Labyrinth Review

The Film

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Although it’s less than twenty-five years since Labyrinth was originally released, it’s all but impossible to imagine a film like it being made today. I’m not just referring to the fact that, if produced in 2009, its charming animatronic creatures would be replaced by slick, soulless CG equivalents – there’s also the slight matter of its content. Never mind the slightly unsettling issue of David Bowie (sporting a truly shocking hairdo and the tightest pair of trousers you ever did see) abducting a baby and spiriting him away to his fantasy playground, or the vaguely paedophilic undertones of Bowie romancing a then-fifteen-year-old Jennifer Connelly. Just imagine trying to pitch the following storyline to prospective financiers:

A petulant teenager, Sarah (Connelly), fed up babysitting her young brother Toby, wishes for him to be taken away by the Goblin King (Bowie). True to form, the goblins show up and make off with him. Greatly regretting what she has done, Sarah implores the Goblin King to reverse the wish. Instead, he transports her to his enchanted kingdom and gives her thirteen hours to navigate the labyrinth to his castle, or Toby will belong to the goblins forever.

See what I mean? The narrative is so filled with non-sequiturs, plot holes and general absurdities that it would no doubt be shot down by most studio executives, assuming it hadn’t already been binned by the script-readers. For that reason, we should be thankful that Labyrinth came along when it did because, in spite of its flaws, it’s a truly magical and unique exercise in moviemaking. (Another reason to be thankful for this is the involvement of George Lucas as executive producer. Had it been made but a few years later, it seems reasonable to assume that he would have insisted on plastering it with wall-to-wall CGI.) The last feature film to be made by Jim Henson prior to his death in 1990, it features all the great man’s mainstays, from his weird and wonderful puppetry to his obsession with wordplay to the pitch-perfect balance between appeal and downright creepiness. Working from a rough script by Terry Jones (he of Monty Python fame), Henson depicts an utterly nonsensical but strangely plausible fantasy world that echoes many of the best fairytales, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Maurice Sendak’s stories Outside Over There and Where the Wild Things Are.

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The puppetry is undoubtedly the star of the show, ably distracting viewers from the somewhat flimsy narrative and the incredibly broad strokes with which the characters are painted. Jennifer Connelly, in her second leading role after her performance as Jennifer Corvino in Dario Argento’s Phenomena (which actually has a surprising amount in common with this film and would make for a fascinating double bill), does well to hold her own against the colourful array of creatures she encounters, even if her performance does at times smack a little of inexperience. She can probably be forgiven for that, however, given that the script doesn’t exactly give her a lot to work with, requiring her only to alternate between the roles of bratty teenager, wide-eyed innocent and fearless leader, and to deliver a string of exposition-heavy lines that would probably make sense on the page of a storybook but seem a bit clunky coming out of the mouth of a real person. Bowie, meanwhile, does a surprisingly good job of underplaying the part of Jareth the Goblin King, although he does contribute some truly awful songs to make up for his comparatively restrained performance (and let’s not even begin to talk about the wig).

There’s something impressively gung-ho about Labyrinth. It clearly knows it’s nonsense, but doesn’t seem to care and simply runs with it, resulting in a movie whose irresistible charm makes up for the fact that the story is held together with sticking plaster and the whole thing is really just an excuse to wow the audience with its impressive creature effects and a hefty dose of 80s camp. This was never a childhood favourite for me (I saw it once, when I was around eleven years old, and had more or less forgotten about it until I watched it again recently), so it doesn’t hold quite the same degree of nostalgia for me that it will for many other people. Regardless of that, however, it’s unquestionably lamentable that films of this sort simply don’t get made any more. Perhaps we’ve become too hung up on things making sense, or perhaps we’re so anxious not to frighten children that we forget that all the best fairytales had elements that were truly terrifying. Regardless, for all its daftness and artifice, Labyrinth seems a good deal more genuine than just about any other film aimed at children that I can recall seeing in recent years.

The Disc

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Making its high definition debut, Labyrinth looks rather good on this all-regions dual-layer BD from Sony Pictures. Presenting the film in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, this AVC encode appears to reproduce the source materials quite nicely, with a level of detail that is largely pleasing although rather inconsistent. While most of the film’s effects were achieved practically, there are a handful of optical shots, most noticeably during the musical number involving the Fireys and again at the end, during Sarah’s gravity-defying, Escher-inspired pursuit of Toby. In the case of the former, the definition afforded by the Blu-ray format reveals just how primitive the bluescreen effects are, while in both instances overall detail levels suffer noticeably when compared to the rest of the film. The level of grain is moderate but has, I suspect, been manipulated to some degree, given its slightly “sluggish” appearance. All in all, it’s a nice enough image and a significant improvement on any previous DVD release.

Audio comes in three lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 variants – English, French and German – and sounds more than acceptable. The theatrical and original DVD releases were in stereo, so unless there was also a multi-channel theatrical version, it’s reasonable to assume that this is a remix. If so, it’s not a particularly intrusive one, opening up the sound stage a bit but still sounding like an 80s recording. Bowie’s songs come belting out of the speakers like gangbusters, and a surprisingly meaty bass kicks in on occasions, particularly during the battle that takes place during the film’s climax. Subtitles come in a multitude of language and cover the film itself, with a more limited array of subtitle options covering the extras.

Extras ported over from the original DVD release include a vintage hour-long documentary, Inside the Labyrinth, which goes into commendable detail about the film’s production and serves as a fascinating document of its time, as well as a number of features from the 2007 Anniversary Edition release, including a commentary by conceptual designer Brian Froud and two half-hour Journey Through the Labyrinth featurettes, featuring on the character design and the film’s origins respectively. New to the BD version is a picture-in-picture BonusView feature entitled The Storytellers, which supplements the film with newly recorded interview footage of the likes of Cheryl Henson (Jim Henson’s daughter and an artist on the movie) and make-up artist Nick Dudman, albeit on a rather sporadic basis. Unsurprisingly, given the film’s nature, the extras tend to be highly technical, and the absence of any comments from Jennifer Connelly or David Bowie (except in the vintage documentary) is lamentable. Still, there’s a wealth of content here, and those with a genuine interest on the technical side of the film’s production will no doubt relish making their way through it all. There is also BD-Live functionality, although I was unable to access it, presumably because the online material has not been made available prior to the official release date.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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