1986 in Film – Labyrinth

Release Date: June 27th
Box Office: $12,729,917

2016 appears to be one of those years were people who have truly changed the world are being knocked off by the Grim Reaper. Prince, Victoria Wood and Harper Lee to name but a few have all died this year.

Of course, always the trend setter, it was David Bowie who seemed to kick this off back at the start of the year. A true artist, his impact on movies may not have been quite as great as his impact on music but it was there.

Also, it’s not like people haven’t been dying in previous years. After all, Jim Henson died back in 1990.

If you want to talk about visionary artists, then Henson is right up there. The man was the main force behind the Muppets for crying out loud; from their early days on commercials before the characters coalesced into their true forms on Sesame Street through to the The Muppet Show and the movies that follows in the late 70s and early 80s, Henson was the main creative spark behind them often controlling the puppets himself. See that bit at the beginning of The Muppet Movie (1979), with Kermit sat on the log in a pond singing Rainbow Connection? Henson was underneath that in what was effectively a metal box with an air supply, a rubber sleeve out the top so he could operate the Kermit puppet and a monitor so he could see his performance.

Bowie’s career trajectory, weirdly, kind of followed the Muppets. As Kermit made his first appearances in Sesame Street in 1969 Bowie released Space Oddity which launched him into the public consciousness. Ziggy Stardust followed and soon he was propelled into the upper echelons of music. Of course, The Muppets didn’t develop a massive cocaine addiction and move to Berlin, although I can’t speak for all members of The Electric Mayhem.

Both became household names by the end of the 70s and began to appear in films. Whilst Bowie had always been an actor even before a musician his first major role wasn’t until The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and further roles followed sporadically. By the time of Labyrinth he was arguably a bigger star than ever. After the heights then lows of the 70s he hit the ground running in the 80s thanks to MTV. Ashes to Ashes and Let’s Dance were huge hits that helped to cement the music video into the popular conciousness. He was bigger than ever but also felt creatively empty. He had always done what he wanted and the audience followed, now he was pandering to them as he travelled the world in a massive stadium tour.

Similarly, Henson had probably never been bigger. The Muppet Show had ended its TV run but this was followed by four successful movies. Fraggle Rock had started, Sesame Street continued to enthral children all over the world. Outside of that, Henson struggled. He first tried a darker, more mature work with The Dark Crystal (1982). It was a huge artistic endeavour with intricate puppet work and design. It was a box office bomb.

Labyrinth then was an attempt to return to that kind of work, starting as a collaboration between Henson and fantasy artist Brian Froud. Based around goblins, it was intended to be lighter than Dark Crystal, more comedic. After this Terry Jones was brought in to work on the script, even though the end result differed from what was produced.

This was partly due to the casting of Bowie. Initially his character, Jareth The Goblin King, was to be a puppet. Then Henson decided he wanted him to be played by a charismatic star, initially looking at Sting, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. Bowie ended up being chosen, which caused changes to the script as Bowie wanted to bring more humour to the story. Jones worked on the script, as did George Lucas and Elaine May who was best known for her work with Mike Nichols.

Bowie was chosen, as Henson put it, because he embodied the adult world. Opposite him was the then 14 year old Jennifer Connelly in her debut film role. The film is set up around her character, with her baby brother being taken by Bowie and spirited into the centre of the eponymous Labyrinth. Connelly travels into this world, meeting new friends as she tries to rescue her brother. And, as a sub text, grows from girl to woman with Bowie laying temptation at her feet at every step of the way.

The film was a massive and complex shoot, five months of puppet work and huge sets. It stands as a classic of practical special effects, everything done in camera and held together by the sheer force of will of Jim Henson. Most of the team from the previous Muppet films worked on it, including Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, which helped to bring all of the complex animatronic characters to life.

So why did it fail at the box office?

Reviews were mixed. Most accepted that the design and effects of the film were superb. Some thought the plot was too simple or boring. Quite a few rounded on Connelly and Bowie, calling them bland and wooden respectively. Maybe that’s why the audience didn’t connect. Fantasy films seems to have a hard time at the box office in the 80s from Legend (1985) to this to Willow (1988).

This demoralised Henson, the critical and financial results sending him into a depression. It would be the last film Henson would direct before his death.

Bowie regrouped after this film; he shelved his solo career in the late eighties before returning in the early 90s as he started a period of experimentation. By the turn of the millennium he was music aristocracy, his albums met with warm praise as his legacy grew.

Henson’s legacy was the Muppets which continued on after his death, with A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) being the highlight. The franchise ended up being purchased by Disney in the early 2000s before The Muppets (2011) returned them to prominence. It was a couple of years after this that Bowie released his first album in ten years. Clearly, he was never one to let Kermit overshadow him.

Unlike Henson and Bowie, The Muppets will probably never die. They’re like batons to be passed between generations, new people continuing them on for as long as they can. Bowie and Henson were two people that genuinely changed the world who came together and made a film called Labyrinth. That film didn’t change the world but it had enough of their magic to also be passed between generations, a fairy tale story made up of puppets and songs created with charm and passion.

Like how both men approached all of their work, work which will stand the test of time.

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