Movies

How David Bowie, Practical Magic, And An Army Of Fans Turned ‘Labyrinth’ Into A Transcendent Cult Film

As Labyrinth comes to a close and Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) faces off against the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie). for the last time, there is a distinct moment when she makes the leap from the innocence of childhood into the unknown of growing up. After all of the twists and turns of the labyrinth and the dizzying highs of dancing away her adolescence at the ball before landing on a pile of junk, Sarah echoes the refrain from her earlier play at make believe:

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”

Not only does Sarah find out that the strength she needed to grow up was inside her all along, she also learns to value her friends and family higher than her own misguided fantasies. Few films have so perfectly encapsulated the fear that many feel as they leave behind the sheltering safety of adolescence as Labyrinth, and while it may have been a little misunderstood when it was released in 1986, it has since become a beloved cult classic. While other fantasy films from the ’80s have slipped from the public’s consciousness, though, Labyrinth remains a perennial favorite. But why? In pursuit of the everlasting affection that a (still growing) fan base feels for this Jim Henson classic, we went to the heart of fandom at Dragon Con, a new Labyrinth exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, and spoke with Brian Henson and Karen Prell, who worked closely with Henson to bring the world of Labyrinth to life.

In Pursuit Of Laughter

After the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982, Muppet mastermind Jim Henson wanted to keep working on stories with a more mythic vein. However, after the dark and serious story of Skeksis and Gelflings, Henson wanted to make a departure. His son, Brian, the current chairman of The Henson Company and a long-time collaborator, recalls his father was looking for something a with a bit more laughter when he turned to Labyrinth.

“Certainly, Dark Crystal was much more serious,” Brian Henson says. “There aren’t many funny moments. I think definitely coming out of Dark Crystal, he said, ‘You know what, not enough funny moments in Dark Crystal.’ […] When you’re sitting in an audience and you’re having a test screening, every time the audience laughs, you relax. You go, ‘Oh, they’re liking the movie.’ And if they’re not laughing, you don’t know. You really don’t know.”

To find that humor, Jim Henson recruited Monty Python alum Terry Jones to help with the script, joining the team of Henson, illustrator Brian Froud (who was responsible for much of the film’s original look), and producer George Lucas. With a $25 million budget, they set to work to create a funny and thrilling blend of the grotesque and the lovely. Brian explains that showcasing the absurd made the real life aspects seem more tangible, a longtime theme of Jim Henson’s and Froud’s.

“Yeah, life is more grotesque, and you’re not sure, and that’s kind of exciting… You’re scared of somebody. You’re intimidated by somebody, but then get under their skin and then you actually realize, you know, you’ve got a lot in common and they’re actually worth your love,” Henson says. “So I think that was sort of always his kind of philosophy with characters and relationships. A pig and a frog falling in love. You don’t look for people that are like you, you look for people that are very unlike you, and then you love each other because you’re excited by your differences, not your similarities. A lot of that grotesque element comes with Brian Froud’s work. A lot of his artwork is, Dark Crystal and Labyrinth both, really largely Brian, that mix of grotesque and beautiful. And then Brian, given most of his artwork was, here’s a beautiful woman surrounded by grotesque creatures. You know, that the grotesque makes the beautiful more beautiful and more sophisticated.”

To describe David Bowie’s look as grotesque would be a mischaracterization, but to sum it up in just a few words is a real challenge. There’s something appropriately otherworldly and unique about Bowie’s turn as Jareth, the Goblin King. While Brian Henson mentions that they had also considered Sting and Michael Jackson for the role, no one else was ever truly a contender for the goblin throne. Bowie was truly the perfectly potent combination of menace and allure, someone you would follow into the labyrinth but ultimately seek to defeat. Despite the larger than life persona, Henson makes it clear that Bowie was as dedicated and collaborative as an icon could be.

“He loved to laugh, tell jokes, and keep the atmosphere light,” Henson recalls. “For him, making a movie was so much easier than his normal life. Because he, like me, the guy is very much a workaholic. He’s in the studio all the time. He’s out on the road. He’s busy. But the movie, particularly a movie like this, where we’re only doing eight shots a day maybe because it’s so complicated, that for him it was like, ‘This is so easy, it’s almost like being on vacation.’ But he was very, very patient and really just appreciated all of it. He thought it was just great. I think the weirder, the better for David. So, my dad was never uncomfortable asking him to do anything, and was, if anything, pulling David back a little bit.”

While Bowie provided the weird energy and actress Jennifer Connelly proved a vulnerable and relatable lead, Labyrinth‘s true magic simply doesn’t come to life without the intense effort required to pull off Jim Henson and Brian Froud’s vision together via practical effects and puppetry.

