Labyrinth

Directed By: Jim Henson
Written By: Jim Henson, Dennis Lee, Brian Jones

Starring
David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Shari Weiser, Brian Henson, Tony Froud

My taste in film is as lowbrow as my taste in music is pretentious. While I do draw the line at pure trash - anything involving Rob Schneider, for instance - the simple fact is that what I consider a great flick is inevitably the sort of thing that people who get paid to gripe about movies give two stars (sometimes three, but grudgingly). And that's OK. While they're trying to convince themselves that Julia Roberts' lips are a deeply symbolic artistic statement, I'm down in the underground trying to best Sir Dydimus at Scrabble. And I like it that way.

For those who can see their movies with eyes unclouded by hate (or worse, some misguided notion of "cultural value"), Jim Henson's Labyrinth is one of the crowning achievements of the motion picture arts. A 90-minute opus of drama, self-discovery and outsized codpieces, Labyrinth depicts a microcosmic allegory that defines the human condition with dazzling precision and creativity. Either that or it's just a goofy film full of muppets and corny David Bowie dance numbers. It's been a while since I took a film appreciation class, so I keep forgetting how to tell the difference - I suspect, though, that the use of Technicolor probably nullifies any artistic merit the film might possess.

First and foremost, Labyrinth is a fantasy movie: escapism, pure and simple. If the talking worm puppets weren't enough of a tip-off, the fact that the Thin White Duke (at his Ziggy Stardust-inspired best playing the Goblin King Jareth) tries to seduce a young girl who promptly ignores him definitely clenches it. I've never once met a woman who expressed anything less than intense, simmering attraction to Bowie, so the notion that Jennifer Connelly (playing the role of "Sarah," a young woman from a pygmy tribe which didn't offer its people last names) would just sort of shrug and say, "Give me back my stupid, drooling step-brother, you horrible man!" is a little hard for me to buy. In reality, Sarah would have flung herself at the Goblin King in a fit of deranged passion, or demanded he marry her immediately at the nearest Escher-designed chapel, or at the very least made a discreet inquiry as to whether or not Jareth's package "was, you know... (blush) ...for real." Of course, there's the question of why a 40-year-old guy with bad teeth and too much hairspray was able to was able to hit on a 16-year-old girl in the first place without police intervention, but remember that this was produced in the mid-eighties, before the Internet became widespread. The concept of creepy middle-aged child stalkers didn't really enter the public eye until AOL started mailing out those free trial discs to America's most wanted.

Come to think of it, the sexual undertones of this movie are a bit overwhelming. No wonder Labyrinth is so popular with the Internet nerd set - as a collective mass of geeks seething with latent frustration (or blatant frustration, as the case may be), they can identify with the frightening process of seeking love in a hostile world. There are a few too many short, wrinkly dwarves with huge noses present for my tastes, but based on the number of erotic Labyrinth fan fiction archives out there, I'm my own minority. I think Freud would have loved this movie - from the magical crystal balls to the little sticks with tiny fanged creatures on the ends to the Bog of Eternal Stench, this film is a morass of someone's very dark and very disturbed hindbrain action. Most of the blame probably resides with the visual designer, Brian Froud; I haven't researched his current state of existence (and for good reason), but I would expect the word "incarceration" to factor in somewhere.

Fortunately there's more to this movie than the visual manifestation of some loopy Brit's seamy id. Disregarding the oppressively omnipresent adolescent-fears-given-flesh imagery for a moment, Labyrinth is the story of a girl who finds fantasy much more interesting than reality. And who doesn't? Given the choice between the 8-to-5 grind and hideous dwarves who urinate in public, I think most people would go with the dwarves. Sarah's dejected reactions to such tragic misfortunes as being forced to come home by 7:00 p.m. to babysit truly bring to focus the plight of the Reagan-era upper-middle class WASP. Starving third-worlders have it rough, sure, but Sarah has to share her teddy bear with a slobbering infant with the mental acuity of your average pigeon. Worst of all, her parents treat her as though she should act like a responsible adult, which is a fate worse than death for your typical reality-starved teen. Little wonder then that Sarah rails at the world like a genocide survivor, retreating into an elaborately-constructed fantasy world constructed around the trinkets in her bedroom, her subconscious attraction to aging glam rockers, and the eponymous play she seems incapable of memorizing. Which really isn't such a bad way to go; my own trinket-based world would likely involve meeting the real-world incarnation of the Selphie Tilmitt action figure on my bookcase, and it's hard to argue with that. Unfortunately, knowing my luck I'd also end up trapped in a Sartre play.

