"It's so stimulating being your hat."
The term visionary is bandied about entirely too much in this day and age. The following people have been labeled visionaries in advertisements for their films: Zack Snyder, Patrick Lussier, Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, Marcus Nispel. The only one of that crew I could make an argument for is Fincher. In fact, there have really and truly only been a handful of visionaries in the history of film, and Jim Henson was undeniably one of them. The world suffered a major loss when he passed away in 1990 as he created more original and timeless entertainments than most people could have hoped to create in several lifetimes.
One of his most original creations is 1986's Labyrinth, a musical fantasy that is unlike anything seen before or since. It's funny how all the cgi in the world has yet to create anything on a par with Henson's puppets and sets. A fifteen year-old Jennifer Connelly plays Sarah, a girl stuck babysitting her half-brother Toby when her parents go out for what seems like the umpteenth time this month. Unable to stop Toby from crying, she makes a wish that Jareth, The Goblin King would take him away from her. Her wish comes true when Jareth (David Bowie) appears in the boy's room and tells her that if she ever wants to see him again, she must make her way through a labyrinth to his palace.
The simplicity of the set-up and story is what makes the film work so well. Rather than spending time setting up the rules of the world, we're thrown right into Sarah's world that is filled with crosses between fantasy and reality, and makes embracing the world of the film that much easier as a result. Ostensibly this is a children's film, but Henson was always savvy enough to keep his plots simple enough for children to follow, but never pander to them, or treat them like simpletons the way many directors do when approaching family entertainment.
Let's talk for a minute about David Bowie. I am one of the biggest David Bowie fans in the world, and I've always loved his ability to play things so gloriously over-the-top, that the joke actually reverts to being on the audience rather than on him. He deliriously goes for broke here, and it works every time he's on screen. His costumes are fantastic, and add a level of extravagance that's seemingly fit for Liberace.
While we're on the subject of his costumes, let's talk about his... um... codpiece. It's nowhere near as ridiculous as I seem to remember with the exception of two costumes he wears. The red & grey number he wears mid-film to go talk to Hoggle & his white outfit he wears in his final scene. Those two outfits definitely reach excessive heights of massiveness in the crotchal region, but I had come under the impression over time that it was grotesquely large in every scene, and it's not. It's an instant point of recognition for fans, however, and is one of those things where the legend is better than the facts.
Jennifer Connelly is actually pretty good too. In the early going, she's whiny and annoying, but as the film goes on, she becomes more subtle and her final confrontation with Jareth is actually really good. Again, it was a case of me seeming to remember her as being more cartoonish than she actually is. The sets, costumes, and creatures are all fantastic. It's a real world, fully fleshed out and realized, and it makes the film more timeless as a result. There are very few films from the 80s that were able to achieve a timelessness (Sarah's love of denim aside) and this is undeniably one of them.
The one place that Henson borrows from, to amazing effect, is the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The items in Sarah's room become the things infused in her fantasy world. We see a picture of an actor from a show she saw on her mirror, and that actor plays Jareth in her fantasy. She has the famous MC Escher "Relativity" picture on her wall that will become the setting of her final confrontation with The Goblin King. The characters that become a part of her crew parallel the ones Dorothy meets in Oz, not directly, but enough to see its influence.
Lots of Henson's best muppeteers were involved in the film, Kevin Clash (Elmo), Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Steve Whitmire (Wembley Fraggle, and now Kermit & Ernie), & of course, Frank Oz, which only adds to the quality of the craft on display. While I feel that this film isn't quite as good as The Dark Crystal, it's definitely better to watch with your younger children, and they'll thank you for not haunting their dreams with the scary visions on display in that film. But Labyrinth is a fantastic film that stands the test of time, and if it has been a while since you've seen it, I recommend you watch it again. It's just as good as you remember it to be, and that's something you can't say about a lot of films from your childhood.