Fantasy cult classic Labyrinth turns 30
1986. The year began in tragedy and ended in scandal, and much of what came between seemed straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. The Clintons were still in Arkansas, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were still on television, and Halle Berry of Ohio came in second to Christy Fichtner [who?!?] of Dallas, Texas in the Miss USA pageant. With an otherworldly vibe already in the air, it’s no wonder filmmakers Jim Henson and George Lucas and artist Brian Froud thought audiences would be receptive to Labyrinth, a movie featuring mystical beasts and fantastical creatures, all ruled over by the velvet gloved fist of a Goblin King.
Henson and Lucas previously collaborated on the production of The Dark Crystal, and first discussed plans for Labyrinth following a screening of The Dark Crystal. Brian Froud created conceptual designs for Labyrinth, which were passed along to writers Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), Laura Phillips (Fraggle Rock), Dennis Lee and Elaine May who drafted the screenplay, though only Jones would get a screenwriting credit in the actual film.
The premise of the film is described on the Internet Movie Database as “a selfish 16-year old girl is given 13 hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King.”
Like The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock, the cast was primarily comprised of puppets, with only actors David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly getting any significant screen time. Otherwise, the film was somewhat of a family affair, with artist Brian Froud’s infant son Toby portraying Toby Williams, baby brother to Connelly’s Sarah Williams, and Henson’s son Brian providing the voice of Hoggle the dwarf.
The decision to cast the late, great performer David Bowie in the role of Jareth the Goblin King was an early one, with Henson pursuing Bowie for years before he agreed to do the film.
Screenwriter Jones, however, disagreed with Henson’s decision to include music and dance sequences in the film, although he did rewrite the script to include these elements.
Bowie was Henson’s first choice to play Jareth, however others considered included Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson.
“I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures,” Henson explained [in a 1987 interview with Ecran Fantastique], “and David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world.”
Convincing Bowie to take on the role wasn’t a hard sell, although it did take a few years before the iconic performer finally signed on.
“I’d always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else, and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning,” said Bowie in a 1986 interview with Movieline.
Selecting Jennifer Connelly to play 16 year old Sarah Williams was a little less cut and dry. Over a dozen actresses auditioned for the part, with Henson finally casting Connelly because he said [in film production notes] “she could act that kind of dawn-twilight time between childhood and womanhood.”
Shooting the film took five months and was described as complicated due to the complex nature of working with both human and animatronic actors.
In making Labyrinth, filmmakers borrowed from a variety of sources. The movie pays homage to The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and – above all – an end credit on the film acknowledges Jim Henson’s debt to Maurice Sendak, who most notably authored and illustrated the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are.
Though Labyrinth would go on to become a cult classic, beloved by an entire generation, it was initially a box office failure. With a reported $25 million budget, the film only grossed $12.7 million in the U.S.
Henson took the film’s commercial failure personally, with his son Brian later remembering how his father was demoralized by the film’s poor showing and describing the period around Labyrinth’s release as being one of the darker moments in Henson’s career.
Early critics weren’t kind to the film, either, with Siskel and Ebert widely panning it.
Henson would later be vindicated, however, as the film quickly achieved cult status. Strong VHS and later DVD sales redeemed Labyrinth from potential obscurity, and generations of children (and kids at heart) have fallen in love with the fantasy classic.
Rumors of a sequel have surfaced as recently as this year, although those alleged to be involved have strongly denied them. The tragic passing of David Bowie in late 2015 would make a suitable sequel more or less impossible, and the very idea arouses the ire of most hard core Labyrinth fans.
Story by Carla E. Anderton for Pennsylvania Bridges