Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)

I don't call my review of Labyrinth a "blast from the past" review because I never saw it when I was a kid, except perhaps for the opening animated owl on the Disney Channel. I knew about the movie from film books (I remember reading about the special effects in a book that also shows how they did the unmasked Vader for Return of the Jedi, for example) and always found the concepts and some of the imagery rather creepy, so I actually avoided watching the film.

(I did know enough about the film to make jokes about David Bowie's excessively tight pants when I was older.)

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is discussing the film and so here I am finding the motivation to watch the movie. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Teenage Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is not taking her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, and the presence of her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) very well. She retreats into her imagination and fantasyland far more than is healthy. Required to babysit Toby one night so her father and stepmother can go on a date, she becomes so frustrated with him that she wishes the Goblin King would take him away.

Well be careful what you wish for. None other than the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and various Muppet minions show up. Sarah immediately realizes the horrible mistake she's made, but Jareth requires her to solve a magical labyrinth in 13 hours or else Toby will be transformed into a goblin forever.

Sarah now has to traverse a dangerous and magical world, making friends and allies and learning life lessons along the way.

The Good

*Although TVTropes (and some of the reviews from the time) talk crap about her acting, Jennifer Connelly does a great job as Sarah. She starts out as a selfish, immature, annoying, bratty teenager. Seriously, there is a lot of flouncing and excessive drama going on here (plus her speech to Toby about how he's a selfish brat shows quite a bit of projection) and it makes her really unsympathetic. However, through the events of the film, she grows out of it. Even when she's in full brat mode she still shows some sisterly concern for Toby, and Connelly does a good job projecting her growing horror when she realizes that she did set the goblins on him. And when the Goblin King takes Toby away, she sets right to getting him back, although she takes some time to grow out of her demanding and selfish tendencies. Sarah's character arc is extraordinarily well done and much of the credit goes to Connelly.

*The character Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) is given real depth and is played very sympathetically. He's short, ugly, has low self-esteem, apparently never had any friends until he met Sarah, and gets abused and threatened by Jareth, but although he does some bad stuff he's not truly bad. I liked him.

*There are moments of legitimate suspense, like the intercut of real, actual goblins observing Sarah about to invoke them and her over-dramatic speech in which she makes the wish that the goblins would take Toby away. If I didn't know the general story already, I would have definitely found it more suspenseful, and if I were a little kid (i.e. the target audience), even more so. And the Junk Lady (Denise Bryer) is pretty creepy too, given what she ultimately plans on doing.

*The movie teaches good moral lessons for children, especially those who might have a new sibling they resent or are part of a blended family. Sarah learns over the course of it to be unselfish, brave, humble, ask nicely for things, not judge by appearances, persevere when things get tough, understand that things aren't always what they seem, and solve her own problems using her own intelligence. She also uses the kindness we see even in full brat mode to recruit allies.

*The movie gets off to a quick start and moves along quickly. Sarah's invocation of the Goblin King is ten minutes in and she enters the labyrinth at around fifteen.

*Although Shelley Thompson isn't in the film much as Sarah's stepmother, she does a good job with her small part. Although I can easily imagine her rubbing Sarah the wrong way, I can definitely see her point of view that Sarah isn't respectful and needs to have a more normal social life. And her and Sarah's issues are shown, not told, in one scene that was painful to watch.

*There are a lot of good subtle touches, and nothing is in the film by accident. For example, Sarah has a scrapbook with clippings of her actress mother's career and a man beside her in the image is David Bowie. To be fair I might not have noticed if I hadn't already known from others' comments on the film that Jareth is really is her mother's new boyfriend (yikes, a sexual rivalry with one's own mother?), but just because someone doesn't notice subtext doesn't mean it's not there. Another example is all the toys and fairy-tale stuff in Sarah's room. Despite being presumably 15-16 (Connelly's actual age at the time), this shows rather than tells her immaturity, as does the fact that she utterly loses it when Toby and/or her stepmother take one of the toys for him to play with. Yes, teenage girls don't want people messing with their things (as Nic pointed out in the podcast), but I was a better sharer at 3-4 (when my little brother was born/big enough to want to play with my toys) than she is at 16.

*The costumes and creature design are very well-done. Giving Bowie's Goblin King different-colored eyes makes for an unsettling introduction, besides the obvious fact that he's come in through Toby's bedroom window and is looming over a teenage girl. There's also a straight-up Goblin Mecha Muppet at one point that's pretty cool, as well as armies of goblins with what look like elderly velociraptor cavalry and machine guns.

The Bad

*The opening sequence goes on for too long with that damn owl flying around. All with the David Bowie soundtrack too. It goes on for nearly three minutes. Come on people, let's get going.

*Speaking of David Bowie, he's not that impressive as an actor. When he first appears to Sarah he's rather monotone and dull. He does manage to project his subtle contempt for Sarah well with his speech about how she should go back to her toys and forget about Toby and it seems like he really is having fun in "Magic Dance." However, I think he's mostly there for the singing, and his acting ability pales in comparison to Connelly.

*There's too much David Bowie music in the soundtrack. Yes, I know he has a major part in the movie, but the Bowie songs are jarring when the rest of the film's soundtrack is more typical of an 80s fantasy film and him actually singing in-scene (other than "Dance, Magic Dance") was even worse. A Bowie concept album based on the film (exploring themes like coming of age, sexual awakenings, parental divorce, etc) would have been an interesting idea though, just like Songs in the Key of X for The X-Files. It would have been better to save the actual Bowie songs in the opening and closing credits of the film rather than have him awkwardly bursting into song in the midst of his appearances. "Dance, Magic Dance" kind of works, but it comes off to me as what TVTropes would call a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Although I could imagine it's there to show that Jareth is bored lording it over a bunch of dim-witted gremlins (i.e. motivation for messing with Sarah and/or wanting to keep her and her brother as companions) and that he's more affectionate with Toby than his own sister, it just comes off like an excuse to have a Bowie number. Actual musicals integrate the numbers into the plot far better. And although one could excuse "DMD" as Jareth just being bored and having a musical performance for kicks, him bursting into song at other times really didn't work for me. "Within You" is a really blatant example.

*And as far as Big-Lipped Alligator Moments are concerned, the singing and dancing vaguely Caribbean fire creatures took too much time on-screen, event though they do serve as an additional peril for Sarah and give her a chance to demonstrate her cleverness in dealing with them. The blue-screen effects aren't very good either. I admit I do like the song though. :)

*Some of the dialogue is a little too on the nose, like Sarah's bit about how she took it for granted after Hoggle lectures her about not taking things for granted.

The Verdict

A charming children's fantasy with some flaws. 8.5 out of 10. Of, and for anybody who's interested, someone typed up the entire novelization here. It goes into a lot more detail about the psychological and family dynamics driving the plot if you're into that sort of thing.

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