Children’s entertainment is usually painful to watch for anyone else. In 1986 Jim Henson made Labyrinth. It was a flop, which was hard for him, and the last film he made. Movies are often a cruel business, and the idea that a wonderful film like this was not properly appreciated before his premature death in 1990 is a bitter pill to swallow. This is a cult classic, which deserves to simply be a classic.
The overall plot is simple. Teenager Sarah (a pre-hot Jennifer Connelly) has to watch her baby brother Toby, and rashly wishes that he would be taken away. He is taken by the Goblin King (David Bowie!!) and he will be taken permanently unless she can negotiate a massive labyrinth.
While in the labyrinth she meet various creatures, while trying to outwit the schemes of Jareth the Goblin King.
The best entertainment for children never seems to pander to them. I grewup reading authors like A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Sid Fleischman. They wrote for children, but didn’t write down to them, and so those books have appeal even to adults.
Labyrinth fits that description, it is a film so clever and so original, as an adult you have to marvel at its craftsmanship at every level. I find most movies with song and dance numbers physically painful, but Labyrinth has David Bowie, so the soundtrack is better than it should be.
I have an unsupported theory that the nature of the movie industry breaks down certain directors. There seems to a terminal velocity of sorts, a film or films where a director pours their heart and soul into a film and gets a flaccid or even venomous response from critics and audiences. They learn to never put that much of themselves into their work again. Later on, we wonder why their films aren’t as good as they were earlier in their career, and it was the heartbreak of failure that did it.
Off of the top of my head, I think of Dario Argento and Opera, John Carpenter’s Apocalyse Trilogy, and Brian De Palma (maybe it was Snake Eyes?). Was Labyrinth that film for Henson? After working on this relentlessly he went into a deep depression and never made another feature film. This might have been the last great film he would have done.
We’ll never know. We do know that it goes into another list, films that were wrongfully underappreciated.