As Labyrinth turns 35, Tom Jolliffe looks back at one of the great cult films of the 80s…
You remind me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power… I could go on. To kids growing up in the 80’s, Jim Henson’s wizardry would prove defining. From The Muppets, to The Dark Crystal, to Sesame Street and more, his creations were an essential part of the growing up phase and that would prove to be the case for each generation of kids after my time too. That legacy is still going strong, creating a constant stream of new fans.
In 1986, Labyrinth came out with some hefty weight behind it. Firstly it starred a pop legend who was already thoroughly iconic. David Bowie beat several other big names to a coveted gig it seems, though how true an array of rumours about alternate choices (including Michael Jackson) are, is debatable. The film was also helmed by Jim Henson, with the backing of his company behind it and an eye on creating puppet magic to throw a protagonist into (then rising star Jennifer Connelly). Then for some extra punching power, the film had George Lucas on board too, serving as producer. A sizeable budget was put into creating groundbreaking puppets and some animatronics too, as well as the innumerable sets to essentially build an entire Goblin world.
As with many cult films of the era, it’s beloved adoration wasn’t immediate. The film struggled at the box office, not finding its feet until a surging video run which saw it become a fixture in countless VHS owning households (mine included). By this point in the mid 80’s, Muppet movies were less impactful at the box office, while the Henson company was particularly popular through their TV shows. It didn’t particularly take long for the fandom to grow. By the late 90’s and birth of the internet there were already fan forums (and a predilection for fan fiction). Then beyond, the cult continued to grow and the film seemed to appeal to younger audiences as much, if not more than those during release. The last 15 or so years has seen a growing glut in retrospective screenings, theme nights, cosplay and singalong screenings for the film.
Like many cult films, Labyrinth has garnered an array of theories, fan fiction spins, back stories, comic book continuations (some official tie-ins) and masses of Merch. My own spin of choice is that Labyrinth hides a darker theme, telling the tale of a girl suffering delusions from paranoid schizophrenia. There is certainly a complexity to the film that belies the initial critical response. The film has certainly, from a critical point of view, been reappraised by many and looked on more favourably.
Even on face value, the film is brimming with charm. The intricate world that has a physical, hand built presence (where these days much would be replaced with CGI) still dazzles. The puppet characters still portray a certain charm and living essence. As many times as I’ve seen it, I can still get swept up in the story and the wondrous fantasy of it all. It’s a visual treat to say the least, further helped by Bowie’s fantastically catchy soundtrack. Bowie himself has become utterly iconic for this role in itself. Screenings at retro cinemas are often popular and his introduction usually greeted with a chorus of cheers. Charisma, a certain wry charm and plenty of villainous verve make The Goblin King unshakably likeable. Additionally, Jennifer Connelly anchors the film well with an excellent performance, interacting with this strange world and its inhabitants.
One aspect I’ve always enjoyed about Labyrinth has been the surreal Python-esque humour littered throughout (as well as some impishly puerile humour, not limited to fart gags). The late great Terry Jones, former Python, wrote the script, based on Henson’s story. That injection of irreverent gags (which Bowie particularly revels in performing) help make Labyrinth special and not become consigned to that type of kids film that dates once maturity kicks in. Humour aside, and the array of songs, Labyrinth also manages to be a rollicking adventure in addition and so briskly paced.
35 years on and there’s no danger of the film dating or being slowly forgotten. New audiences continue to be charmed and long time fans never lose their love for an ultimate feel good film that still inspires joy. What are your thoughts on Labyrinth? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/
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