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David Bowie looms over this iconic ‘80s adventure, but its legacy is complicated

"Down in the underground, a land serene, a crystal moon!"

In 1986, a trio comprised of an iconic American puppeteer, a Monty Python alum, and one of the world’s most financially successful filmmakers joined forces to create the campy, kooky magic that is Labyrinth.

Jim Henson, Toby Jones, and George Lucas’ musical fantasy adventure may not have been received as well as they’d hoped when Labyrinth made its theatrical debut, but 36 years later it’s achieved a sincerely deserved cult status. And David Bowie isn’t the sole reason behind its retrospective popularity, not when your world includes lavish dream balls, hospitable worms, baby kidnapping, and the Bog of Eternal Stench.

Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is a 16-year-old still playing dress-up and reciting lines from a book titled The Labyrinth with her dog and her treasured teddy bear as her primary audience. Sarah dreams of a grander life in the theater, far away from her perfectly nice stepmother and baby brother, Toby, who she’s forced to babysit.

Frustrated, Sarah begs the goblins from her book to take the fussing baby away, only to learn that they’re not just storybook creatures. Sarah is confronted by the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie), who offers Sarah all of her dreams in exchange for baby Toby. When Sarah refuses, she’s put to sleep and tossed into an impossible labyrinth, with only 13 hours to solve its puzzles, deal with its bevy of puppet occupants, and save her baby brother.

Jennifer Connelly, just 14 at the time, was chosen by Jim Henson because she "could act that kind of dawn-twilight time between childhood and womanhood.” Tri-Star Pictures

There’s a lot that makes Labyrinth an objectively great adventure, but also byproducts of its time that sour the viewing experience. While the practical effects in Labyrinth are extraordinary, the computer-generated effects are bafflingly bad. Yes, the technology was in its infancy, but it’s shocking that the man who directed A New Hope was in the room and seemingly didn’t raise concern over glaring green-screen scenes and choppy animation. If we’re comparing genre babysitting movies with Labyrinth, both Mary Poppins (1964) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) had far better effects with even less technology.

And then there’s Bowie. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Labyrinth actor Warwick Davis confirmed that the star stuffed pairs of socks down his pants while playing Jareth, a choice that is apparent throughout the movie. The choice oversexualizes a film already teetering on the edge of explicit innuendo, as a 38-year-old playing a 300-year-old Goblin King begs, intoxicates, dances with, and scares Connelly’s Sarah in his attempt to claim her romantically.

As the stuff of fantasy, we could give it a little side-eye while appreciating these scenes as a component of the girlhood-to-womanhood parable that Labyrinth aims to convey. But Bowie, who famously deflowered Lori Mattix when she was only 14 and allegedly slept with other teens throughout his rock ‘n’ roll days, doesn’t seem all that quirky for stuffing socks down his pants to play a character in a children’s movie anymore (although, for the record, Connelly remembered Bowie as nothing but kind on set).

David Bowie as Jareth and Jennifer Connelly as Sarah. Tri-Star Pictures

There’s much to appreciate in Labyrinth, and not all of it has to do with Bowie, but there’s also no way to watch or critique it without talking about him, as the movie couldn’t have achieved cult status without his persona attached. When Henson had to cast the Goblin King, he considered Sting, Mick Jagger, Prince, and Michael Jackson before settling on Bowie. “I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures, and David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world,” Henson said in an interview with L'Écran Fantastique.

It helped that on top of being a musical genius with paradigmatic showmanship skills, Bowie actually knew how to act. Whether bursting out his five recorded songs for the film or grooving with puppets and a real-life baby, Bowie brings campy Goblin King Jareth to life. He makes it all too easy to escape into this labyrinth, and not really want to find a way out.

David Bowie performing “Magic Dance” with Henson puppets and baby Toby Froud. Tri-Star Pictures

When Bowie isn’t in full superstar mode, Henson’s outstanding puppets and master puppeteers steal the show. Labyrinth makes a strong case for going back to basics in our modern fantasy content, which is slightly obsessed with making the improbable look as probable as possible. Puppets, prosthetics, and practical effects, accompanied by delirious set design and delightful costuming, do far more to tell a fairy tale than computer-generated imagery could. Some stories are best left to the imagination.

Last, but certainly not least, are Jennifer Connelly’s acting chops. Some contemporary critics dismissed Connelly as “sniveling” and “whiny,” which was exactly the point of Sarah’s character. She’s a normal teenager who feels sidelined by her father and new stepmom, gets jealous of her baby brother for the attention he receives, and has grandiose dreams of becoming an arts prodigy without the talent to back it up. When she’s dropped into the Labyrinth, we’re meant to feel impatient with Sarah’s emotional maturation. If you wanted our damsel in distress to just grow up already, then Connelly did her job well.

In a recent interview with Collider, Connelly revealed that she’s been in conversations about a potential Labyrinth sequel, although she’s unsure what will happen. As she correctly points out, “We don’t really make so many movies like that anymore.”

Labyrinth is streaming on Netflix.

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