Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 5 – Labyrinth (1986)

On January 10th 2016 it was announced that the legendary pop superstar David Bowie had passed away from a bout with cancer that had previously not been announced to the public.  It was the first of many tragic celebrity deaths that occurred that year and the mass mourning for it seemed a bit different than the many other celebrity passings that had occurred previously.  In the wake of this the Fathom Events company decided to mark his death by bringing one of his movies back to the big screen.  The movie they chose was not one of the cinema classics he appeared in like Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth or Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence or even one of his concert films like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  Instead what they screened was a family film he made with Jim Henson in the mid-eighties that was considered a box office bomb at the time but which went on to have a cult following of sorts, a film called Labyrinth.  This was of course an understandable choice, as a successful musician Bowie generally only took starring roles in movies that were passion projects and this kids movie was probably his most prominent move into the mainstream.  What’s more Labyrinth has become a pretty noticeable part of pop culture and is definitely one of the movies that I hear “80s kids” talk about a lot despite its initial box office disappointment.

Of course one of the ironies of the great ironies of the film’s legacy is that it has become so heavily associated with the performance of a flesh and blood actor (and his strangely prominent pants bulge) when it was plainly intended to be a showcase for Jim Henson’s puppetry.  There are two prominent human actors in the movie, Bowie’s Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly as the film’s protagonist.  Connelly would of course go on to be a fairly prominent star in the 2000s but her work here as a fifteen year old is not great.  Granted, Connelly’s character is kind of poorly drawn in the script.  It seems like she’s meant to be some kind of theater kid with an overactive imagination, but the movie makes the rather strange decision to give the audience no reason to believe she has a single friend her own age and until the muppets show up spends a lot of time talking to herself in order to give exposition.  I wouldn’t exactly call Bowie’s performance great acting either but he certainly has presence and to my surprise he actually performs music in the film, which was kind of an odd choice.  “Magic Dance” is certainly an earworm but it certainly breaks any sense of menace that his character has and a number later on with puppets mostly just seemed like an exercise in terrible green screen effects.

There are sort of two kinds of fantasy story-telling: there are the “high fantasy” stories like Lord of the Rings and “Game of Thrones” witch construct worlds and tell straightforward stories within them, which is what The Dark Crystal was, and then there are the fantasy stories that are meant to sort of be literalizations of their characters imaginations like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland and Labyrinth is clearly trying to fit in that second tradition.  At times the film feels more like a series of sketches than a true narrative and is notable for having been written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, whose voice you can hear in parts like the scene where a cat who fancies himself a knight tries to stop our heroes from crossing a bridge, which is almost like a kid-friendly remake of the famous Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  That said I wouldn’t exactly call the movie “funny” and I also don’t think it really holds together too well as a story.  Really it’s more just a series of sometimes clever but sometimes simply strange little ideas.  It can be a fun watch in the moment but it probably could have been a more memorable and coherent adventure with a little more attention to the script and less attention to the puppets.

To the Scorecard:

This one is kind of a tough call.  In the context of a normal review this thing would probably be marginal thumbs down because deep down I think it’s a pretty shallow movie that is brought down by some elements that simply don’t work.  However, my metric here is less strictly about quality and more about whether the nostalgia around a movie is merited rather than purely the result of rose-colored glasses and in this case I think the nostalgia is understandable.  Put simply it’s a fun movie and its flaws are in many ways enjoyably weird rather than truly boring.


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