By Sarah Kitteringham
CALGARY — M.C. Escher’s name may not immediately resonate with readers, though his surrealist fantasy art is instantly recognizable when described. His 1953 lithograph “Relativity” depicts what appears to be three eye popping stairways (that reveal seven in total upon further scrutiny) in a seemingly idyllic community occupied by faceless persons walking in three gravity dimensions; the art has a bizarre, brain bending appearance that twists perspective as stairs appear upside down, sideways, and backwards.
Fittingly, that same multiple gravity dimension staircase makes an important appearance in Jim Henson’s final film The Labyrinth. Although it fell flat at the box office upon its initial release, the multifaceted tale has achieved cult status in the decades following due to its complexity. The fairy tale transposes the magical once-upon-a-time narrative into the real world, focusing on the story of teenager Sarah, whose baby stepbrother Toby is abducted by the Goblin King who demands that Sarah retrieve Toby from the depths of his maze in 13 hours, least he be transformed into a goblin forever. Merging childlike fantasy, adventure, and sorcery with the very adult themes of sexuality, domination, and death, the movie was released four years after the groundbreaking and utterly hypnotic animatronic classic The Dark Crystal. Unlike its predecessor, a human cast acts alongside Henson’s eccentric creatures. In addition, The Labyrinth lacks the apocalyptic edge but is decidedly creepy; that eeriness is mitigated by the embedding of life lessons throughout the fantastical storyline and the often-ridiculous songs that are peppered throughout the film.
Starring Jennifer Connelly as the selfish teenager Sarah, the movie begins with the teenager role-playing as a heroine in a park. Much like the boy in The NeverEnding Story (1984) known as Bastian, she loves reading and has lost her mother; she is psychologically affected and her ensuing adventure is a parable of her coming-of-age. After Sarah arrives home an hour late to babysit her baby stepbrother, the infant screams relentlessly until Sarah impulsively summons the Goblins from her favourite story to take him away. Soon, Jareth the Goblin King (played by an androgynous and creepy David Bowie, who of course performs much of the soundtrack) appears in her home, and tells her to forget the baby and live with (and for) him, or retrieve the infant if she can from his land. Sarah refuses and insists she will go after the babe; for her insolence, the Goblin King flings a snake around her neck, a symbol of her blossoming sexuality and fertility.
After venturing onward, Sarah eventually meets the creatures born of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. There’s the persnickety and two-faced Hoggle the dwarf, the massive horned creature Ludo who can call upon rocks for help, the rodent creature Didymus who rides a sheepdog, and more. Each aids her adventure through the labyrinth. True to imaginative form, the castle and surrounding area become progressively outlandish and illusory as the story unfolds.
Buoyed by the incredible concept design of Brian Froud (whose son Toby is the infant in the film), The Labyrinth includes such deceptions as the Shaft of Helping Hands (made of 150 actual human hands and 200 rubber supporting hands) that drops directly into an oubliette, the bog of eternal stench, and a startlingly authentic enchanted forest.
From a filming perspective, The Labyrinth is a triumph. In particular, the hallucinatory sequences are top notch; clouded by a slightly foggy matte overlay, the masquerade scene near the end of the film that plays out the soundtrack of the electro pop song “As the World Falls Down” is given a slightly threatening edge that communicates the manipulative and controlling aspects of Jareth’s sexually domineering character. Of course, the strategically chosen overstuffed bulge that appears in his painted on tights parlays a similar message.
In other scenes, this edge literally and metaphorically disappears. Instead, we are given slapstick comedy as Sarah and her counterparts are inundated with incessant challenges, including the wretched bog that reeks, a massive metal knight and a battle in the centre of the city with the Goblin hordes. This contradictory representation is meant to convey the lesson that Sarah learns: while one must mature, take responsibility for their actions, and have expectations of those close to them, they must not lose their sense of wonder or their imagination.
Thanks to plethora of references and striking imagery embedded within The Labyrinth, the film stands up remarkably despite nearly three decades passing since its release. Not only is the film relatable and enjoyable for children, but adults will see more with each viewing. Much like Escher’s “Relativity” painting, there is more here than immediately meets the eye.
See The Labyrinth at the Plaza Theatre in Kensington in Calgary on Friday, December 11th courtesy of the Fifth Reel. Calgary act Melted Mirror will perform prior to the show; the event is 18+.AB, Alberta, Jim Henson, Plaza Theatre, The Fifth Reel, The Labyrinth