Wednesday, January 13, 2016

the power of voodoo

Very weird to be penning something (semi) serious on here but heyho, nice to keep you on your toes but I felt that David Bowie's passing deserved at least a mention but what can I say about Bowie‬ that hasn't already been said by people so much more eloquent than myself....except maybe THANK YOU for making growing up for those of us who've ever felt a wee bit different or alone much more bearable.

Here as a wee tribute is my overview of Labyrinth which is quite possibly one of THE greatest movies of all time.
Fact.
Oh and it's one of the very few films I've taken a girl to see where I haven't been dumped immediately afterwards.
Which has happened far more often than I care to remember. 
Originally published in the first issue of Multitude of Movies magazine (go now and buy back issues, I'll still be here when you get back), last year sit back and enjoy probably the only thing I'll ever write that isn't full of childish innuendo and an abundance of 'mooth shite-in' references.
Change is as good as a rest I guess.
Oh and as an added bonus there's a prize for anyone who can list all the Bowie references scattered throughout.


Labyrinth (1986).
Dir: Jim Henson.
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, some Goblins, a wee baby and Ludo as himself.



1986 was a fantastic year to be a young film fan, sixteen years old and preparing for life in the big bad world (well art school at least) and a myriad of classic releases taking in everything from sci-fi sequels (Aliens) to horror redux (The Fly) via Hannibal Lecter's first big screen appearance to help ease any concerns or worries.
Yup, definitely a year with something for everyone.

There was one movie that year though that seemed somewhat out of place and time, an odd mix of children’s musical fantasy and (PG friendly, thankfully) coming of age sexual symbolism usually found in the works of Angela Carter (whose Company of Wolves had made it to the screen two years earlier).

A movie that scarily dared to mix not only one of the worlds most celebrated musicians, arguably at the height of his success and armed with the most terrifying codpiece in the history of cinema with a shed load of friendly-faced Jim Henson creations but have the audacity to cement the whole thing together with a story by TV funster Terry Jones who at this point appeared to be more interested in channelling Maurice Sendak than Monty Python.

To call it a risky venture would seem a fair appraisal but in the days when creativity ruled over accountancy and imagination was king it comes as no surprise that not only did the movie get made but that, with hindsight, it's widely regarded as a classic of it's kind.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

Labyrinth.

And for those sad, lonely few not familiar with plot...

The totally self absorbed but utterly gorgeous Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, fresh from befriending bugs in Dario Argento's Phenomena) is spending a lazy afternoon, as she does day in and day out, reciting lines from her favourite book – also named 'Labyrinth', spooky eh? – to her pet pooch in the park blissfully unaware that it's nearly seven o' clock and time for her to return to humdrum normality and babysit her scarily big headed brother Toby whilst her cuddly dad and harsh faced stepmum (isn't it always the way?) head out for a night on the town.

Arriving home wet, dishevelled and late alongside a mud covered mutt it's not too surprising that Sarah and her stepmum get into a blazing row regarding responsibilities, acceptable waistcoat fa..fa..fashions and babysitting resulting in our heroine, who being immune to her elders consultations, storming off to her room as the adults flounce off to the bingo or whatever it is that eighties parents did on night outs with a thinly veiled threat of some ch...ch...changes being made on their return.

Sprawled across her bed with a face of fizz and a head full of teen angst Sarah dares to imagine how her life could get any worse before realising that it already has.

Brace yourselves dear reader because her favourite teddy bear, Lancelot, has gone missing from her room.

Stomping around the house in a manner usually reserved for club footed drunks and soon-to-be superstars, Sarah soon finds her furry friend in Toby's room and cries out in anger at her tiny step-sibling which, in turn causes Toby to start crying loudly whilst evacuating all the snot from his tiny body.

Luckily Sarah is an old hand at babysitting and decides to use the oldest trick in the book to calm the troubled tot.

You know the one I mean, it's when you stiffly (and loudly) make up a story where a besotted Goblin King falls in love with a beautiful china (skinned) girl whose annoying brat of a brother mysteriously vanishes leaving the girl to enjoy her bear obsession in peace.

