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Muppet Mania: 25 things you always wanted to know about Labyrinth, but were afraid to ask Jareth

February 25, 2012

It’s only forever: a quarter of a century after its original release, Jim Henson’s family film spectacular Labyrinth has never been more popular – not least because of star David Bowie

So, yes, the third of this blog’s four ‘Muppet Mania’ posts is, indeed, an unadulterated celebration of the awesome Labyrinth (1986). An unforgettable blend of fairytale, Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz with Muppet-like characters, off-kilter humour and – oh yes – David Bowie, it’s maybe not the greatest family fantasy flick ever made, but one of the most beloved to have come out of the ’80s.

Indeed, although we’ve just seen a new Muppets movie released, it’s pretty unthinkable we’ll see a movie quite like Labyrinth again – what with its sense of very ’80s Lucas-like/ Spielbergian fantasy wonder, amazing creatures and sets you feel you can touch as they were manufactured in a workshop not a computer and, of course, Bowie’s extraordinary wig and lunchbox. Certainly, it deserves its unique place in pop culture history and is always worthy of a (magic) dance whenever it’s popped into the old DVD player. Anyhoo, enough of this chit-chat, we only have 13 hours to reach Goblin City, after all…


1. During a limousine ride following a screening of The Dark Crystal (1982), the $40 million-grossing fantasy adventure they made together, British artist Brian Froud and creator of The Muppets and US director Jim Henson came up with the idea of another cinematic collaboration based around the traditional idea of goblins snatching a baby – Froud soon worked up an image of this concept (see below).

2. Henson later stated that at that time he and Froud “wanted to do a lighter-weight picture, with more of a sense of comedy since The Dark Crystal got kind of heavy – heavier than we had intended. Now I wanted to do a film with the characters having more personality and interacting more”.

3. He approached Monty Python And The Flying Circus member Terry Jones to write a screenplay based on his daughter’s recommendation, as she had just read Jones’s children’s book The Saga Of Erik The Viking (1983), which itself was later adapted as a movie by Jones.

4. Although Terry Jones is Labyrinth‘s only credited writer, the shooting script actually also contained contributions from Henson, screenwriters Laura Phillips and Elaine May and executive producer George Lucas (who also helped Henson edit the finished film). The screenplay went through 25 drafts between 1983 and ’85 – mostly to inject songs and more humour to ensure legendary pop star David Bowie would agree to star as antagonist Jareth the Goblin King.

Top artwork and pop artist: Brian Froud’s first concept art for Labyrinth, a baby surrounded by goblins who’ve kidnapped him; Lucas and Henson with their choice for Jareth, David Bowie

5. Jones has said of the eventual film: “I didn’t feel that it was very much mine. I always felt it fell between two stories; Jim wanted it to be one thing and I wanted it to be about something else”. Jones’s original script was darker and had more of a focus on Jareth’s vulnerability.

6. Originally, Jareth was conceived as a puppet-based creation until Henson decided that the movie’s two main characters ought to be played by actors. He considered casting a magician for the part, as well as Sting or Michael Jackson, before pursuing Bowie as the latter “embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterise the adult world”.

7. For his part, Bowie’s said on accepting the role: “I’d always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else, and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning”.

8. During development, the film’s protagonist varied from a king to a Victorian girl, via a fantasy-world princess, until a modern teenager named Sarah was decided on. After British actress Helena Bonham-Carter auditioned for the role, the character’s nationality was chosen as American – probably for US marketing purposes.

Three of a kind: Sarah’s Oz-like companions Hoggle (l), Ludo (m) and Sir Didymus (r)

9. Hollywood stars-to-be Sarah Jessica Parker, Marisa Tomei, Mia Sara, Yasmine Bleeth, Ally Sheedy, Laura Dern and Jane Krakowski were all considered for Sarah before 14 year-old Once Upon A Time In America (1984) actress Jennifer Connelly was cast. According to Henson, as was critical for the role, she “could act that kind of dawn-twilight time between childhood and womanhood”.

10. Labyrinth‘s plot sees Sarah trying to recover her kidnapped baby brother Toby (played by Brian Froud’s son, also called Toby) from Jareth and his horde of goblins. It incorporates elements clearly inspired by Alice In Wonderland (Sarah finds herself in a peculiar and magical fantasy world inhabited by weird and wonderful creatures) and The Wizard Of Oz (she must undertake a challenging journey – not along a road, but through the labyrinth of the film’s title – with three good-hearted companions to reach the land’s leader where her adventure will conclude).

11. The movie’s climax takes place in a room in Jareth’s castle that features gravity-defying staircases heavily influenced by MC Escher’s 1953 lithograph Relativity (see top image).

12. Shooting on Labyrinth began at Elstree Studios, Hertfordshire, England on April 15 1985 and principal photography wrapped about four months later on September 8. Exterior shots were captured at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire (the film’s opening) and the New York State towns North Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw (all used for the following sequence when Sarah runs home).


13. The puppet-operating and voice-acting team that worked with Henson on Labyrinth was drawn from those he’d collaborated with on The Muppet Show (1976-81) and previous Muppet movies, his children’s show Fraggle Rock (1983-87), revolutionary kids’ educational programme Sesame Street (1969-present) and one came from classic satirical effort Spitting Image (1984-96). They included Frank Oz (famed as operator and voice of Star Wars‘ Yoda and later a director himself), Dave Goelz, Ron Mueck, Kevin Clash, Karen Prell, Rob Mills, Anthony Asbury and Henson’s own daughter Cheryl and son Brian (who later directed Muppet movies in the 1990s).

