“Babe with the power.”
“Power of voodoo.”
“Remind me of the babe.”
I don’t have all that much to say about The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth that I didn’t say on the podcast. I have fond memories of Jim Henson’s work from my youth, but never saw The Dark Crystal (until just before the podcast) and I’ve always seen Labyrinth as more of a quirky curiosity than a cherished childhood classic. In the case of the latter, it turns out that digging into the fairly complex themes and nuances of the story is, for me, more pleasurable than watching the film itself.
THE DARK CRYSTAL
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Opening Weekend: $4.7 million
Budget: $15 million
Worldwide Box Office: $40.6 million
“Most surprising is the lack of either humor or wit, especially in the designs for the mythical creatures. More than anything else, they seem inefficient, as if no order of evolution could ever have thrown them up, even in an off millennium. Miss Piggy would not be kind to The Dark Crystal.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times
Both films are a wonderful display of Henson’s singular talents — and, like many visually sumptuous stories, I wish as much craft had been put into the storytelling as the puppetry. Both movies are a little too straightforward and on the nose, though they’re stuffed to the gills with charming characters and brilliant ideas. The Dark Crystal is fascinating to behold with nary a human on screen, but it’s also very remote. It all feels like it’s happening in a faraway land, long ago, without real emotional resonance. I was happy to see the characters move as they did, but the story could have been about anything.
Labyrinth is a much more accessible film, one that deals with universal subject matter like the awkward teenage years between childhood and adulthood. (This, more than anything else, probably, is what we tend to cover on the podcast.) The ways Labyrinth expresses those universal themes is totally bonkers, however, involving a gender-bending David Bowie and an omnipresent, eye-catching mound in his “perve pants.”
Even moreso than The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is bursting with imagination and a lovable puppet supporting cast, giving us more to hang onto than we got in The Dark Crystal. (It also helps that this one has a sense of humor.) I personally loved Sarah’s distraction as she struggles to put away her literal childhood things, with the Junk Lady trying to remind her of each item’s sentimental value in order to stop her from reaching her goal.
The limbo between youth and adulthood can stretch out infinitely (like a labyrinth!), and when growing up gets particularly tough it is tempting to stop moving forward and act like a kid again. Sarah accomplishes a grown-up goal — saving her baby brother — while managing not to succumb to the Goblin King’s bulging charms. In the end, she gets to keep her fairyland friends a while, holding onto some innocence even while learning a lesson about being selfless. Alas, getting to this point across requires making Jennifer Connolly act as petulant as possible — it feels like her character should perhaps be a year or two younger than she is, with her love of make-believe. Connolly is also saddled with a lot of tricky dialogue, a good deal of which is spoken to herself or no one in particular.
And then there’s David Bowie — who is magnificent, of course, in the campiest, cheesiest way an actor can be. I can’t remember how old I was when I first viewed Labyrinth, but I know the hair, makeup, and costuming definitely set off the alarms of abnormality even then. This was probably before I’d ever seen a man taking on feminine characteristics as something that was supposed to be — well, I still don’t know what it’s supposed to be. Sexy? Scary? Cool? A little of all of these?
I’m not sure anything about the Goblin King makes a lick of sense. Does he want the baby, or does he want Sarah? What would he even do with that baby, when he got tired of singing to it? If he wants the baby, why give Sarah a chance to rescue him? If he wants Sarah… well, ew. Sarah must learn that the glam rock star monarch has no power over her, and refuse his offer to be her master/slave. It’s sort of unclear whether staying in this kingdom represents childhood or adulthood — she’d live in a world of fantasy and make-believe forever, but she’d also be responsible for keeping that codpiece satisfied. When she returns home, she’s become less the bratty sister and more of a nurturing mother figure to Toby, and of course she’s going to grow up. But she also made David Bowie keep his anaconda out of her labyrinth, so innocence is not lost.
It’s rare to be so mystified by the lesson a children’s film is trying to impart, but at least it’s an intriguing enigma. There never was and never will be another movie quite like Labyrinth, that’s for sure.
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Opening Weekend: $3.5 million
Budget: $25 million (approximate)
Worldwide Box Office: $12.7 million
“With their technical astonishments, Director Henson and Executive Producer Lucas have been faithful to the pioneering Disney spirit. In suggesting the thrilling dilemmas that await a wise child, they have flown worlds beyond Walt.” – Richard Corliss, Time
“Jim Henson knows what he`s doing with his Muppet characters on TV and in the movies. But he’s completely at sea when he tries to create more mature entertainment in the form of such adventure films as The Dark Crystal and now Labyrinth. Both films are really quite awful, sharing a much too complicated plot and visually ugly style. What an enormous waste of talent and money is Labyrinth.” — Gene Siskel