Bonfire of the Nerderies – “Labyrinth”

Yes, I’ve had an idea for a series – all blogs have them, so why should I be any different in my rigid adherence to nerdy blogging tropes?

“Bonfire of the Nerderies” aims to talk about some key works of nerd culture – films, books, games, albums which made me the relatively well-adjusted geek that I am today.

As I’ve just received it on Blu-Ray for my birthday, it seems appropriate to begin this series with Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1986 fantasy yarn “Labyrinth”.

An adventure in glorious 80's nostalgia

In the mini-wave of 80’s fantasy movies – I’m thinking here of titles like Ridley Scott’s “Legend”, Peter Yates’ “Krull”, Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal”, Ron Howard’s “Willow” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Neverending Story”“Labyrinth” stands apart for me.  It could be down to the film’s dreamlike fantasy world.  Perhaps it’s the blend of talents behind the camera.  As well as Henson and frequent collaborator Frank Oz behind the camera, you have George Lucas producing and Terry Jones writing the screenplay, with the genius of Brian Froud’s art influencing the gorgeous character design for the creature cast.

Fun fact. People used to look like this in the 80's - for reals!

It could be due to Jennifer Connelly never looking more angelic than she did here, in the lead role of petulant teen Sarah, whose careless wish for her annoying baby brother to be taken away by a mythical Goblin King comes true, leading her on a dangerous journey through a kingdom populated by puzzles, uncanny creatures and delightfully visible matte lines.

From an almost forgotten era when CG barely existed and optical effects ruled...

Watching the film again this morning on a very nice Blu-Ray transfer – thanks a bunch, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment – I was struck by how feel the story holds up some 25 years later.

25 flipping years, folks.  I am officially too bloody old.

Sure, there are some missteps to consider.  When we initially meet Sarah at the outset of the film – after a title sequence (remember those?) with a nifty CG owl flitting about – we see her adorned in Renaissance Fair garb and capering about in what can only be described as a spot of very earnest Live Action Role-Playing (solo questing, for the win, nerd mates!).

"City of Thieves" was better, if you ask me (image via

The LARPing I can buy – she’s been an only child, she now has a new step-mum and step-brother and she’s wanting nothing much to do with her family.  Retreating into a comforting world of fantasy and childhood toys is one thing – her attitude is another.  Though Sarah is supposed to be 15 – and her step-mother alludes to the fact that it would be nice for Sarah to be going on a date instead of togging-up like Precious Princess McWhimsy and heading off to the park for another run through the Labyrinth tale – she never really seems to act her age.

This could be deliberate.  Is she heading off the unsettling demands of an adult world which wants to prematurely make currency of your nascent sexuality whether it be by peer pressure, fashion trends or pop cultural influence by self-consciously withdrawing from the conventions of teen life?  Or is she just a honking great nerd, whose stuffed animals and children’s books will be replaced in short order by epic fantasy novels and Weta Workshop collectables?

When we see Sarah realise that she’s late for her pre-arranged Saturday night of parental babysitting and her subsequent reaction to a dressing-down from her proverbial nasty step-mother, it’s here that I really don’t buy Sarah as being a convincing teenager.  Her petulance and pouting over-reaction to being asked to look after her baby brother is what you might expect to see from an eleven year old, not somebody who might conceivably be taking her driving test in a year or two.

I could be reading too much into this, of course – Terry Jones could be satirising a particular kind of middle-class teen whose self-absorbed, too-intelligent-for-their-own-good nature is harmless but ultimately ripe fodder for comedy (she’s like a hot Adrian Mole!).   She’s a callow dreamer whose rich and vivid fantasy life is delaying her entry into an adult world which is fraught with fears and dangers more emotional and intangible than those in the novels she devours.

Sarah’s fantasy world and real life are thrown into awkward collision when her hissy fit request for her baby brother to be taken away is realised by the sudden appearance of the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie, in rare form), who kidnaps the boy and tells Sarah that if she wants him back, she has to travel through his Labyrinth – a land of puzzles, traps and deadly danger lurking around every corner.

Inevitably, it’s here that the movie really takes flight – in many fantasy or sci-fi movies made in the 1980’s, suburbia was a stultifying dead zone which had to escaped from at any cost and this is no exception.  Though Sarah is initially terrified by the prospect of her brother going missing, once she’s in the Labyrinth her love of quests, puzzles and brain teasers means that she’s singularly well-matched with the many obstacles which Jareth places in her path.

In the manner of any fantasy story which calls for a brave heroine to journey through a strange land, she has to have a team of friends to call on for help at distinct junctures – it’s a formula which always works.

In “Labyrinth”, we have Hoggle, a goblin gardener whose initial reticence to help Sarah and cowardice in the face of Jareth’s taunts are eventually defeated come the climax.  There’s also Ludo, the Orange-furred gentle giant who looks like a cross between an Orangutan and an Aberdeen Angus bull and who has the underrated ability to sing to rocks and have them do his bidding.  Finally, there is Sir Didimus – a curious Yorkshire Terrier-like fellow who reminded me of Don Quixote, if Don Quixote rode around on an old English sheepdog and liked to give goblins a right old beating.

