Jim Henson, the puppeteer, film director and television producer can genuinely lay claim to a creative legacy that impacted the lives of children worldwide rivalled only by Walt Disney. From The Muppets to Sesame Street, from The Dark Crystal to Fraggle Rock, his magical creations helped to educate and inspire in equal measure. This month one of his most beloved works, the extraordinary fantasy Labyrinth, is released on Blu Ray, and it is a pleasure to report that almost twenty-five years later his perfectly realised creations are as impressive and immersive as ever.
Labyrinth is the story of Sarah, a self-absorbed teenager who spends every waking hour stuck in daydreams, fairy tales and her own fantastic world (played by a 14 year old Jennifer Connelly with remarkable maturity). Stuck babysitting her brother, she implores the Goblin King and his minions to kidnap him, unaware that said monsters, which before she had believed to exist only in her mind, are actually as real as the stuffed animals that litter her bedroom. Jared, the Goblin King (David Bowie in a disturbingly tight codpiece) appears before her and whisks her brother away to his castle. So begins her journey into the Labyrinth, a great maze that she has 13 hours to complete before her brother is turned into a monster. Along the way she will encounter a multitude of fantastical creatures and difficult challenges, and it is here that the genius of Henson lies.
The incredible characters that inhabit the Labyrinth have a tangible physical quality achieved through a combination of puppetry and human performance. These are real living things, to be loved or feared, and the difference this can make to the subconscious of a child when compared to the bland computer generated imagery that is so prevalent in The Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter films is overwhelming. Even a much celebrated creation like Weta Digitals’ Gollum will never have the same impact as Hoggle or Ludo; the prevalence of CGI may allow filmmakers access to the furthest reaches of their imaginations but sadly their innovations do not seem to occupy a universe that is comparable with our own. This helps explains why the Star Wars prequels were so vehemently opposed by fans of the earlier films, not to mention the decline in the standards of acting. When Sir Didymus confronts Sarah at the Bog of Eternal Stench (stay with me here) her reactions are genuine as she has something genuine in front of her to act against, not to mention the incredible sculpted set that is the Labyrinth surrounding her. The contrast between this and some of the horrific green screen acting that modern audiences are growing accustomed is obvious.
As Sarah progresses further and further into the maze and confronts one logic based problem after another (Another legacy of this film can be viewed in the storytelling techniques of modern video games like The Legend of Zelda and the Final Fantasy series) Henson actually manages to make some surprisingly candid points about her transition from childhood into adult life and her burgeoning sexuality. Throw in a genuinely brilliant soundtrack by Bowie, not to mention the surprising influence of such diverse and adult artists as MC Escher and even Salvador Dali and you can see why so many people were happy to take this astonishing journey into Hensons minds eye. The British statesman and Conservative politician David Maxwell Fyfe said “It is dangerous to confuse children with angels”, but it is even more perilous to confuse them with idiots. The greatest childrens movies of all time all have a healthy degree of their respect for the audience. Throughout his life and career Jim Henson did, and that is why his work is still so cherished to this day.