Thirty years ago, I was dragged to see the latest Jim Henson film Labyrinth at the local movie theater. I say “dragged” because I was 12 years old, and 12 is an awful, awkward age for a boy, when you want to seem like anything but the kid you are, only as the grown up you’re not, and thus wouldn’t want to see a “kid’s movie.” Although I had to be coaxed into going, by the time the film was over, I was totally in love with the world of Labyrinth, and it quickly became one of my favorite films. Labyrinth was intended to be director Jim Henson’s fantasy opus, but it was also the first big role for his son Brian Henson, who puppeteered the character of Hoggle. At this year’s Dragon Con in Atlanta, I got the chance to chat with Brian Henson about the movie’s legacy, thirty years later.
While Labyrinth disappointed in its initial theatrical release back in the summer of 1986, it has grown into a cult classic and one of the most fondly remembered fantasy films of the era. I asked Brian Henson how it felt to see this particular caterpillar turn into a butterfly. “It did the same thing as Dark Crystal, where it was so unique when it first came out” said Henson. “The way the American audience works is that they want to know what something is before they see it. So it was a little bit hard with Dark Crystal, they didn’t really know what they were going to see. And they didn’t rush out to the theater, and it was the same with Labyrinth. But then once it comes out on home video… both movies (Labyrinth and Dark Crystal) that were made successful by the home video market. And both movies have done extremely well ever since. And it continues to be a big success thirty years later.”
So successful, in fact, that the movie is getting a special new 4K Blu-ray release for the big anniversary, as well as a limited theatrical run via Fathom Events. And according to Henson, it’s the best the film has ever looked. “Now with the new 4K, you can really see the theatrical version if you have a 4K television. With the increased resolution, you can see the same movie as it was in the theater. The new remaster is really beautiful, and even if you don’t have a 4K or even have Blu-ray, even if you just have the DVD it’s a much better master, it looks so much better than what it originally was.”
For all its post-theatrical success, Labyrinth has really resonated with a strong female audience over the past three decades. Sure, the movie has many male fans, but considering how rarely girls are placed in the center of a heroic adventure fantasy, as actress Jennifer Connelly is in this movie, it’s no wonder so many girls of a certain age treat Labyrinth like it’s their Star Wars. Was this deliberate on Jim Henson’s part, to make an adventure film for a specific and terribly underserved (especially at the time) female market? Brian Henson isn’t entirely sure. “Well, I’d think you’d have to ask my dad. But that’s just what the story was. I know when I made Muppet Treasure Island, I wasn’t trying to make a ‘boy’s movie,’ I was trying to make a cool story that was really entertaining. But does Muppet Treasure Island resonate more with boys than with girls? Probably. Because it’s more about the coming of age of a boy during puberty, and Labyrinth is about the coming of age of a girl during puberty.”
According to Henson, those are two very different transitions, telling us, “They are [often] different. Puberty for girls is about the attraction of sexuality, which is also terrifying at the same time. With boys, it’s more about being unrestricted, it’s less about sexual coming of age. But that was the story that [Jim Henson] was telling, but I can’t put myself in his head. I don’t know if his thought was, ‘I’m going to now set out to make a film for women.’ I think a lot had to do with Brian Froud’s artwork too, which a lot of it was creepy, hideous, with ogres and goblins around a beautiful girl, and that sort of contrasting, when you have those things surrounding a beautiful girl. What is the story that comes out of that?”
Of course, for Henson, Labyrinth is special for another specific reason — it was his first significant puppeteering role, as he played the character of Hoggle in the film….. a pretty sizable role for the then twenty-something. “I was only 21. The other films I’d done after I finished school but before Labyrinth were not for my father, they were for other people. So it was an opportunity to work for my dad in a more meaningful way. We’d had working experiences together that were great (Great Muppet Caper) but this was the big one. It was a full year of my life, and it was working very closely with my dad, so that was great. And Hoggle was the biggest character performance I had done, and I was also the head of puppeteering, the coordinator of all the puppeteers and prepping all the sets for them. It was a ‘now I have come of age’ project.”