Sir Didimus, Hoggle and Ludo.

If you’re reading that description and thinking “Wizard of Oz”, then you’re not alone.  If anything, “Labyrinth” does remind you quite a bit of Frank L. Baum’s children’s classic – four individuals, stronger together than apart, travelling through a strange land, peopled by creatures analogous to those present in the heroine’s home land, seeking enlightenment and resolution in a city at the end of the long road: If you’re going to be influenced by something in your work, why not be influenced by the gold standard?

Mixed into Sarah’s quest is her uneasy relationship with Jareth – he’s given her what she wants, a world to escape to and a child gotten rid of – but he’s the potential architect of her undoing and wants nothing more than to hold her prison eternally, to enslave her in his world.

If you want a Goblin King in your movie, who else are you going to call?

I’m guessing that Jareth is supposed to be a catch-all stand-in for the delights of fantasy and the ways that a world of the imagination can be infinitely preferable to the world that you normally live in – a theme explored in stories as diverse as Terry Gilliam’s brilliantly bleak “Brazil”, Zack Snyder’s schoolgirl fetish-tastic “Sucker Punch” and Ernest Cline’s glorious “Ready Player One”.

As ever in these stories, the world of fantasy offers only temporary respite from the demands of adult responsibility – sooner or later, the heroine has to accept that the real world is where she is supposed to be and that the world of her imagination is not going to be somewhere that she can live forever.

After a confrontation with Jareth in an MC Escher-esque stair puzzle in his castle – she defeats him by telling him that he has no power over her, finally remembering a line from the book she reads at the beginning of the film, one which had always eluded her memory until now – Sarah returns to the real world and places Toby to his crib, managing to reach some kind of peace with her new family and to in turn put away some of the childish trinkets in her room which symbolize her arrested development.

Refreshingly, the film doesn’t conclude on a note which suggests that Sarah’s pathway in adult life is going to be entirely devoid of the fantastical – she sees her friends in her bedroom mirror and is then reunited with them in real life as the credits roll, which I took as an indicator that Terry Jones screenplay wants us to take away the idea that an appreciation of the fanciful and absurd are healthy, and that we should allow space in our day for imagination and fantasy: There’s got to be something more than mortgages and ‘reality’ t.v., after all.

Watching the film as an adult certainly gives you a different perspective on it.  You may actually feel that Sarah is actually something of an annoying dolt at the beginning of the story – as a child, you’re certainly supposed to identify with her but as an adult it’s almost impossible to.  She’s overly needy, precious and selfish, treats her family as obstacles to her childish fantasy life and behaves appallingly to an infant who can’t possibly appreciate the impact that he involuntarily has on her life.

Experience is the making of her and she’s a (mostly) better person at the end of her journey through Jareth’s labyrinth – is it reading too much into things to imagine that he’s actually the personification of Sarah’s selfishness and that by defeating his puzzles she is unconsciously trying to get rid of the negative character traits which prevent her from making the journey from naive child to young woman?

I appreciated the on-screen elements of the film, too.  There’s something charmingly hand-hewn about this film – a quality implicit in the genre films of the 1980’s, which had to build grandiose sets, fabricate creatures from latex and painstakingly matte paint their worlds in a time before the bulk of the heavy lifting could be done on computers and server farms by equally gifted digital artists.   You could argue, I guess, that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy did a lot to preserve the best bits of both disciplines – computer generated worlds populated by creatures portrayed by actors in elaborate make-up and costumes.

As a work of fantasy, I think that this still holds up – it’s nice to see a film like this where the protagonist is a girl and her whole character isn’t defined by her sexuality – and it’s world is one that I really enjoyed returning to.  It’s full of whimsy, lovely incidental details (did you ever catch the milk bottles outside the door of Jareth’s castle?  I did this time around) and a sense of dreamlike wonder that a lot of films of the era shot for but didn’t quite reach.

It wants in some respects because Jennifer Connelly wasn’t as great an actress in her formative years as she subsequently became.  She’s a little wooden, to be honest.  Nowadays, we might cite acting on green screen as an issue, because the elements she was reacting to were not there during filming, but this film appeared to be mostly practical to a casual observer.  The sets are there, the creatures are there – I would imagine that you don’t have to do much work as an actor to inhabit a fantasy world when it’s actually built for real and  70% in front of you.

Bowie is, of course, Bowie.  He’s never been the best musician turned actor, but he’s an eternally enthusiastic and charismatic performer who does best in pieces like this, which trade on his slightly ethereal nature for much of their effectiveness and put him front and centre in a world which is resolutely off-kilter and uncanny.

Would I recommend this to you if you have young ones and want to turn them onto some of the geeky films which you enjoyed as a child?  I think so.  The creature effects and some optical FX may be showing their age – the synth-heavy scores and original Bowie tunes certainly are – but I think that there’s enough energy and verve present in the late Jim Henson’s storytelling to carry younger viewers away and keep them interested, even if they’ve never seen a pre-CG era film.

In conclusion – a classic fantasy movie, with interesting undertones and a charmingly realised world.  Add it to your DVD rental queue and wallow in some excellent 80’s nostalgia.

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