Practical Magic

Because the film predated many computer effects, the practical effects were meticulous. Karen Prell, a longtime Henson puppeteer, paints a picture of a production that required an extraordinary amount of work to create the world and creatures of Labyrinth. Between long days that could lead to only a few usable shots to the magical creatures and sets that were all built by hand, the work that was done cannot be discounted. It was a tactile age of filmmaking, which shines through every single shot in the movie.

“We shot this in 1985, so we were still trying to achieve as much as possible live in camera. It couldn’t really be fixed in post with computer animations or effects. So, everything we were trying, the Fireys, the junk woman, getting the performances of the physical bodies working with the animatronic faces of the characters was very, very challenging. We had to do a lot of rehearsal, lots of takes to try to get everything coordinated and happening all at the right time live in camera. In fact, the worm was one of the easiest things to shoot because it was pretty much just me. I was operating my own face, so be easily spontaneous. Whereas characters like the Fireys, where you’d have up to four or five people on one character or characters like Hoggle or Ludo that had several people on the face, it was always a challenge just to get the most basic things to work until the team really, really got into sync with each other.”

Prell was an active member of the Henson team for many projects, but according to her, the scene with the Junk Woman was one of the most taxing, yet rewarding aspects of her time working on Labyrinth and with Henson.

“That was probably personally, for me, one of the more physically challenging things,” she says. “I think I had to be so much on top of the physicality. The emotional part of the scene also had resonance, but just physically getting it all to happen took most of my concentration. I had been interested in doing full suit characters, so I’d asked to do something like this. But the reality of making it happen, being inside the suit and walking around maneuvering the whole shell of the character, puppeteering the head. At times, I had another puppeteer sitting cross-legged between my legs on a little rolling platform that I kind of moved along while I shuffled because that person was reaching out with live hands to handle the props.

So there was a lot of points to hit the body, with the head, with the eyes, someone else was doing off to the side with the hands, picking up the props and coordinating everything. So it was quite a physical and mental workout just getting all of those visuals to happen. But we did, working on the script before getting into that scene, I and the person who would be operating the face, we did note some places where the junk woman would be kind of devious and have certain expressions where she was trying to deceive Sarah, or at points where Sarah would need some convincing and require a bit more effort from the junk woman to have her way. We definitely tried to get some good acting beats in there.”

Not only was it a technically difficult scene, it was also an emotional turning point in the film, with Sarah finally realizing that life wasn’t the fairy tale that she had expected. According to Prell, Sarah’s realization that “it’s all junk” is the scene that sticks with her the most to this very day. “That scene where Sarah comes to a really strong realization of picking out what’s important to her and her priorities and how important it is to real life, and her family and thinking outside of herself. So when she hits that realization with the junk woman, it’s something that really, really strikes a chord with the whole audience. It touches me even every time I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the movie so many times.”

Brian claims that part of the beauty of Labyrinth was not only the influence of the story and characters, but also the work that went into the film. Working on something so unique could potentially inspire viewers to look outside the box for their own inspiration and talent.

“I think it’s certainly very inspirational for teenagers who are trying to find something that they’re passionate about, and the real world feels boring and not worth committing. And then they watch something like Labyrinth. It’s not just a concept. It’s the fact that you can see that people have worked so hard to create this world and this reality. And I think that is inspirational to them and empowering to them. It empowers creativity just in everyone to say, ‘Wow, that movie was so different’ — because a bunch of people had creative ideas that they just were very committed to and passionate about and realized them. And I think that can be very inspirational.”

That inspiration can have a restorative effect, with the care and craft that went into the original designs from the minds of Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud inspiring many to continue to preserve their legacy. At The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, a team of devoted curators, designers, and archivists have worked to create an exhibit that allows fans to get an inside look at the costumes, puppets, and artwork that brought the labyrinth to life with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Journey to Goblin City. On top of their professional specialization, it was their own fandom that gave them the passion to finish the project.

A Lasting Impact

There are many reasons why Labyrinth has maintained such a devoted fandom over the years. Fantasy films have a tendency to awaken the imagination and stick with viewers long after the final frame airs, and Henson projects, in particular, tend to portray the most vibrant fantasy around. Additionally, the loss of Bowie this year has led many back to his striking role as Jareth. As he struts through each frame, every inch the rock god, Bowie left a deep impression on many a young viewer.

Henson, who was 21 when he worked on Labyrinth with his father, believes that the fantastical elements combined with Sarah’s journey creates a potent combination for people on the cusp of adulthood.

