Jennifer Connelly plays a teenage girl who must traverse a large maze in a magical world to rescue her infant brother after wishing him away to the Goblin King, played by David Bowie.
The film opens with Connelly wandering her small town, dressed as a medieval princess, acting out a fantasy story with her dog, then realizing she’s late and rushing home as rain falls.
Once home, she whines about having to babysit her infant brother while her parents go out. Her stepmother explains they wouldn’t expect her to babysit if she had dates.
This sends Connelly to her room for more angsty moaning. Then the ultimate indignity, her beloved stuffed bear is missing. Furious, she storms into the infant brother’s room and finds the bear on the floor beside his crib.
The parents head out and the infant brother cries and cries. Connelly tries to soothe him, then gets fed up and wishes him to the goblins.
This scene provides the first look at director Jim Henson’s puppets, as we cut to the goblin hoards hanging on Connelly’s words as she bemoans her predicament. Said goblins aren’t menacing, but humorous, akin to Henson’s Muppets, with distinct personalities.
Soon, she’s wished the brother away and Bowie appears sporting a teased wig, generous eyeliner, puffy shirt, tights, and jackboots. Think New Wave pirate.
Connelly demands her brother’s return. Bowie agrees, provided she claims him at his castle. To reach the castle, she must navigate a vast maze—the titular Labyrinth.
Along the way Connelly recruits some puppet allies: a gentle giant named Luto who resembles furry ogre and can talk to rocks, a conniving Gnome named Hoggle with a penchant for plastic jewelry, and Didymus, an terrier knight who’s trusty steed is a sheep dog bearing an uncanny resemblance to Connelly’s. All save the sheep dog are puppet creations of Henson and, like Henson’s Muppets, feel like actual characters with personalities, nuance, and feelings.
As she progresses toward the castle, Connelly encounters numerous obstacles infused with screenwriter Terry Jones’s absurdist humor, including a talking hat, a pair of bickering anthropomorphic door knockers, and a tribe of creatures with removable heads. Funny enough, but I couldn’t shake the sense of watching a toned-down version of a darker story.
Consider the relationship between Bowie and Connelly. Being Bowie, he exudes a kind of non-threatening, amorphous sexuality that would match a young teen’s fantasies. But also, being Bowie, there’s a darker, more hedonistic undercurrent that feels inappropriate given Connelly’s character’s age. The film paints their relationship as adversarial, but it flirts with something more complex, as evidenced by a fantasy sequence where Connelly envisions herself the star of a glamorous party where she dances with Bowie.
These tonal shifts between absurdist humor and teen angst melodrama prove frustrating. The film seems to aspire to a gravitas its heavy-handed dialog prevents.
Thus I’m unsure of the film’s intended audience. While the practical effects and puppets charm, they’ll seem too childish for teens, and preteens will struggle to identify with Connelly’s teenage heroine or idolize popstar Bowie.
Its theme of the terror inherit in the transition to young adulthood escaped my preteen self when I saw it on a rainy day during a beach vacation. But I walked out of the theater a fan.
Bowie’s performance, the catchy songs, Henson’s creations, and the finale inspired by M. C. Escher’s Relativity all helped.
Mostly Bowie. His charisma works on all ages. The aforementioned finale sees him defy gravity by walking underneath Connelly in a dizzying maze of platforms and stairs. When he reaches one walkway’s end, Bowie steps out and pivots upward 180 degrees to face Connelly. It’s a startling effect made plausible by the performer. Rewatching it now, even my adult self bought it. “Of course he can do that,” I thought. “He’s Bowie.”