Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Labyrinth Revisited!

There are some films which are intrinsically tied to my childhood. Not only was I the target demographic at the time, but also they stood up to repeated viewing as I entered adolescence, teenage and even adulthood. Films like The Goonies will always bubble close to the top of my personal top ten. And anyone familiar with my Princess Bride obsession will know just how big a sucker I am for a kid’s fantasy film filled with bizarre characters and black humour. And so it should come as no surprise to find that Labyrinth is a film which I love almost as much today as I did when I first saw it as a child.

In the 1980s, CGI was in its infancy. In its place: creativity, a sense of adventure and Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. Whilst The Muppets and Sesame Street were Henson’s bread and butter, the Creature Workshop was a where his imagination could run wild. It would be fascinating to see how Henson’s career would have developed in alongside technological advances. Sadly, Labyrinth was his last feature film before his tragically early death at the age of just 45. It remains a fitting testimony to his skills and imagination.

When Sarah (a youthful Jennifer Connelly) wishes that goblins would come and take her screaming baby brother away, she is amazed and appalled to find her wish fulfilled. Having been whisked away by Jareth, The Goblin King (David Bowie in revealing tight leggings), Sarah is set the near impossible task of rescuing her sibling from the titular Labyrinth.

It’s an unremarkable set-up, but accusations of averageness cannot be levelled at the rest of the film. From the moment Sarah enters the giant maze, surprises lurk around literally every corner. Probably more so than in any film I’ve ever seen, characters interact fluidly and inventively with their surroundings. Walls appear and reappear, fixtures and fittings talk and characters modify and alter the landscape throughout. Arguably the greatest example of this occurs early on when Sarah suddenly realises that a corridor she believes to have no turn-offs suddenly reveals a turning. It appears like a magic-eye picture – and requires little other than impressive set building and clever camera-work to achieve the effect. The only moment where CGI is truly embraced is in the climactic showdown scene, where impossible Escher-style staircases are brought to life.

Creating such a wonderful environment for the action, however, would be meaningless without an impressive array of characters to inhabit the fantastical world on show. And Henson did not disappoint. Avuncular Hoggle (who wouldn’t appreciate being referred to as a dwarf) leads the way in terms of technological invention. Played by an actor with a huge animatronic head, he is capable of a huge range of utterly convincing emotions and is impossible not to love. Ludo, a hairy gentle behemoth has eyes you could fall in love with and Sir Didymus is a fox so lifelike it makes you wonder whether modern motion-capture really is the best way to bring animals to life.

Of course, it would be churlish to write about Labyrinth without devoting some time to talking about David Bowie. God only knows why Jim Henson chose to cast him – perhaps he got a discount on original music for the soundtrack – but it actually works. The songs are entertaining enough, Bowie’s strangely otherworldly voice is pretty scary for a young audience and his fright wig is so very 80s. He’s certainly a more effective presence than the phenomenally annoying ‘fireys’ – the only scene I would unthinkingly remove from the movie.

Chock full of amazing characters, locations (such as the Bog of Eternal Stench) and an emotional depth beyond many children’s movies, Labyrinth absolutely stands the test of time. And it’s also nice to see a film which has a genuine physical weight which modern CGI nonsense like Transformers cannot match.

And it goes without saying that the worm is the greatest film character of all time: “Come inside, meet the missus.” If you're not familiar with him, check out the cute little bugger below...

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