“And then the whole world and all, the story is empowering. It takes the character through, ‘I’m not in control of my world, I’m not in control of anything, I’m trying to solve this labyrinth. It doesn’t matter what move I make, it’s going to be wrong. Even when it goes right, it’s going to be wrong. I can’t control it, I’m out of control.’ And then she finds her friend, she becomes emotionally committed to him, he becomes emotionally committed to her, that gives her inner strength. Now she has inner strength and she has a higher level of confidence, and now she can do no wrong. Now every place she goes is right, and now she does come out in control. So I think it helps people too, just with life. They feel like, ‘My life, I feel like I’m always out of control. I feel like everything’s unfair.’ And if you just give in to that, then your life’s not going to go anywhere. Whereas if you instead find the people you love and you’re committed to, you find an inner strength.”

Thanks to the power of the VHS (and eventually DVDs and Blu-rays), Labyrinth found a second life on home video after a disappointing run at the box office and an initially mixed reaction from critics. Indisputably, the film has since grown into one of the greatest cult hits of all time, inspiring a 30th-anniversary celebration at Dragon Con 2016, complete with a passionate sing-a-long viewing. It may have been a “flop” at the time, but people are still singing about The Babe with the Power to this very day. When we asked Prell about the enduring appeal, she cited the fact that many of the fans weren’t even born when the film was released, showing how it has cross-generational appeal.

“Some of the people that I saw at Dragon Con,” she says, “they wouldn’t have even been born when the movie was first released, but it had such an ongoing life on video and DVD after its first release, so it keeps finding and enchanting new generations. I think something about the old school animatronic puppets performing for real with humans combining with David Bowie’s character, and the music, and the amazing designs of the characters, and all of the fun acting opportunities.

Even the way the story is kind of unexpected and challenging. It’s not an easy road for Sarah, and all these twists and turns that she has to deal with. Probably, kids, or people that see the movie first as young adults or teenagers, it hits them right when they’re going through a lot of changes and challenges in their life, so there’s probably a lot there that resonates with them and then stays with them as they grow. They always have that fond feeling of identifying with the situation even though it’s very fantastic and imaginative.”

People like Kara Schulze and Leah Guilmette have memories from childhood of watching Labyrinth from a young age. Guilmette cites watching Labyrinth on VHS while her mother worked, disappearing into the fantasy realm over and over again as a kid. According to Schulze, it is the “tangibility” that makes it such a classic. “Also, there is a storyline to it that you can get behind, when someone feels so very out of place where they’re living. They can go to a different land, and you have to go through this journey of making friends and finding where you belong to get the things that you need in your life.”

Surprisingly, while fans cited the profound influence of Bowie, it was really Sarah’s journey that kept so many attuned to the film through the years. And, while technically for children, the intricacy and vibrancy of Labyrinth makes it an enjoyable rewatch for grown-ups as well. Jen Cleveland, another life long fan, thinks that is what gives it its staying power. “A lot of Henson stuff works so well for both kids and adults. There is a lot of stuff that you watch as a child and, you know, take in ‘this much,’ and then you watch it as an adult and take in ‘this much’ more. But at the same time, even while you’re getting more out of it, there is still that nostalgia of remembering how you watched it as a kid. Labyrinth in particular, you add David Bowie and the music, which is a creature all on its own. You listen to the first few notes of the soundtrack, and you’re there.”

Another part of the appeal is without a doubt the puppetry and creatures that only Henson could create. That was another refrain among fans: As wonderful as Sarah’s journey was and the thrill of David Bowie at his peak, it was the creatures that helped make the film what it was. Matt Dean-Ruzicka, who recalls seeing the film in the theater as a child, believes that it is the puppetry that makes the film what it is. “All the characters feel like they could exist outside of the screen as well. It’s corny and cute and a little bit scary, but that makes it more exciting.”

While pretty much no one can say that David Bowie stole their baby brother or that they’ve had to battle Fireys and endure the Helping Hands, the loneliness of adolescence and being misunderstood by those closest to you is a nearly universal feeling. Standing on the brink of growing up is one of the scariest times in everyone’s life, and art that can reflect that mix of fear and potential is cherished by many. For better or for worse, viewers saw themselves in Sarah. Just as Sarah finally realizes that it’s all junk and that the friendships and familial bonds that you forge along the way are what really matters, viewers walk out of the theater feeling a little more understood. Being young can be confusing and painful, but art like Labyrinth makes us feel a little less alone.

An all-new 4K restoration of Labyrinth presented in collectible Digibook Packaging and a limited edition gift set for 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital debuts in stores (and online) September 20 in celebration of Labyrinth’s 30th anniversary.

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