Although not initially successful, two of the Henson Company’s biggest classics are fantasy films. And although fantasy films struggled back in the day at the box office, they have a much better track record in the 21st century, thanks to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. So does the Henson Company plan more fantasy films or television shows in the near future? Or is there still opposition from Hollywood to producing fantasy films? Henson seems to think there is, saying, “It sometimes seems like it. My father moved the headquarters of the company to Hollywood about a year before he died [in 1990], and in some ways that hurt us to produce more fantasy. It was easier to produce fantasy when we were New York and London based, because Hollywood doesn’t generate fantasy very well. When you pitch them something, they say, ‘Oh that’s great, but have you thought about remaking this other thing?’ It’s a little bit harder out of Hollywood.”
There were, of course, other reasons why the Henson Company didn’t instantly pursue fantasy films in the Labyrinth vein after Jim Henson’s passing, and it had to do more with Kermit and Piggy than any other reason. Brian Henson elaborated on the immediate aftermath of Jim Henson’s death, and how it affected the company, saying, “After my father passed away, I had to put a good five years into reestablishing the Muppets brand, and also doing the TV series Dinosaurs, which was a multi-camera sitcom, even though it was puppets. So it’s been hard to circle back to fantasy.”
Still, fantasy has always been in the back of Henson’s mind. “When we made [sci-fi TV series] Farscape, that was more of the world building that went into making fantasy, but it’s still not the same exactly.” Henson continued. “We are working hard to get back into the fantasy area, but it’s tough working out of Hollywood. The whole thrust of the development for things like Lord of the Rings was through New Zealand, and the Harry Potter movies were all based out of the UK. It is a little bit tough, but yes I think we should be doing more than we’ve been doing.”
One of the amazing parts of Labyrinth’s current 30th anniversary celebration is the amazing exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. Although tons of costumes, props, and puppets have been saved from the film and are on display, I couldn’t help but wonder if there are any pieces that Brian Henson really wishes had survived, that didn’t quite make it. It turns out, there is one… And it’s something that’s particularly close to Henson’s heart. “There’s no Hoggle! All that’s left is the plaster head sculpt,” Henson lamented. “But in some ways it’s ok, because filmmaking in general is about creating all of this incredible stuff, then you film it through this tiny aperture, and then the next day you basically throw it away. And to me that’s just part of the art form, otherwise we’d have warehouses filled with props all over the world.”
Of course, the subject of the late David Bowie came up, as his passing earlier this year has put the legendary artist on everyone’s minds. I had to ask Henson if he had any fond memories of working with Bowie, who played Jareth the Goblin King in the film. Not surprisingly, he had nothing but positive things to say. “He was a great presence, he was very game for everything. He was just a lovely person to work with, he had a very quick sense of humor. He was always very committed to his character, always knew exactly where he was supposed to be, and he did all the technical work of any good actor.”
Back in the ’80s, Bowie was so in demand as a musician that, according to Henson, the film was a bit of a break for him. “You always got the sense that he was such a workaholic, that he’s usually in the recording studio for eight hours then he’s got a gig that night, [and] that for him, this movie was relaxing. It was like a big old vacation for him. We had an ongoing relationship that continued through the years, his son [Moon and Warcraft director Duncan Jones] worked in the Henson Creature Shop, back when he was called Joe.”
Before we finished our conversation, I had to ask if there was anything on the horizon that was new in the way of comics, novels, toys, or the upcoming film (which is absolutely NOT a remake). Henson said, “We continue to develop around Labyrinth, just as we continue to develop around Dark Crystal. We will be very careful of what we actually make. For instance, you will never see us do any kind of remake of Labyrinth. It would have to be complimentary pieces within the world. And we are working on developing that.” One thing is clear — Brian Henson knows the special place this film has in the hearts of its fan, and will continue to do right by them.
Labyrinth will return to theaters for a special two-night event on September 11th and 14th, via Fathom Events, with a new Blu-ray release on September 20th. Let us know what your favorite Labyrinth moment is in the comments below.
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Images: Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company