It may come as a surprise then to discover that this is exactly what happens because bizarrely enough the owl silhouetted in the serious moonlight on Sarah's window ledge is, in fact, Jareth, the flamboyant King of the Goblins who in an attempt to win Sarah's hand (and probably the rest of her too) has actually granted her wish.

Realising that this possibly wont go down to well with her folks Sarah begs for him to return Toby but Jareth, being a tricky Goblin kind of guy and literal lad insane instead transports them both to the ominous Labyrinth (see what they did there?) where he promises Sarah that in order to see Toby again she must not only solve his diabolically complex conundrums but also do battle with various scary monsters (and sundry super creeps) whilst making it to his castle within thirteen hours.

And if she doesn't?

Then tiny Toby will be transformed into a goblin.

Forever.

Sarah, ignoring the fact that she's under pressure, tries to reason with Jareth but soon comes to realise that it's as useful as putting out fire with gasoline so decides to take the challenge.

But will our heroine succeed in her quest?

Go on, take a guess.


After building a successful working relationship during the production of the fantasy adventure The Dark Crystal, Muppet guru Jim Henson and acclaimed fantasy illustrator Brian Froud began work on concepts and ideas for a second film together after a discussion in the back of a limousine on the way back from a screening of the aforementioned movie, bringing in children's author Dennis Lee to pen a storyline that could be used not only as the basis for the script but also as a tie-in novella.

With this treatment completed in late '83 Henson (on his daughters recommendation) hired ex-Monty Python prankster Terry Jones to pen the first draft of the film's script.

Reportedly Jones “didn't get along” with Lees poetic – and unfinished – piece and returned to Froud for inspiration, not only to his artwork but also to the artists almost frightening knowledge of goblin law and legend, particularly their penchant for stealing babies.

Drawing heavily on these illustrations as well as the recently published Maurice Sendak book Outside Over There for inspiration (the film actually acknowledges Sendak in the closing titles) Jones' much darker script passed through various other writers hands, including those of executive producer George Lucas and Henson stalwart Elaine May, with at least twenty five versions being written before production began in 1985 although Jones receives solo screenplay credit.

Apart from the tonal shift from Jones' original story the biggest change came with the casting of David Bowie. Mysterious and unseen in the original drafts and planned to be realised in puppet form, Jareth The Goblin King now took centre stage.

In Henson's mind Bowie was the perfect representation of “the sexuality, danger and the disturbing aspects of the adult world” whilst in return the singer saw Labyrinth as the perfect chance to return to the music-writing aspect of films and after his work on The Hunger, Cat People and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was delighted to be involved in a project aimed at children “of all ages.”

With a team comprising of puppeteers ranging from veteran performers Frank Oz, Dave Goelz and members of the Fraggle Rock and Sesame Street team to newcomers poached from TV's Spitting Image alongside a myriad of circus performers, acrobats alongside soon to be stars such as Danny John Jules and Warwick Davis, Labyrinth began shooting at Elstree Studios in April 1985 and took five months to complete which, when you realise that the majority of effects were achieved 'in camera' seems a remarkably short amount of time given the films scope and scale.

In fact it still holds the world record for the largest panoramic back-cloth ever constructed for a film as well as being the first motion picture to feature a fully realised CGI animal in the owl from the films title sequence.

Which is slightly bizarre yet strangely in keeping with the feel of the movie.

Editing duties were shared between John Grover (credited), Henson and Lucas with the director hoping the collaboration would achieve the right balance between his own 'softly softly' approach and Lucas' 'faster, more intense' school of film-making.

No doubt poor Grover was sent out to fetch the coffee.

With a score by South African born synth wizard Trevor Jones, whose career in film began with the John Boorman take on the Arthurian Legend Excalibur and with whom Henson had previously worked on The Dark Crystal complemented by five new songs from Bowie hopes were high for the films success with the production being featured everywhere from The New York Times to the late lamented Starlog via Billboard Magazine with emphasis being given not only to the films massive scale and non-human cast but also to David Bowie's return to the screen.