14. Each of the major puppet characters (Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Didymus, Ambrosius – who in some shots was a real dog – and the five Fieries) were designed and made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and required a team to operate them. The most complicated was Hoggle, who has the most screen-time and boasts a genuine character arc. A dwarf actor wore his costume, while Brian Henson and three further operators radio-controlled his animatronic head.  Henson explains: “five performers trying to get one character out of one puppet was a very tough thing; basically what it takes is a lot of rehearsing and getting to know each other”.

15. Labyrinth was an ambitious project in terms of set design. The Goblin City set was built in Stage 6 of Thorn EMI Elstree Studios, London, and featured cinema’s largest ever panoramic back-cloth. The forest Sarah and her companions pass through to reach the castle required 120 truckloads of tree branches, 1,200 turfs of grass, 850 pounds of dried leaves, 133 bags of lichen and 35 bundles of mossy old man’s beard (usnea). Meanwhile, the Shaft Of Hands sequence was filmed on a 40-feet-high rig and involved nearly a hundred performers’ hands.

16. Cheryl ‘Gates’ McFadden, who would go on to become a sci-fi icon as Dr Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) and its follow-up films, worked on Labyrinth as a choreographer. She did the same on previous Henson movies The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).

Jim who fixed it: Henson directing Hoggle (l), posing with the latter and puppet co-stars Ludo, Sir Didymus and Ambrosius (m) and telling human actress Jennifer Connelly what’s what (r)

17. David Bowie recorded four songs for the film’s soundtrack: Underground, Magic Dance, As The World Falls Down and Within You (all of which he ‘performs’ in the movie). The first two were released as singles – Underground reached #21 on the UK charts (see its video in bottom clip). The film’s score was written by British composer Trevor Jones.

18. The film’s other song Chilly Down was written by Bowie, who recorded a version that didn’t appear in the movie. Instead, it is performed on-screen by the Fieries, one of whose voices belonged to actor Danny John-Jules who would go on to play Cat in sci-fi sit-com Red Dwarf (1988-present) and appear in kids’ show Maid Marian And Her Merry Men (1988-94), for which he also performed the memorable theme tune.

19. Merchandise produced to promote the movie included plush toys of both Sir Didymus and Ludo, a board game, a computer game, comic books and jigsaw puzzles. The film’s characters and sets also toured US shopping malls in cities including New York, Chicago and Dallas.

20. Labyrinth received its US theatrical premiere on June 27 1986 and opened in the UK on November 28. It was selected for the prestigious UK Royal Premiere of 1986, which took place on December 1 and was attended by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, ensuring it enjoyed significant coverage in the British media. An hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary Inside The Labyrinth was also broadcast on TV.

Manga, magazines and gamers’ delight: the four-part Return To Labyrinth comic book series (2006-10) (l), Kermit and Jennifer Connelly on the cover of the summer ’86 issue of Muppet Magazine (m) and Activision’s Labyrinth: The Computer Game released in 1986 (r)

21. Labyrinth posted disappointing figures in cinemas. It opened at #8 at the US box-office behind, among others, The Karate Kid Part II, Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (all 1986). With a budget of around $25 million, it grossed only $12.8 million; it achieved just 66th place on 1986’s US box-office list.

22. The movie also received a mixed response from the critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars, claiming “it never really comes alive”, but Nina Darton compared it favourably to ETA Hoffman’s classic tale The Nutcracker And The Mouse King (1816), the basis for Tchaikovsky’s ballet: “(The Nutcracker) is also about the voyage to womanhood, including the hint of sexual awakening, which Sarah experiences too in the presence of a goblin king.”

23. Unquestionably, however, as the years have passed, it has achieved huge cult – if not mainstream – popularity with repeat TV screenings and high VHS and DVD sales; young fans seemingly love it as a classic family fantasy adventure, while those who remember it from its original release look on it as a slice of ’80s nostalgia. Since 1997, the Labyrinth Of Jareth, a two-day masquerade ball, has been held by die-hard fans in Hollywood.

24. In 2006, the manga-lite publisher Tokyopop began producing a four-part  series of popular comic books entitled Return To Labyrinth, whose plot involved a teenaged Toby returning to Jareth’s world, while in 2010 director Dave McKean and author Neil Gaiman collaborated on the film MirrorMask, which initially had been intended as a prequel to Labyrinth entitled Curse Of The Goblin King.

And finally:

25. Although the financial failure of Labyrinth sent Jim Henson into a flunk, according to his son Brian, before his death in 1990 “he was able to see all that [growing popularity of Labyrinth] and know that it was appreciated”. David Bowie has also commented: “every Christmas a new flock of children comes up to me and says, ‘Oh! you’re the one who’s in Labyrinth!“, while Jennifer Connelly has said: “I still get recognized for Labyrinth by little girls in the weirdest places. I can’t believe they still recognize me from that movie. It’s on TV all the time and I guess I pretty much look the same”.


Further reading:

Labyrinth on wikipedia


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