Wednesday, July 05, 2017


Some movies are very much of a time. Age doesn't look good on them. If you see them for the first time years after they were new, it's hard to see what was so special about them. Other movies have copied their good ideas (maybe improving on them), visual effects have advanced in ways that make them look silly, the pace of storytelling has changed considerably.... maybe all of the above.

Some movies are very much for an age. If you see them as a kid, they're endeared to you forever. Even when they were new, they had considerable shortcomings, but it just doesn't matter if the movie taps into your young sense of wonder at a suggestable moment in your life when every movie is better because it's a movie.

I think Labyrinth is both.

I never saw Jim Henson's quirky puppet half-musical, starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, back in in the 80s... and I believe that because I didn't, the window on loving it simply closed for me. I realize that I'm going to ruffle some feathers here saying anything bad about it now. I don't want to; I love me some Muppets. But 30 years on, for both the movie and me, Labyrinth simply doesn't cast much of a spell.

There are some things to enjoy here, some of which have probably helped the movie endure. David Bowie is pretty great, a twisted blend of playfulness and menace that's a lot of fun (and probably not too terrifying for a mostly young audience). Frankly, there's not enough Bowie in the movie; it really loses steam when he's not around. He's also responsible for several catchy songs sprinkled throughout the film. The music is definitely another asset that's not being used widely enough, as the movie resists going full musical.

Jennifer Connelly is sort of okay. (The moments where she's painful to watch are not her fault, anyway. Those can be chalked up to awful dialogue and tissue-thin characterization.) It's sad to think that even today, 30 years later, a movie with a young female lead -- with a story that doesn't involve her pining for a boyfriend -- is such a rarity. Still, for this story being a "hero's journey," her character of Sarah doesn't go on much of one; after her five minutes of brattiness at the top of the film, she instantly becomes an entirely different person: noble, intelligent, selfless, and caring.

There's a bit of tonal whiplash. The puppet characters of the labyrinth dart around to whatever motivations and behavior the story requires, too inconsistent and silly to be taken as seriously as they look and sometimes act. That's sort of standard for the Muppets, so it's not too strong a complaint from me -- though I do think the more effective Muppet movies do a better job of blending the serious moments into the wackiness.

My main objection, Your Honor, is how often the movie relies on facts not in evidence. At the start of the tale, Sarah's behavior is motivated only by generic teenage moodiness. The life she finds so unfair seems perfectly fine, and her "evil stepmother" is actually quite gentle and nice. She's reading a book from which the movie's Goblin King lore seems to derive, but we don't hear enough of it to really understand the rules of what's to come; the movie acts as though we ought to know this made-up fairy tale mythology as well as Mother Goose. (And why is she trying to memorize the dialogue? Is she going to be in a play or something? We never find out.)

There certainly were worse movies from the 80s of which to wear out a VHS tape. Still, adult me had a hard time seeing what so many people had spoken of lovingly over the years. I give Labyrinth a C-.


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