity. While not a success upon release at the time, Labyrinth now has cult status to the extent that it does feel like part of the collective folklore that includes all the fairy tales, fantasy stories and mythology that it references.

Unlike director Jim Henson’s equally magnificent previous feature film The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz in 1982), Labyrinth is more traditionally a family film. Its young star Jennifer Connolly is Sarah Williams, who has to solve a perplexing labyrinth in order to save her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), after she impulsively wished that Jareth would take Toby away. The presence of Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the films only credited screenplay writer (there were others) ensured that the film was filled with plenty of humour and absurdist touches. Much of the humour in the film is memorable, such as the farting and belching Bog of Eternal Stench, while other comic flairs are so subtle that they are only discovered after several viewings, such as the two milk bottles waiting to be collected outside the doors to the Goblin Palace.

Watching Labyrinth again in the cinema for the first time since its original release, the most striking aspect of the film are its visuals. Combining the puppetry magic of director and legendary creator of The Muppets Jim Henson with the concept design of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud (who previously worked with Henson on The Dark Crystal), Labyrinth is a gorgeous demonstration of ‘old school’ special effects that rely on matte paintings, puppetry and other in-camera visual effects with restrained use of post production computer generated effects. There is a tangibility to the film that makes its dream logic inspired sequences and playful manipulation of perception even more impressive.

Bowie’s presence in the film is both a complete oddity and also perfect. In terms of his music career, Labyrinth came out at a low point between the recording of his two weakest studio albums and yet the songs he performs in Labyrinth are terrific. There’s the fun ‘Magic Dance’, the darkly romantic ‘As the World Falls Down’, the celebratory ‘Underground’ and the strange and menacing ‘Within You’, which is performed during a striking scene inspired by MC Escher’s lithograph print ‘Relativity’. Bowie is marvellous as Jareth and gives the seductive yet cruel character the same otherworldly intensity that he had used for the various personae he had adopted during his music career. The only unanswered question about his role in the film is what were the filmmakers thinking when they fitted him out with those grey tights? Was the intention to provoke delighted snickering all these years on?

It is within some of the film’s more surreal moments that the underpinning themes of maturity and responsibility are best expressed. The heroic journey that Sarah must take to rescue her half-brother is a parable for the emotional journey she must take to let go of childish things and become less selfish, without completely losing her ability to imagine and dream. She has to navigate a tricky path between freeing herself from childish impulses without succumbing to adulthood cynicism and dangerous suitors. The labyrinth and its inhabitants are physical manifestations of her imagination, with the objects in her bedroom seen at the start of the film appearing throughout the labyrinth as living creatures. Sarah moves between her bedroom, the labyrinth and a sort of dreamscape world often without logic explanation. In one key scene she falls from her hallucination, into her bedroom and then the labyrinth’s rubbish tip pours in making her realise that all the material objects she has hoarded are meaningless junk.

While Sarah’s experiences in the labyrinth teach her the importance of taking responsibility, caring for family and the harsh life lessons that nothing is fair and things will always change, the film is also careful to not suggest that she should completely ‘grow up’. In fact, the greatest threat Sarah faces is forgetting about her childhood during the scene where she hallucinates herself attending a masquerade ball, which represents the world of adulthood. The other guests wear false faces and even Sarah appears distorted when she sees herself in the mirror. Despite all the tricks and traps of the labyrinth, this adult space is where people are most not what they seem. Sarah anxiously searches for Jareth, who delights in her confusion and distress, like a manipulative lover. As both tormentor and much older seducer, the truly sinister intentions behind Jareth’s behaviour is spoken at the end of the film when he confesses that all he wants is for her to ‘Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.’ It’s a classic plea/demand of a controlling, self-pitying and dangerous obsessive. Fortunately Sarah has become a much stronger character and remembers the crucial lines required for such a person – ‘You have no power over me.’

Labyrinth has stood the test of time astonishingly well, and it’s extraordinary looking back at the personnel involved; not only Henson, Jones, Froud, Bowie, Connolly and Henson’s team from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but also George Lucas as one of the film’s producers and as people who saw Being Elmo will know, it was also the first major production that Kevin Clash worked with Henson on. The resulting film is truly a testament to the creative energies of all involved, but most of all Henson who did so much in making high quality entertainment for people of all ages that was fun, imaginative, not afraid to be subversive in content or form, but most of all humane. It was Henson’s final feature film and a wonderful gift from a person who really did make you believe that even as you got older, everything magical that you treasured from your childhood and all your imaginary friends were never too far away. Should you ever need them, for any reason at all.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 12

4 August 2011
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Despite being very fatigued yesterday morning I found Once Upon a Time in Anatolia utterly engaging. Focusing on only a small number of characters for the majority of the film, it unfolds as a sort of exterior chamber film with lots of long shots to emphasise how small the characters are in the vast and exposed landscape. The interaction between the police characters, a prosecutor, a doctor and one of the men who has confessed to murdering the person whose body they are looking for, explores issues of guilt, culpability and compassion. There is also a commentary on the tensions between older tribal modes of living and modernity. This is one of the handful of films that I feel the need to see again outside of the festival environment to really appreciate its complexity and layers of meaning.

