Reviewing the Old School: Labyrinth (1986)

There was this moment on Tuesday when I actually managed to be in the kitchen at the same time as a bunch of my housemates. Odd working hours, a fucked up sleeping and eating schedule and a propensity on my days off to eat out for meals that aren’t breakfast make this a rarer occurrence than it is for a lot of other people I know. But there we were, chatting in the kitchen while waiting for our turn to use the kitchen-top/stove/table. Inevitably, the conversation turned to David Bowie’s very recent, very unfortunate passing. We talked about the music. And we talked about the movies. He had an impressive number of roles, but the one that I think best covers what David Bowie was and remains to many is Labyrinth.

“Of course,” said my French housemate after a moment of what I can only assume were internal translations, “it’s a classic.”

And, rewatching it again with her yesterday evening, I can’t help but agree.

Released in 1986 it tells the story of Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, whose brother Toby, played by Toby Froud (who actually now apparently works in creature effects and design), is kidnapped by Jareth the Goblin King, played by none other than Ziggy Stardust himself. She’s then given thirteen hours to solve the titular Labyrinth or lose her brother forever (as he will be turned into a goblin himself, and they just have the worst manners).

This is one of those films that, in my occasionally humble opinion, just ticks so many of the right boxes. The creature designs are as clever and hilarious as everything done by Jim Henson era Jim Henson Company (and again, directed by the man himself), but still maintain a level of nightmare fuel that means they still feel like a threat to our intrepid heroes. The set designs are whimsical but surreal, always familiar but always something else. Something other. The characters are fantastic. The self-aware coward Hoggle who finds courage through friendship, the yeti(?) Ludo who commands the stones themselves, Sir Didymus and his frightened mount. David Bowie just rocking it as the Goblin King. Camp enough to pull off what was a bizarre hairdo even in the eighties, but with genuine sex-appeal and enough gravitas to be menacing. Playing a character like Jareth is such typical Bowie, with his many stage names and changing personalities, and he does it so well.

I feel like the best character, though one easily lost in the background of colourful and unique characters is Sarah. She immediately regrets her wish when the Goblin King steals her little brother, but doesn’t spend any time moping. She sees the Labyrinth and simply goes, “well, better get started then.” She’s kind, but not to a fault. Clever, imaginative and has a great deal of common sense. She starts the film an aggrieved teenager (one that the audience can see has no real reason to feel aggrieved), like all teenagers, obsessed with the childish things from a perceived better age. By the end of the film, she’s grown up and moved on, with a clearer view of life and fairness (or that a lack thereof is inevitable but not insurmountable). She also realises that becoming a grownup doesn’t mean giving up all her childish things and ways. There are some things you must do alone (like, y’know…), but not everything. It’s a coming of age story, but a far more subtle one than you see in a lot of coming of age stories these days (especially the ones meant for young women with their “THIS SOCIETY IS A METAPHOR FOR HIGH SCHOOL AND THE PROTAGONIST IS SPECIAL AND UNIQUE JUST LIKE YOU” messages being about subtle as a steel-cap boot to the crotch). Sarah neither starts or ends the film perfect, but she better than what she was by the final scene.

And lastly, but definitely not leastly, there’s the music. Good god there’s the music. I don’t talk about music very often in these posts, that’s something I’m trying to fix because it’s so often a vital part of what makes films so great, even if they’re not musicals like this. The score of the film is atmospheric and dark, punctuated by songs that are wonderfully bright. And it is the bright songs that stay in your head after the film is over, and sit there, bouncing up and down excitedly. Songs like Chilly Down and Magic Dance. The soundtrack is fantastic, but it is those songs that stick with you (and play through the ending and credits), a conscious choice I expect. Just, listen. It’s great.

It’s a classic film, a combination of talents that resulted in something that can be watched and enjoyed by everyone even thirty years on. Give it a watch.

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