Fantasies are usually timeless, since they're set in mythical realms and populated by strange and wonderful creatures that could live at any time--past, present, or future. But with Jim Henson's "Labyrinth" (1986), the famed Muppeteer did something a little risky. And I don't mean having a character who's tied to a definite age entering into a fantasy world, because we've seen that a multitude of times since J. M. Barrie introduced audiences to Peter Pan, L. Frank Baum gave us Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Lewis Carroll penned Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But once those characters left their respective worlds and entered fantasy realms, there were no dated elements.
In "The Dark Crystal" (1982), Henson gave fans a total fantasy world. Not so in "Labyrinth," and here's where the risk comes in. The late Henson cast rocker David Bowie to play a fantasy version of himself as the Goblin King in this film, and that means a thumping techno soundtrack of Eighties' tunes written and performed by Bowie. There are times when the big hair, eye make-up, big shoulder pads, and distinctive Eighties' sound makes you feel as if you're watching an old MTV video or a sketch from "The Muppet Show" involving Bowie as the special guest. Now that "Labyrinth" is approaching its 25th anniversary, Bowie's look and music feel ultra-campy, especially surrounded by Muppets. But it's brilliant, really, using the Muppets in a fantasy that could otherwise frighten children out of their seats. How can you get too scared when Henson's little furballs and fantastic creatures keep popping up as comic relief? And if you don't mind an Eighties' twist on a fantasy world, "The Labyrinth" still holds up as a fun family movie.
The power is in the details, because Henson has a knack for creating fantastic sets and creatures big and small to populate them. It's also a fun movie because it feels like a bridge between fantasy movies in the past and future. Movie lovers will recognize elements of "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" that Henson "borrowed" to make this movie, but they'll also get a kick out of seeing all of the elements in this film that turn up later in the Harry Potter books and movies. Why, even the name "Hogwart" pops up, along with that distinctive white owl and moving, shifting staircases that eventually find their way into Hogwarts. On the Alice side, there's the hole that the heroine falls into, "cards" she meets inside a labyrinth, an entreaty to "Come inside and have a nice cup of tea," and different doors from which to choose. Meanwhile, it's hard not to see a little of the cowardly lion in the timid, troll-like Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) who accompanies the heroine on her quest to reach the Goblin King's castle. And like the Wicked Witch, Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie) sees the heroine's progress through a crystal ball and is surrounded by odd minions.
Young Jennifer Connelly, who won a Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), plays Sarah, a disgruntled teen who resents her father and stepmother assuming she'll babysit her toddler half-brother, Toby (Toby Froud). When we're first introduced to Sarah we surmise that she's a dreamer, and prone to pretend. She wears flowing fantasy-world gowns over her jeans and pretends to interact with creatures from a book she's reading about a Goblin King who lives in a castle accessible only through a labyrinth. In an act that qualifies her for the world's worst babysitter, she invokes the Goblin King and asks the goblins to take her brother away from her and out of her life. But when it happens, to right things she must follow the Goblin King and accept his challenge to reach his castle within 13 hours, or Toby becomes a permanent resident of the castle.
Henson made sure to include plenty of things that would appeal to boys as well as girls. When, for example, Sarah first enters the fantasy world she encounters Hoggle peeing from behind. Later, fountains show miniature trolls with water pouring from spouts that are located just below the belt. And what is Hoggle engaged in doing? Minutes after little girls will be charmed by fairies that fly through the air, they'll be horrified (and their brothers will laugh their little heads off) as Hoggle sprays them with insecticide. Even the girls may come around when Sarah goes to help one and the fairy bites her. "See?" Hoggle says. They're pests! That's only one example of the dangers and delights in this strange land. Back home on Sarah's desk there was a copy of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," and a number of the Muppets she encounters in this land look like Wild Things--especially big and brawny Ludo (Ron Mueck), who also joins Sarah in her quest. Just as Dorothy's dog made it to Oz, so does Sarah's . . . only he turns up as the trusty "steed" of a little creature who looks and acts a lot like Puss 'n Boots from the Shrek movies. Didymus makes her third ally, and her adventure becomes theirs as they negotiate ubliets, "cleaners," and the Bog of Eternal Stench (not to be confused with the Pit of Despair). It's all quite fun, and older viewers will catch random allusions to other puppeteers as well, like Henson's nod to Señor Wences and his "S'awright?" "S'awright" signature routine.
In terms of the plot, there's nothing really new here, and the Bowie music and look does date the fantasy. But Henson's vision and the wonderful bag of puppetry tricks he turns to are enough to make "Labyrinth" a winner, still.
For an older film (and time hasn't been real kind to Eighties' reels, on the whole), "Labyrinth" looks very nice in Blu-ray. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc, and the black levels and level of color saturation all appeared to be fine. So is the level of detail that we see from frame to frame. There is atmospheric grain and a little noise and flecks of imperfections in early scenes with bright sky backgrounds, but once Henson moves to a controlled-lighting soundstage the picture displays deep, rich tones and consistently sharp detail. Sometimes it's clear enough that you can see the puppeteer strings if you're looking for them. "Labyrinth" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also quite nice: an English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 that has a robust bass and bright, crisp treble notes. There's a nice distribution of sound across the five speakers too that fills the room without intruding on the movie-going experience by drawing attention to the sound source. Dialogue is clean, and the music is clear and faithfully replicated. Spanish speakers have to settle for a less-rich Dolby Digital 5.1, while available subtitles are English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
It turns out that the baby in the movie was the son of conceptual designer Brian Froud, who shares stories about how that came to be and how characters developed for this fantasy world. As you might imagine, Froud's focus is mostly on the character, set, and background design, but he does get into reminiscences about working with Henson. If you have a Profile 1.1 player you can also access a picture-in-picture trivia track that delivers even more information. Unlike some pop-up tracks, this one keeps the trivia window small and stays with the larger film the whole way. It's the "brand new" Blu-ray exclusive feature on this disc. The other features are original to the previous DVD release:
"Inside the Labyrinth" is a pretty good hour-long vintage documentary that features behind-the-scenes shots of Bowie and Connelly and does a pretty good start-to-finish job of walking fans through the film. You get some sense of how the creatures were designed, how they were made, and how they were brought to life, and that's what most fans care about in a film like this. The other bonus features, also carryovers, are two roughly half-hour extras: "Journey Through the Labyrinth: The Quest for Goblin City" and "Journey Through the Labyrinth: Kingdom of Characters." In the former, the focus is on bringing the initial concept to film; in the latter, it's on creating the creatures. I personally enjoyed the creature-feature more, because it included early footage of some of the models in various stages of development.
Muppet fans ought to like "Labyrinth" still, because this accomplished film does a nice job of integrating the characters into a fantasy world that's wonderful to behold. The plot may be old and the music dated, but Henson's creatures are timeless.