Labyrinth, the greatest fantasy movie of the 1980s — there’s no debating this — is celebrating its 30th birthday on June 27. The Jim Henson classic has everything that a children’s fantasy movie should have: muppets, villains, catchy dance numbers, and a story that delivered a message of appreciating your siblings — even if they are little crying a**holes. Plus David Bowie, ’nuff said.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that bringing Labyrinth to life was no small task for Jim Henson and his creative team. The film involved hundreds of puppets and creative solutions to make its complex scenes a visual reality. So, let’s not waste any more time and get to exploring how it all came together.
The Goblin King had some help with his crystal ball tricks.
If Labyrinth had been released today, it’s almost a definite that Jareth the Goblin King’s “look-at-me” crystal ball hand tricks would be done with CGI. But this is a Jim Henson movie we’re talking about, and it came out in 1986. While David Bowie himself didn’t perform the tricks, choreographer Michael Moschen sure did, and he did them blindly while crouching behind Bowie and using his right arm to replace Bowie’s.
Bringing Hoggle to life took a five person team.
At the time, Hoggle was the most complicated puppet Jim Henson had ever worked on, with 4 people operating 18 motors used to control his facial movements. This proved to be especially tricky for the puppeteers, who had to spend weeks practicing Hoggle’s facial movements with actress Shari Weiser, who was inside the Hoggle suit and responsible for all of Hoggle’s body and head movements.
Hoggle ended up in Alabama.
After the movie wrapped, the Hoggle costume was lost during flight and ended up in the airline’s unclaimed baggage department. It went unclaimed for some time until a museum called The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, AL, bought it. Today, Hoggle spends his time behind glass at the museum on full display for the citizens and visitors of Scottsboro.
The crew built a realistic set of M.C. Escher’s “Relativity.”
One of the things that is so great about Labyrinth is that the movie only used props that could be physically created, with next to no CGI. To pull off the Escher scene, production designer Elliot Scott had to create a room with inter-cutting staircases fitted with camera tracks and other mechanical harnesses. Through a combination of mechanical levers and trick photography, Jim Henson’s team was able to pull off scenes with Jareth walking up from the underside of a staircase and a crystal ball bouncing up the stairs to baby Toby.
The movie stands as a first in CGI.
While almost every special effect in the movie was done with some sort of prop, the flying owl in the movie’s opening credits was done with CGI. It’s actually the first attempt by a feature film at using CGI to create an animal character.
The baby wasn’t a Bowie fan.
Baby Toby generally seems pretty chill with his captor throughout the movie, and he certainly likes Jareth better than his big sis. In real life, though, the baby couldn’t stand to be around David Bowie. The scene where baby Toby sits on Jareth’s lap while the Goblin King whispers creepy stuff in his ear was particularly difficult to shoot. The baby would cry and scream immediately after being placed on Bowie’s lap. To fix the problem, filmmakers used a mall portrait studio tactic and distracted the baby with a sock puppet to get him to stop screaming. The puppet trick worked, hence Toby’s hypnotic stare while sitting upon Jareth’s lap.
The Helping Hands scene took around 100 people.
To pull off the incredibly creepy scene in which Sarah falls into a pit with hands growing out of the wall, over 100 pairs of gnarled latex gloves were created. A tower was built that would lower Sarah down, while puppeteers would grab at her as she passed. The particularly tricky part for the team, though, was choreographing the formation of The Helping Hand’s faces. Between four and five puppeteers would have to work together to create one of the spooky hand formations that offers Sarah advice in the pit.
The movie borrowed from Medieval torture.
After Sarah enters through the door with the riddling guards and passes by The Helping Hands, she finds herself in a desolate pit. Hoggle describes it as “a place where you put people…to forget about ’em!”, which is exactly what it was used for in the medieval ages. The pit known as an “oubliette” was essentially just an underground dungeon with only a tiny hole in the ceiling that made it nearly impossible to escape without assistance. It was generally a pretty nasty way to go, since those thrown into them were typically forgotten about and left to starve to death.
Writing the script became a headache for Terry Jones.
Between 1983 and 1985, some 25 different treatments of the script were drafted, with much of Terry Jones original script done away with before production. The movie’s ending might have been the biggest change of all, with Jareth meeting a completely different demise. Instead of defeating Jareth with his own riddles, as it was in the original script, Sarah ends up kicking his ass and watches as he shrinks down and turns into a small goblin that scurries away.
David Bowie also felt that the original script lacked humor and considered dropping out of the project. To ensure that Bowie stayed on board, Jim Henson asked Jones to punch it up and do a rewrite that would allow for more songs. In the end, Jones had mixed feelings about the story and said, “I didn’t feel that it was very much mine. I always felt it fell between two stories, Jim wanted it to be one thing and I wanted it to be about something else.”