I finally watched this 80s children’s fantasy classic, which like many other 80s movies I missed out on account of having grown up in the last years of the Soviet Union.
Because the film is now 30 years old, I was kinda prepared for it to be really really dated, but to my surprise it mostly holds up very well. There is one distracting sequence with the red feathery creatures which looks like a cheap 80s music video, and the painted backdrops are really obvious, but overall the effects are on the acceptable side of dated and Jim Henson’s old-school puppetry is simply exceptional, a showcase of creativity and wild imagination and that clunky tactile charm that you’ll never find in the modern-day CGI animation.
The very young Jennifer Connelly is Sarah, a teenage girl who must navigate a perilous and perplexing labyrinth in order to save her baby brother from the clutches of the Goblin King, who steals him when Sarah impulsively wishes him away. Connelly’s performance as the sullen bratty Sarah early in the film is, shall we say, not an Academy Award-winning stuff, but she improves later on. On her journey through the labyrinth, Sarah encounters all sorts of wonderful weirdness, including a farting swamp and vicious fairies who get gleefully gassed by one of the locals, and makes friends with some of the creatures who prove to be loyal friends and allies. The world of the labyrinth is full of zany little touches and details that are by turn humorous and dark and are just delightful to watch. Sarah also gets to wear a white ball gown in one of her dream sequences that’s just about the most gloriously over-the-top 80s dress, accompanied of course by the giant 80s hair.
The standout of the film is David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, who is cruel, playful, seductive and for a children’s movie, rather subversive – even without that perfectly visible bulge in his tight grey pants. Ahem. Female hero/male villain is a rare dynamic in children’s stories, and here it doesn’t even try to avoid the sexual undertones that arise almost automatically from such scenario. Viewed in real-world terms, Jareth’s obsession with the young Sarah would probably look creepy or abusive, but Bowie’s presence here is so otherworldly and enchanting it takes on a fairytale quality that’s not bound to reality. He absolutely steals every scene he’s in. Other than the fun bouncy Magic Dance none of the Bowie-penned tunes really stood out to me, but whatever. He’s David Bowie and he’s awesome here.
Like any young protagonist, Sarah learns all sorts of lessons about responsibility, taking care of others and letting go of childish material things. But as a great believer of keeping my inner child alive, I rather liked that the ending wasn’t all, now that you’ve grown up you must forget all that silly magical daydreaming stuff.