Labyrinth

(1986) *** Pg
101 min. TriStar Pictures. Director: Jim Henson. Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson, Christopher Malcolm (II), Dave Goelz.

In anticipation of a new special-edition DVD release, Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy adventure Labyrinth has received a big-screen reissue, with new 35mm prints. Henson's metaphysical fairy-tale—set in the maze between adolescence and young adulthood—benefits from a script by Monty Python's Terry Jones, conceptual design by Brian Froud, and creature work by core Muppeteers Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kevin Clash, and Brian Henson.

Jennifer Connelly plays 15-year-old Sarah, who wishes away her baby step-brother Toby (Toby Froud, son of Brian) and then must rescue him from the clutches of the Goblin King (David Bowie). The Goblin King—with feathered wig, puffy shirt, tights, and pirate boots—cuts a striking image, indeed, and his silky proclamations are equal parts threat and come-on (as in his double-entendre number "Within You"). At first, he offers Sarah her heart's desire, but there's one thing the guilty girl wants more: her brother's safe return.

So the Goblin King sets the clock running: thirteen hours to wend her way through the labyrinth to his castle in Goblin City; failing in this quest, Sarah will doom Toby to life as a Goblin. Sarah meets a menagerie of Henson Creature Shop creations along the way. Chief among these is Hoggle, a still-amazing dwarf brought to life with a combination of physical acting (by Shari Weiser), voice-over (Brian Henson), and an expressive animatronic head (operated primarily by Henson). There's a tiny worm and a gentle giant (named Ludo), head-detaching loonies called "Fireys," and a hilariously valiant fox named Sir Didymus (Dave Goelz), complete with sheepdog steed.

Bowie contributes six polarizing songs (love 'em or hate 'em), which tend to derail the narrative. Had Henson committed more energy to making the film a full-fledged musical--i.e. more songs sung by someone other than the Goblin King--the film might have well have gelled, which it never quite does (the choreography's by Gates McFadden, who went on to play Star Trek's Dr. Crusher). The chaotic narrative proceeds in fits and starts, and the sights and sounds are often dated, but somehow the film's wit and wonder linger in the mind. Henson and co-story-author Dennis Lee take inspiration from mythology; the works of Baum, Carroll, and Sendak; and the imagery of M.C. Escher, but the realization is pure Muppet magic.

Job one is to be head-trippy (and job two is to be psychosexual), but like most family films, Labyrinth has some easily digestible messages for kids. Sibling rivalry has its limits, for one, materialism is a trap (as proven by the "junk people"), and as Sarah learns in the labyrinth, "Things aren't always what they seem..." The wistful conclusion sums up the message of Henson's life and career: though growing and maturing are inevitable, one needn't "put away childish things" for good. Henson proved that keeping alive the spirit of innocent creativity was vital for artists like himself and entertaining for kids of all ages.

[For Groucho's interview with Frank Oz, click here, and for his interview with Dave Goelz, click here.]

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Dvd

Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 8/14/2007

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

The presentation of Labyrinth on DVD has come a long way since its initial release in 1999. The 1986 film looks and sounds pristine in a hi-def anamorphic transfer with 5.1 surround sound. Sony's new 2-disc special edition gives the film a definitive release, with a full battery of supplemental features. Disc One includes a new commentary by Brian Froud, one of the film's primary conceptual masterminds. In his very British way, he waxes enthusiastic about Henson and explains the development of the project and its designs.

Then there's the vintage, Henson-produced documentary "Inside the Labyrinth" (56:23), presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Beginning with footage of David Bowie laying down the soundtrack, the doc proceeds to include interviews with Jim Henson, Bowie, Brian Henson, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, goblin armor designer Mike McCormick, Ross Hill of the Creature Workshop, Jennifer Connolly, Shari Weiser (Hoggle), choreographer Cheryl McFadden (that's right, trekkies: Dr. Crusher!), production designer Elliot Scott, and special effects supervisor George Gibbs. This extraordinary and thorough making-of doc shows us Froud's character design art and great behind-the-scenes footage that reveals pretty much every trick behind the film's most magical moments. Partially narrated by Henson, the film also reveals why directors avoid working with babies and chickens.

Two newly-produced half-hour retrospectives (in anamorphic widescreen) add more commentary. "Journey Through the Labyrinth: Kingdom of Characters" (27:54) reveals rare test footage dug out of the Henson archives. Performers David Goelz, Brian Henson, and Karen Prell; puppet designer/builder Jane Gootnick; executive producer George Lucas; Froud; and assistant to Jim Henson Mira Velimorivic are on hand to provide their memories, thematic analysis, and thoughts about the film's significance. "Journey Through the Labyrinth: The Quest for the Goblin City" (30:03) continues the thoughts, and adds McFadden and Toby Froud to the roster of contributors; the second doc deals with the project's origins and includes audition footage of Connolly.

The set also includes several galleries: "Behind the Scenes" (30 images), "Cast" (40), "Characters" (30), super-cool "Concept Art" (10), "Vintage Posters" (2), and "Storyboards" (13). Finally, Sony includes previews for Ray Harryhausen in Color, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Dark Crystal, and Mirrormask. Unfortunately, the original trailer of Labyrinth (seen, worse for wear, on previous releases) is not included. Even if you own a previous edition of Labyrinth, there's enough here to consider a "double dip." If you're a Henson fan without a copy, what are you waiting for?

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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