[EDIT 27/5/2012: Read a full review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia]

Bruno Dumont’s latest stark piece of French rural miserablism Outside Satan also features characters symbolically wandering around a barren landscape. However, while the pace and mood of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a case of the form and style being dictated by the film’s content, Outside Satan is a bit like End of Animal where the obtuse style seems to have  come first. It is a difficult yet intriguing film with deliberately strange and ambiguous characters who challenge notions of good and evil, and how we perceive spirituality and madness. At times the leading male character, a sort of avenging angel drifter, reminded me of Martin from the Dennis Potter written telemovie Brimstone and Treacle, whose act of evil results in something good.

Being Elmo

Being Elmo

For a complete change of pace I then went to see Being Elmo, the documentary about puppeteer Kevin Clash. I’ve actually never been a huge fan of the Elmo character, but this very charming film has made me a fan of Clash. It’s a bit of a classic rags-to-riches film that covers Clash’s career, which really began when he was a very young boy with a love for the Muppets that inspired him to create his own puppets and tirelessly work at performing his own characters. Seeing somebody who is so hard working and so genuinely a good person achieve astronomical success is tremendously rewarding and inspiring. There’s a beautiful sense of mutual support from the puppeteer community where veterans seem more than happy to encourage and share trade secrets with newcomers that they recognise as having the same spark that originally motivated them. Also, I will never stop being fascinated by the way puppets come to life and take on a distinct personality even when you can see the puppeteer manipulating and speaking for them. It is something quite magical.

I ended the night seeing Troll Hunter, which was a lot of fun. From The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to [Rec], I’ve been a big fan of the fake found footage film, which does seem to work best within the horror and monster genres. Troll Hunter does a couple of things just right. Firstly, the trolls move a bit like stop-motion creations and look like puppets. By not trying to make them look photo realistic, the suspension of belief is actually far easier to maintain. Secondly, the film is full of troll mythology that many of the characters take very seriously, which allows the ridiculousness of the film to be laughed along with and enjoyed without any self conscious winks at the camera. Playing such silliness this straight is quite a challenge and Troll Hunter pulls it off.

I’ve developed a stye on my right eye. If you don’t know what a stye is, it’s like a pimple but it forms on the inside of your eyelid to constantly press into your eyeball. It’s not cool. Mind you, it’s not as uncomfortable as the time a blood vessel burst in that same eye while I was suffering though Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I suspect that occurred as a result of my brain trying to lobotomise itself.

I want to give a shout-out to the guy sitting a few seats down from me during Troll Hunter. So, this is a film called Troll Hunter and I reckon that somewhat gives away the fact that it’s not going to be striving for realism. The film begins by setting up the concept of it being a found footage film, which is clearly all very tongue in cheek. That didn’t prevent this guy from snidely announcing, ‘Yeah, right’ as if he was one step ahead of the game by casting doubt on the authenticity of a film titled Troll Hunter. It reminded me of when I once worked as a shopping centre Santa Claus (I was really broke) and 13-year-old kids thought it was really awesome to inform me that they knew I wasn’t really Santa and I was so busted for trying to convince them otherwise.

Less a MIFFhap, I was part of a rather lovely collective experience during the screening of Being Elmo. There’s a scene where Kevin Clash tells us that he was offered a chance to work on The Dark Crystal and the entire cinema, including me, gasped in delight and excitement. This was immediately followed by us all giggling at the fact that we were all so impressed by the mention of The Dark Crystal. OK, maybe you had to be there but it was dorky, sweet, a communal experience and one of my favourite moments of the festival this year.

Show us your MIFF
If you’ve ever visited Rich on Film then you’ll be familiar with the work of Richard Haridy, a film critic and academic who is currently studying a Masters in Art & Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. Richard has been coming to MIFF since 1998 where he was treated to a ‘before they were stars’ moment with a screening of Pi with Darren Aronofsky in attendance. This year Richard’s highlights have been Cold Fish, Senna and The Yellow Sea. He had previously seen a number of MIFF films at the Sydney Film Festival so has enjoyed seeing how Melbourne audiences responded to some of those, in particular Martha Marcy May Marlene. He’s still got The Woman to look forward to, which he’s hoping will be as divisive and controversial as it promises to be. His favourite moments from previous festivals both involved films by festival regular  Miike Takashi: Audition in 2000 and Gozu in 2004. Both films featured substantial walkouts and audiences split between those who were vocally disgusted and those who were delighted at the absurdity of what they were seeing. Richard definitely belonged to the latter group (as did I) and found the dramatically contrasting responses to the films’ infamous sequences electric. Richard finds the all-time favourite film question an impossible one to answer, but uses Magnolia as his standard response when asked, despite having a dozen disclaimers as to why.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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