Labyrinth is a collaboration between the Muppets, a Monty Python alum, the Man Who Fell To Earth and that guy who ruined Star Wars. It stars a future Oscar winner, is shot by Excalibur’s cin-togger, was inspired by M.C. Escher’s puzzles and features an early appearance by the dude who plays Elmo on Sesame Street. Cementing its Sesame Street tie, Labyrinth was directed by Kermit the Frog. With all that fantasy and sci-fi pedigree, Labyrinth was doomed to be a box office flop and a latter-day cult favorite. Its underground status is cemented, at least by Wikipedia, with the throwing of an annual Labyrinth costume ball in Hollywood. My hat is off to anyone who comes as Ludo.
Ludo is my favorite character in Labyrinth, but hold that thought for a moment. I identified with Jennifer Connelly’s protagonist, Sarah, and not just because we’re both drop dead gorgeous. Connelly is saddled with babysitting her younger sibling, putting a damper on her adolescence. In retaliation, she does something I did numerous times growing up: She wishes for someone to come take her brother away. Unlike my desperate pleas, her call is answered by the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie). What David Bowie wants with a toddler is too scary to fathom, and the dark side of Jim Henson knows this. Note the scene where Bowie tosses the boy high in the air, then walks away as he plummets to the ground. (Don’t worry, a goblin Muppet catches him.) Hell, listen to the chorus of “Magic Dance,” one of the catchy, memorably superb songs Bowie performs in the film. No good can come of this kidnapping.
Jareth gives her thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth of puzzles if she wants her brother back. Sarah enters the maze to find a host of creatures, friend and foe. She converses with a worm, a sly nod to Connelly’s prior film, Phenomena. As worms are prone to doing, it sends her in the wrong direction. “Had she kept going that way,” says the English-accented worm after Sarah leaves, “she would have gone straight to that cawstle!” Sarah’s mistake leads her to a dwarf named Hoggle, whose allegiance is to the Goblin King. Though sweet on her, Hoggle still does Jareth’s bidding to keep Sarah from the castle, lest he be cast into the Bog of Eternal Stench. If you saw the Bog of Eternal Stench, with its farting asshole-like objects rising out of the water, you’d betray Sarah too. One step into the Bog, and you will stink forever. Of course, Hoggle has a change of heart, but his heart keeps changing back. He misleads Sarah several times, deserts her, and even poisons her with a Jareth-approved peach. He’s always sorry afterwards too. Just like a man.
Thankfully, Sarah is joined by more consistently loyal creatures. Trying to cross a bridge above the Bog, she’s met by a pugnacious one-eyed dog thingee named Sir Didymus. Riding a cowardly, shaggy dog named Ambrosius, he takes on all comers despite being the size of a Chihuahua. His absurd cockiness and comical voice (by Percy Edwards) are both Pythonesque, as is his complete obliviousness to how bad the Bog of Eternal Stench smells. Despite being a dog, Ambrosius makes horse noises and runs across the screen with the clever help of puppeteers Steve Whitmire and Kevin “Elmo” Clash. Sir Didymus has aspirations of knighthood, but his violent streak leans more toward Braveheart than King Arthur.
On the opposite side of Sir Didymus’ size scale is the aforementioned Ludo. Ludo’s gentleness betrays his huge size, something he is paying for when Sarah stumbles upon him helplessly hanging upside down. Accompanying Ludo are several helmeted creatures tormenting him with biting lizards on sticks. “Take that, hippie!” one yells. Sarah picks up some rolling rocks to throw at Ludo’s enemies, sending them away. Ludo is one incredibly ugly Muppet, but Henson treats him to a star making close-up. “Is that any way to treat someone who is trying to help you,” asks Sarah, who scolds him for protesting her presence. As she assists the still upside down creature, Henson not only gives us that close-up of Ludo, but he also turns the camera 180 degrees, as if righting him out of charity and grace. “Friend?” asks Ludo, who sounds in dire need of one. You’ll want to hug the beast.
Later, we’ll realize that Ludo used his powers to summon the rocks Sarah used. Being able to call rocks seems a very silly power, but I want it. When customers piss me off, I secretly wish I could pull a Ludo and command some rocks to run their asses over. Ludo’s rock-’n’-roll singing, along with Sir Didymus’ fighting style and Hoggle’s 57th change of heart help Sarah reach the castle after a fierce battle. Jareth is there to meet her.
David Bowie is perfectly cast as Jareth, as he is probably the only person alive who could visually outdo the Muppets. His eyebrows and makeup are enough to kill a drag queen; his blonde coif and way too revealing pants add a layer of sexual menace that Labyrinth matter-of-factly deals with as a representation of Sarah’s budding sexuality. He is at home with his gruesome goblin brethren, but he doesn’t want to be home alone. After Sarah eats the poisoned peach, she has a princess-like hallucination that starts innocently child-like yet quickly becomes more sinister and adult. Jareth seductively stalks her in that scene, which ends before it can make good on its Eyes Wide Shut-style costume party. And during her confrontation with Jareth at the film’s climax, Bowie’s dialogue is just short of S&M:
“Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous?”
…and damn near B&D:
“Stop, wait, look Sarah, look what I am offering you. Your dreams. I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.”
Sarah responds with one of the film’s opening lines: “You have no power over me.”
What does that response mean? I’ve never been completely sure. But Labyrinth’s fascination for me is its way of merging the darker Jim Henson from Saturday Night Live and those Wilkins Coffee commercials with the sweet, lovely man whose voice and puppetry hosted the Muppet Show and Sesame Street News. As always, I accept his creations as real, and the universe they inhabit benefits from Henson’s camerawork and the art direction. The M.C. Escher stairs sequence is especially memorable, as is the one number David Bowie doesn’t sing. You’d think a kid who grew up on Sid & Marty Kroft drug-induced puppet freakiness would remain unshaken by its more expensive looking re-emergence, but I was creeped out of my mind by the self-decapitating Day-Glo Fire Gang in the “Chilly Down” number. It was worth it, as they gave me a line I always say to women with too much weave: “Gurrrl, where you goin’ wit’ a head like DAT?!!!”
Labyrinth is the last theatrical feature Henson directed. It brings him full circle and reconciles the two sides of his genius.