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30 Years In The Labyrinth

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Labyrinth, give your life some direction and watch it. The 1986 fantasy movie is rightfully remembered and beloved by a steadily growing cult audience; and sometimes they even recall things other than David Bowie’s codpiece. The movie’s 30th birthday falls this summer, and we’re getting a few treats in remembrance of its anniversary. Before we take a look at them, though, let’s go back to the movie’s conception in 1983.

Famous Muppet-master and generally lovely person Jim Henson had previously collaborated with fantasy artist Brian Froud on The Dark Crystal, which, while fascinating and moderately successful at the box office, was ultimately disappointing to them. They wanted to do another fantasy film, but one with more humor, heart, and character interaction and interplay. Using Froud’s drawings, Terry Jones (yes, Monty Python’s Terry Jones) was tasked to write the script. Though the idea was essentially the same and Jones’s ideas are very visible throughout the movie, his version was also very different.

I think millions of swooning teenagers would be slightly less swoony if Jareth didn’t have those cheekbones; Credit: Jim Henson Company

Jareth was a much more antagonistic character, taking Toby against Sarah’s explicit wishes and personally driving her to madness. We also never saw the center of the Labyrinth until the end of the movie, prodding the audience to always be wondering what Sarah would find there. Sarah even physically attacked Jareth at the movie’s end, and her blows would reveal his true form as a pathetic goblin. When David Bowie joined the cast, he played a major part in shaping the story. Believing the story was too humorless and wouldn’t showcase Bowie’s musical talents enough, Henson asked Jones to write scenes with Jareth in throughout the movie.

In the end, Jones wasn’t quite able to make the changes Henson and producer George Lucas wanted, and the final script is a mishmash of Jones, Henson, Lucas, and a pair of screenwriters named Elaine May and Laura Phillips. It’s interesting to see what we missed out from Jones’s original ideas, especially the mystery of the Labyrinth’s center, and it’s true that the final story feels a little like a patchwork quilt. But it’s hard to imagine Labyrinth without Jareth’s charm and its trademark weird sense of humor and whimsy!

Poor Hoggle deserved better than to end up in the Unclaimed Baggage museum. That’s no joke, either; Credit: Jim Henson Company

The movie’s many puppets were built as much as a year and half before shooting started, with Hoggle among the most complicated of them. Five performers were involved in bringing him to life, each acting separately to create the illusion of one coordinated character. On set, Bowie and Jennifer Connelly initially had some trouble interacting with the puppet characters, but by the end of the shoot, felt they were as real as any actor could be.

The shoot was relatively free of incident, but the same can’t be said for the recording of the soundtrack. While recording the famous “Magic Dance” song, the baby brought to the recording studio just would not babble in front of the microphone. As a result, the gurgles on the soundtrack are Bowie’s best baby impression (it’s sometimes mistakenly said that he does the gurgles in the movie too, but those are dubbed in by a more cooperative infant).

Perhaps the cool reception was due to this not-at-all-terrifying part of the movie; Credit: Jim Henson Company

Upon initial release, the movie was a big disappointment both commercially and critically. A lot of critics especially felt that Henson hadn’t “learned his lesson” from Dark Crystal and was making a mistake by trying to push a fantasy world full of inhuman characters. Henson was very affected by the project’s initial problems, and if that makes you sad, I direct you to the adorable London premiere of Labyinth.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long before the movie developed a cult following, particularly among young women and girls. Labyrinth fanfiction remains popular online, and the annual Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball in Los Angeles continues to attract talented costumers from all over the world. (Oh, and Brian Henson says his dad was aware of the Labyrinth love before his death, so it’s okay!)

Credit: Insight Editions; Jim Henson Company

If you’re one of those superfans who keeps the movie alive, there are two really cool new releases coming this fall. The first is Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History. It’s a coffee table art book which you can preview on Amazon, and it looks beautiful. Apart from a ton of rare photos and Froud drawings, it will contain some of Jim Henson’s personal notes and interviews with cast and crew, so even those who aren’t so into artbooks will have something to look forward to.

Credit: Amazon; Jim Henson Company

There’s also a new 4K transfer coming to Blu-ray, which promises to include new bonus features like a making-of and a David Bowie remembrance with Jennifer Connelly and the Henson children. If you’re more about the big screen, this transfer will also be screened through Fathom Events on September 11th and 14th 2016, so save the dates and check your local theaters. We also covered the upcoming Labyrinth board game, so if you haven’t seen that yet, go look!

However you choose to celebrate Labyrinth‘s 30th, know that you’re in good company.

Featured image credit of: Jim Henson Company

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