Add to that a budget of $25 million and the pulling power of Henson, Lucas and Dame David things were looking rosy for Labyrinth and the film opened in North America on 27th June 1986 followed by a staggered worldwide release (remember them?) culminating with a prestigious royal première on 1st December 1986 with the Prince and Princess of Wales in attendance.

Unfortunately critical reaction was mixed, with praise being heaped on Henson's imagination and the films bold visual style whilst bemoaning its lack of originality in its plotting.

Bizarrest of all though must be Gene Siskel's review in the Chicago Tribune which accused the film of being visually ugly and overtly violent with the baby in peril plot being an “unforgivably sleazy gimmick.”

Which is nice.

Only managing to claw back half of its budget during its U.S theatrical run, Labyrinth's commercial failure of the film demoralized Henson to the extent that he never directed another movie, which must rank alongside Ken Russell's inability to secure funding and Michael Powell's ostracising after Peeping Tom as one of cinemas great crimes.

Well that and the success of The Babadook obviously.

The golden years of Henson's imagination fuelled fantasies were over.

And the world would be a darker place because of that.

But just as Sarah managed to find her way through the films Labyrinth so the viewing public finally discovered this hidden gem, thanks in part to it's availability on home video (big oblong plastic things that used to house movies in the dark old days – ask your mum or dad) and, in the early 90's through it's screenings on the newly created Disney Channel. Even the critical response to the film had softened somewhat since its initial release with even the formerly frumpy Chicago Tribune calling it “...a real masterpiece of puppetry and special effects, an absolutely gorgeous children's fantasy movie."

And thanks to child friendly cinema shows and its original audience becoming parents themselves Labyrinth is now more accessible than The Dark Crystal, with each new generation it's audience grows as more and more children fall under Jareth's spell. Only recently I had the pleasure of experiencing the film on the big screen with my own children who, alongside both parents and podlings in attendance were spellbound for the entire running time, almost hypnotised by the events on screen.

Except during 'Magic Dance' obviously when they all went batshit, dancing in the aisles and chucking their younger siblings around like sacks of spuds.




The biggest measure of it's new found success though must be The Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball, held every year in Los Angeles since 1997. An event which has grown from merely celebrating the movie to an art event in it's own right, featuring as it does circus performers, a myriad of entertainers and art over a two day period.

Jareth himself would be proud.

But what of the future for The Goblin King, dear Sarah and Toby?

What of their lives after Labyrinth?


Unfortunately for those wanting more a mooted Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean sequel was dropped at the discussion stage, mutating as it did into MirrorMask (taking with it ideas for a Dark Crystal prequel on the way) partly due to Lucasfilm co-owning the rights to the movie and George not needing the cash but probably more likely to do with the fact that he was annoyed that no-one had asked for a Willow sequel.

Probably.

As luck would have it a sequel did appear in 2006 when Tokyopop, the American distributor and publisher of all things anime and manga (amongst other things) released a four-volume comic series Return to Labyrinth to much fan praise but mostly critical apathy.

The more things change eh?

Written by journalist Jake T. Forbes and illustrated by Chris Lie, Return takes place around thirteen years after the events of the movie and this time centres around a teenage Toby and his bond with The Goblin King.

Unfortunately whilst its premise may be sound it suffers somewhat from an overuse of pop culture references (everything from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars via Star Trek: Voyager) which only works to date the piece and alienate the non geek readership in a way the source material didn't, which is a shame as the plot, as cliched as it may seem improves with each volume and brings the story arc full circle adding closure to Sarah and Toby's relationship.

And beyond that?

Who knows though with modern cinemas almost undead attraction to devouring it's past don't be too surprised if a remake is announced over the next few years with a post rehab Justin Bieber as Jareth alongside a hideously expensive fully CGI realised cast of creatures.

God what a depressing thought.

I should really cheer myself up....now where's that baby I'm meant to be watching?

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