Sarah's crisis du jour involves the kidnapping of her young half-brother Toby by the Goblin King. Here's where it gets tricky - Jareth was only trying to make her happy by stealing Toby so that Sarah would come to live with him; but considering that what she really wanted was to get away from her brother, he would have had much better luck simply saying, "Yo, sugah-thighs, come to my castle of love and leave your abnoxious brother behind." Ground control to major gob, can you hear me, major gob? I can only assume Jareth's ability to use logic was severely damaged by his habit of wearing obscenely undersized tights. Regardless of the (lack of) sensibility behind the situation, Sarah is given thirteen hours to solve a massive, magical Labyrinth and confront the Goblin King to win back her brother and return to her pointless life of dreary drudgery and furtive fantasy. Luckily for us, in the world of Jim Henson there's no such thing as a time limit so tight that a heroine can't indulge in a few song-and-dance routines (see sidebar).

Along the way, Sarah teams up with odd beings who resemble the stuffed animals in her room. She's lucky to have such a nice selection of cute plushies; had this been my childhood fantasy world, she'd have been stuck with a garish red Crayola bear and a dirty, lopsided bunny which had been decapitated by the doberman next door and whose general state of cleanliness would have made the Bog of Eternal Stench seem rather fragrant in comparison. The staunchest of her allies is an amazingly large lummox named Ludo (whose name sounds like lewd-oh - again with the suggestive imagery), while the aforementioned whizzing dwarf, Hoggle, manages to overcome his own cowardice and a brief stint as Prince of the Land of Stench to become a... a friend. Awww.

In fact, there's a whole lot of soul-searching going on during the course of the 13 hours (give or take a few) required for the navigation of the Labyrinth. I don't really think Sarah has mastered the concept of pure escapism, because most of her childish hallucinations are obnoxiously moralistic. What's the fun of regressing to an infantile state of denial if the fruits of your immaturity are a bunch of heavy-handed lectures? That's exactly why I kept wanting to punch Naomi Hunter whenever I played Metal Gear Solid?, and if Sarah had a spine she'd do the same thing to the nagging muppets who keep accosting her during her trip through the crumbling, slimy walls of Jareth's labyrinth. Of course if she had a spine she would have had better recourse to cure her frustration with life than immature fantasy adventures, but since realism was thrown out the window the minute she turned down David Bowie's offer to be her love slave I don't see why I should have to be logical either.

But despite all of that, the simple fact remains that any movie which features the line "It's so stimulating being your hat," is awesome beyond description. Now I need to track down Jareth's tailor - I'm afraid my life won't be complete until I walk into work wearing some of those amazing tights of his.


The Sound of Music

No review of Labyrinth would be complete without an analysis of its sublime soundtrack. Featuring David Bowie in a strange combination of his flamboyant Ziggy Stardust mode of dress and his dull '80s pop rock mode of music, the Labyrinth OST is probably the most compelling synth-crap cinematic accompaniment this side of Ladyhawk. Although the soundtrack CD is woefully missing a number of tracks from the movie, it would probably be sort of pathetic for me to voice my desire to see a deluxe, complete remaster of the soundtrack... so, uh, I won't. Besides, what's here is plenty swell.

Aside from Trevor Jones' "orchestra for one" synthesizer-driven score (which, I should note, sounds massively better than other similar fare), there are the infamous Bowie songs. Considering these were penned in an era when the best he had to offer was "Dancin' in the Sheets Streets" with the ever-hideous Mick Jagger and "China Girl" (the video for which video consisted of Bowie making not-quite-PC slant-eyes for four minutes), the quality of the songs is pretty good. Except "Chilly Down," which was written for a scene apparently intended to serve as proof to future generations that computer-based special effects are way better than bluescreening. But anyone who claims that "As the World Falls Down," the song which accompanies the surreal Masque of Red Death-like ballroom scene, isn't one of the best love songs ever is a person who has no soul. Yeah, that's right, even I have a sentimental side. You have problem?? Also of note is the "Within You/13 O'Clock" suite performed during the coolest homage to M.C. Escher ever put to film.

In fact, it's the film which makes the soundtrack rather than vice-versa, but that's OK. The important part is that after 15 years I still take delight in listening to the soundtrack and in the looks of disgust it earns from dour cynics like my brother. There's probably more to life than that, but I don't want to know about it.