Thursday, December 27, 2012

Stubs – Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly. Directed by Jim Henson. Screenplay by Terry Jones. Story by Dennis Lee and Jim Henson. Executive Producer: George Lucas.  Produced by Eric Rattray and David Lazer. Run Time: 101 minutes. U.S. and UK Color. Fantasy

It’s hard to imagine that the combined talents of The Muppet’s Jim Henson, Star Wars’ George Lucas, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and rock star David Bowie would come up with such a misguided effort as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. There are too many Muppets, too much music and not enough story to make this film a worthwhile watch.

The story revolves around Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenager with a vivid imagination, who is supposed to babysit her half-brother, Toby. The movie is going for a Cinderella v. evil step-mother type of situation, but doesn’t do a good job of setting up that angle. Stepmother (Shelley Thompson) is not portrayed as being bad or overbearing, just a little concerned that her attractive and well-built step-daughter can’t get a date on Saturday night.

Sarah has agreed to babysit Toby (Toby Froud) and is running late. But stepmother isn’t really mad or all that hard on Sarah. Still Sarah goes to her room to sulk. While there, she discovers that one of her teddy bears, Lancelot, is missing and goes into her parent’s room, where Toby is sleeping in a crib to retrieve it. Toby is a baby and cries, which leads Sarah to ask Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take Toby away. The idea of a Goblin King is presumed to be mentioned in a book Sarah is reading, called Labyrinth, because it is never really spelled out.

But no sooner has she given Toby away then she has second-thoughts and tries to recant. It’s already too late, but Jareth agrees to bargain. If Sarah can get to his castle, through the Labyrinth in 13 hours he’ll give her back Toby. There is something arbitrary sounding about 13 hours, as opposed to 6, 12 or 24. Perhaps the moviemakers were trying to give the audience a head’s up on how long the movie would seem. Jareth then transports Sarah and himself to the Labyrinth and lets her fend for herself. He will try repeatedly to get Sarah to give up her quest to find Toby.

At the entrance to the Labyrinth, Sarah meets Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson), a dwarf who refuses to help, though he eventually does. Hoggle is one of many muppet-style creatures that Sarah will meet along her way. She quickly learns that nothing is as it seems and that even solid walls have passages. While Sarah makes good progress, she eventually traps herself in a dungeon, which the movie refers to as an oubliette, but Jareth sends Hoggle in to lead her out and to misdirect her back to the beginning of the labyrinth.

During their journey, Sarah and Hoggle run across a group of goblins beating a beast named Ludo (voiced by Ron Mueck). While Hoggle runs away when he hears Ludo’s roar, Sarah saves him, but the two get separated. Members of the Fire Gang, creatures with detachable limbs, harass Sarah until Hoggle comes back to rescue her.  Afterwards, they journey through the Bog of Eternal Stench, with its fart sounds and supposedly accompanying gaseous smells. There they are reunited with Ludo and add Sir Didymus (voiced by David Shaughnessy) a fox-like knight who guards the bridge that leads them away from the bog.

Jareth has given Hoggle a peach that he wants Sarah to eat. When everyone is hungry, Hoggle gives it to her. Sarah falls into a trance. At first she thinks she’s home and that all of this misadventure was just a bad dream, but that’s not true. Next, she imagines herself in a ballroom where Jareth tries to seduce her. However, the striking of a clock reminds her that she’s supposed to be saving her brother.  She breaks free of the trance and rejoins Ludo and Sir Didymus as they near Goblin City, which surrounds Jareth’s castle. Hoggle, once again, reappears and disables the giant robot that guards the city’s gate.

Hoggle requests and receives Sarah’s forgiveness for his earlier betrayal and the four make their way through Goblin City, defeating the Goblin Army sent by Jareth to stop them. When they reach Jareth’s throne, Sarah goes in alone, but she finds Jareth and Toby in an Escher-style room, where the laws of physics and perspective don’t matter. Sarah tries, but is unable to find a way to get to Toby. Jareth confronts her and asks her to give up her quest and to stay with him forever. But Sarah refuses, reciting the lines from Labyrinth, which ends with the line that Jareth has no power over her.

Jareth acknowledges defeat and returns Toby to Sarah. Back home, Sarah realizes she can see Hoggle in her mirror. She tells her friends that she needs them and summons them to her room, where they celebrate her victory. In the end, Jareth, in the form of the white owl, watches the party from outside and flies away.

Not that I watched this film with high expectations, but I was very disappointed in what such a talented creative team had wrought. While Terry Jones is credited with the screenplay, what was actually shot was quite different, a collaboration between Henson, Lucas, Laura Phillips and Elaine May. May’s involvement should have resulted in a better screenplay. Her previous work with Mike Nichols in the 1950s and her previous work on Heaven Can Wait (1976) give her a comedic cred that is sadly missing from the film. It may be a case of too many writers spoiling the script.

The presence of David Bowie changed the direction of the film. Jones’ original script didn’t have the audience seeing the center of the Labyrinth until Sarah got there. But with someone has big as Bowie in the cast, that wouldn’t do. Therefore, we’re given a couple of Bowie songs that just seem to stop the action in their tracks and have Bowie cavorting with goblins. His talents are misused in this film.

The only other star in the film is Jennifer Connelly, who was only 16 at the time. For an actress of her age, appearing in only her fourth film, I got the sense she was capable of doing much more than the screenplay allowed. Connelly, who is still acting in films, would grow up into a bit of a sex symbol in such films as The Rocketeer (1991) and prove her acting chops in Requiem for a Dream (2000) and A Beautful Mind (2001).

The film was not a commercial success, making back only about half of its production costs at the US box office. Jim Henson apparently took the flop very hard and never again directed a movie. He would die four years later in 1990. His was an extraordinary career that lasted from the 1950’s, through stints on the Jimmy Dean Show, to Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Saturday Night Live and not to mention the long-running Muppets TV Shows and multiple successful movies. His legacy is set in stone despite the failures of this film.

Overall, Labyrinth is a creative disappointment; a film which doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go or how to get there. It’s sort of a lesson on that while film is a collaborative effort there needs to be a singular vision for it to work. Labyrinth is an undercooked cake of too many flavors. Perhaps one of the members of the creative team could have made a better film on their own. Sometimes when you try too hard to make everyone happy no one is in the end.

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