Labyrinth, a dark children's movie about a baby-stealing Goblin King and the teenage girl who outwits him, turns 30 on June 27. That's three decades of wondering how a film that combined Jim Henson and David Bowie (plus some truly terrible CGI) not only got made but went on to become one of both men's most memorable projects.
In honor of this bizarre film, and Bowie, who passed away in January at the age of 69, let's look back at the glorious weirdness that began its life as box office flop and has since become a beloved cult classic.
Labyrinth is a mashup of so many genres
The movie is a dark, semi-musical, glam-rock children's movie that seems to combine The Wizard of Oz and a Maurice Sendak story and stars David Bowie plus a cavalcade of puppets. None of it should make a scrap of sense — yet somehow it works within its own strange, singular genre.
Let's recap the plot: Petulant teenager Sarah (a 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly, in her fourth film role) lives in a fantasy world but is constantly being dragged back to earth by the dreary realities of her life — including her perpetually wailing baby half-brother, Toby. One night while babysitting, Sarah wishes to the "goblin king" that Toby would disappear — and he does, earning Sarah a visit from the actual Goblin King (Bowie, resplendent in a feathered mullet wig and frosted eye shadow).
The Goblin King (whose name, by the way, is Jareth) transports Sarah to his labyrinth and gives her 13 hours to find her way to his castle and rescue her brother; if she fails, he threatens, Toby will become a goblin forever. Sarah must make her way through the maze with the help of the weirdo residents she encounters within it, and along the way learns important lessons about friendship, independence, and the misfortune of being attracted to a man whose pants are tighter than yours.
This movie raises so many questions: How did David Bowie become the supreme ruler of a goblin kingdom? Why can he transform into an owl? Isn't there an easier way to grow the goblin population than stealing human babies? Why can't Sarah remember a line as simple as, "You have no power over me"?
These are all valid questions, but they vanish in the face of Bowie's be-mulleted, spandex-wrapped perfection. He sings, he dances, he throws fake babies in the air and juggles crystal balls and mostly interacts with puppets. In the face of such unabashed '80s excess, it's hard to care so much about the details of the plot.
The film's bizarre, hyper-detailed visuals are a testament to Henson's skill
Much of Labyrinth has the vibe of a particularly vivid dream; the slow-motion falls and ouroboric logic evoke that sludgy, slow-dawning realization that you're asleep and can't quite control what's happening.
Henson creates an expansive world full of odd, disquieting beings — moss adorned with eyeballs, beautiful fairies with a vicious bite, beaky swamp dwellers that pluck out their own eyeballs and swallow them. Unseen creatures slink through the periphery of Sarah's vision, and vast, unfamiliar landscapes stretch endlessly into the distance, adding to the alien atmosphere. Labyrinth is definitely more Dark Crystal than Sesame Street.
Yet it's also ostensibly a children's movie, and Henson tempers the story's darker elements with plenty of silly humor. The Left and Right Door Knockers squabble like an old married couple, and everyone's inability to pronounce Hoggle's name correctly is a running joke that includes even Jareth. Plus, the Bog of Eternal Stench is pure 12-year-old-boy humor, complete with fart noises.
And at the time of its release, Labyrinth was a technical marvel. Henson relied almost entirely on practical effects, building the creatures and sets and including almost no computer animation. Even Jareth's wacko crystal ball moves were real — performed by magician Michael Moschen as he stood behind Bowie. As Richard Lawson wrote for the Atlantic Wire:
One of the peculiar joys of Henson's very strange movie is how tactile it is. He built most of the film's supporting cast, creating goblins and worms and dogs and knights and all manner of other creatures out of, y'know, puppet stuff. Actual stuff. Tangible materials. The sets too were all built and weathered and decidedly real. There is a big bit of computer animation in the beginning, involving an owl, but beyond that? Somewhere (maybe?) all the things on screen are sitting in a dusty warehouse somewhere, not archived on a harddrive. The illusion takes place out here in the world of the touchable, of the built and extant.
The Hoggle puppet alone involved 18 motors and a four-person team. That reliance on physical materials rather than computers means that while many things about Labyrinth are dated (especially the fashion), the world inside its maze has aged surprisingly well.
David Bowie was a big force in shaping in the movie
Labyrinth was the last feature film Henson directed before he died. It was also a commercial failure, recouping just half of its $25 million budget. But despite its initial poor reception, it eventually became a beloved cult favorite, and Bowie's scenery-crunching performance is at least partially to thank for that.
The Goblin King was originally going to be another puppet, until Henson decided he needed a big, charismatic star to anchor the movie. He considered other musicians — including Sting, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Mick Jagger — before landing on Bowie.
Acting in a children's movie with puppets as co-stars seemed perhaps an odd move for the rock star, but Henson eventually won him over to the idea. In the following MTV clip, filmed backstage at Live Aid in 1985, Bowie describes the project, which elicits laughter from someone off camera before the interviewer moves on to other questions with zero comment.
But Bowie's larger-than-life presence and particular aesthetic are the centerpiece of the film. Conceptual designer Brian Froud imbued Jareth with Bowie's gender-bending glam-rock vibe, even giving him a "swagger stick" shaped like a microphone. And, yes, those jaw-droppingly tight pants were a deliberate choice, as Froud explains in the video below:
Though the movie initially flopped, critics praised Bowie's performance. The New York Times wrote that Bowie was "perfectly cast as the teasing, tempting seducer whom Sarah must both want and reject in order to learn the labyrinth's lessons, and his songs add a driving, sensual appeal."
The Montreal Gazette bestowed him with even higher praise:
The casting of Bowie can't be faulted on any count. He has just the right look for a creature who's the object of both loathing and secret desire. And this is one rock star who can deliver his lines with a combination of menace and playfulness that few seasoned actors could even begin to match.
Bowie's sexuality, which was always rather fluid, was somewhat jarringly on display, considering that Labyrinth was marketed toward children and co-starred an actual teenager (Bowie was 39 when the movie came out; Connelly was 16). But his presence also gives the coming-of-age story an added tension and weight; think pieces galore have been written about the symbolism of Jareth as a father figure, lover, and abuser all in one.
The musical numbers are ridiculous (and awesome)
Bowie sang four of the five musical numbers in the film (the exception being "Chilly Down," which is sung by the puppeteers that voiced the orange Firey gang). The best known, by far, is "Magic Dance," in which Jareth entertains baby Toby with a song, with backup vocals by his legions of goblins.
The clip below goes behind the scenes of the number with Bowie and puppeteer Brian Henson (Jim's son). Bowie explains that he ended up voicing the gurgling baby heard on the track, because the kid he'd picked for the song — the child of one of his backup dancers — refused to make a sound on tape. (The actual baby in the video is Froud's son Toby, who's now a puppeteer; the fake baby I assume belongs to the props department.)
And then there's "As the World Falls Down," which plays as Jareth and Sarah dance during the glittery fever dream of a ball that's reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut by way of Jem and the Holograms.
Bowie's presence was such that even as he's nearly hidden among ballroom dancers or surrounded by foot-tall puppets, his talent cuts through all the clutter. That magnetism is part of why he is so revered as an artist — and why the strange little tale of Labyrinth is such an enduring favorite.