Saturday, June 18, 2011

Arguably The Perfect Children's Movie: Labyrinth Is Fun For Anyone!

The Good: Creative, Good message, Decent effects, Moments of acting, Moments of character, DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Skewed toward children.
The Basics: Labyrinth is a memorable film which effectively melds a human and puppet cast in a fantasy adventure for all ages!

It is a very rare thing that I qualify my movie reviews. After all, I am one of the people who consistently argues that there is merit in comparing Casablanca to The Wedding Singer and that the rating continuum ought to be between The Empire Strikes Back and Master Of Disguise (all movies) as opposed to A New Hope Vs. V: The Television Series (a scale for each genre). Great movies will stand on their own and define the best and virtually every genre will have a perfect film, but if it doesn't, I'm fine with that, too.

So, when my wife and I decided to share our favorite films with one another, there was a lot of pressure for me to like hers. She endured Brazil (reviewed here!) for me and she was not impressed by it. I know that at some point in the past, I had seen Labyrinth, but I could not remember it well enough to write about it. As it turns out, Labyrinth is my wife's favorite film of all time and there was some irony in the fact that I reviewed the soundtrack to the film first and have only now just reviewed Labyrinth. And the qualification by which I am giving this a "perfect" rating is in the context of children's movie. This is, quite possibly, the perfect movie for children and in that context, it is hard not to appreciate the film for exactly what it is. And it is wonderful, but outside the context of a children's movie, it would be hard for me to consider it perfect.

Sarah is a spoiled girl who is studying for a school play when she is forced to rush home to babysit her infant brother while her parents go out for the night. Irked by his incessant crying, Sarah makes a wish for goblins to come and take her brother, Toby, away. Much to her surprise, Toby is abducted by goblins and she is visited by the Goblin King, Jareth, who informs her that he will turn Toby into a goblin in thirteen hours, if Sarah is unable to work her way through the magical labyrinth to his castle!

So, Sarah sets out on an adventure through a seemingly endless maze that surrounds Jareth's castle. She struggles to find her path at first as a fairy-killing dwarf named Hoggle refuses to help her. A friendly worm shows her the way into the labyrinth and soon she and Hoggle are exploring the puzzles the labyrinth has to offer, like mysterious doors with live knockers and oubliettes. Sarah's compassion is tested when she comes upon a wounded furry beast named Ludo and she soon learns that nothing is what it appears. As Sarah gets closer, though, the Goblin King sings and intervenes to try to keep Sarah from reaching his lair.

Labyrinth is a lot of fun and one almost has to forget that this film predates the rise of virtual characters. As a result, the puppets performed throughout the movie are treated as completely viable characters and the work on them is absolutely amazing. In fact, the detail and style of movement for characters like Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus are so realistic as to make one forget they are not real. The only characters who pop up who look like puppets are the Fireys, gangly creatures who tear off their own heads and perform a ridiculous musical number. As well, when Jareth sings to the goblins about magic, some of the goblins levitate or jump slowly through the air and in those sequences, a few goblins look more like puppets than real live goblins. But this is quibbling.

The film has a very valuable lesson for children (of all ages!) which is that it is important to look beyond the obvious to study the reality of one's situation, not just the hype or appearance surrounding it. There is irony in the fact that David Bowie - some of whose works succeeded entirely on the hype surrounding the artist as opposed to the merit of the project - plays Jareth and helps Sarah realize that not all is as it seems. Labyrinth is not a Bowie project that trades only on hype or his celebrity.

In addition to a great message for kids and a wonderful execution of an impressive imagination, Labyrinth follows a character on a vital journey of self discovery. Sarah starts the film spoiled and bored. Watching her is painful and she is instantly unlikable - despite being played by Jennifer Connelly. As the film goes on, Sarah learns the value of friendship and giving her word and being able to trust the word of others. As Hoggle comes under the influence of Jareth - to avoid being dipped in the infamous Bog Of Eternal Stench - Sarah learns the hard way the consequences of trusting the untrustworthy. Sarah grows in the course of the film and she goes from lacking in confidence and expecting others to hand her everything to being a strong young woman who solves riddles and problems on her own.

Also fun, especially for younger audiences, are the songs and dances that occur throughout the film. Jareth sings to Toby and his goblin hordes and the songs are energetic and danceable and will keep kids engaged when the movie becomes otherwise too serious for them. But the movie is not only enjoyable for children. Adults are likely to marvel at the technical wizardry of the film and appreciate the skill of the effects, as well as the kitsch value of David Bowie's pants in the movie. Those who have watched Jennifer Connelly grow into a serious and professional actress will be impressed by the ambitious start she had here.

Indeed, while David Bowie makes an appropriately intense and shifty goblin king, it is Connelly as Sarah who moves much of the movie forward as an interesting character work. She is equally believable as the spoiled girl running to her room whining as she is as the certain and smart young woman passing through the doors toward the Goblin City (as opposed to certain death). But what Connelly does best is help sell the reality of the virtual characters. The way she looks at and talks to the puppets convinces the viewer of their reality in her world and she helps sell the premise of the film perfectly!

On DVD, there are at least three versions. The ultimate edition is a two-disc version which contains several featurettes on the making of the movie, interviews with the cast, a commentary track and original sketch art for the production design. There are trailers and other goodies and fans will certainly get their money's worth out of the two-disc version.

In other words, Labyrinth might well be a great movie to grow up on and a perfect one to revisit at various stages of life. That timeless quality makes it not only a great value, but a truly great film.

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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