Labyrinth (UK - BD)
Chris takes a trip down memory lane with BD release of this Henson feature
Fifteen-year-old fantasy-obsessed Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is in the park rehearsing lines from the book Labyrinth, and in trying to memorise a particularly tricky passage she loses track of time. When she realises that she is supposed to be babysitting her half-brother, Toby, she rushes home in the rain with her dog, Merlyn, but upon her arrival she is chastised by her stepmother. Soon after she is left alone with Toby while her father and stepmother depart for their evening out, at which time an already enraged Sarah realises that her beloved teddy bear, Lancelot, is missing. When she finds the bear in Toby’s room she shouts at him, causing the baby to cry and further infuriating her. She begins to read passages from Labyrinth to her baby brother, telling tales of a young girl granted special powers by the Goblin King, and Sarah herself wishes that the goblins would just come and take the screaming infant away.
When Toby abruptly stops crying a worried Sarah enters his room to find that he has vanished. Suddenly, an owl flies through the open window and transforms into the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie), who tells her that he has taken Toby as she requested. A horrified Sarah realises what she has done and begs for the return of her brother. Jareth tells her that if she can solve his labyrinth in less than thirteen hours she can have Toby back, but if she fails the baby will be turned into a goblin and forced to remain with Jareth forever. Sarah faces many perils in her journey through the labyrinth, and along the way she befriends a curmudgeonly dwarf called Hoggle, a giant, fury beast named Ludo, and Sir Didymus, a chivalrous, fox-like knight who rides into battle atop a sheepdog called Ambrosius.
I think it's fair to say that I had a bit of a crush on Jennifer Connelly when I was a kid, based solely on her appearance in this film. Well, that and the fact that she was (and is) stunning, of course (damn you Paul Bettany!). Plus she was, like, the older woman... Anyway, I had a thing for her, you get the idea. I think that's where a lot of my love for this film comes from, as I was probably a little bit older than the film’s target audience when it was released in 1986 (I was eleven at the time). It’s actually a film that I got to know on home video and TV over the years, plus it was the one-time favourite film of an ex-girlfriend, so I watched it quite a lot in my early teens and again in my early twenties.
Prior to this Blu-ray viewing I hadn’t seen the film in eight years or so, and watching it now some of its deficiencies are more apparent than before. Firstly, the acting isn’t great. Connelly’s performance is a little wooden (particularly at the beginning of the film) and Bowie delivers every line like a bad impersonator doing his best David Bowie impression. The pacing is also slightly off, and as an adult I could have done with getting to know some of the characters a little better. This is particularly true of Sarah, who is such a spoiled brat at the start that I felt it difficult to connect with her at all. Thankfully she matures as the film progresses, learning life-lessons as she moves through the labyrinth, but I still think that the filmmakers should have fleshed out the conflict with her stepmother to provide some justification for her childish tantrums.
Thankfully there is still much to enjoy, mainly in the form of Jim Henson’s creations. For all intents and purposes Hoggle is just as real as Sarah, such is the quality of the puppeteers’ performance, and the big, hairy giant Ludo is a sort of cross between Sully from Monsters Inc. and Neil from The Young Ones. The various goblins are also beautifully designed and provide most of the comic relief. However, my favourite character is the manic, hyperactive Sir Didymus, who reminds me of Basil Brush on speed. Save for a couple of suspect shots where the puppets have obviously been superimposed on the image, the effects also hold up remarkably well and the various song and dance numbers are all pleasurable. It's not the best of the eighties fantasy movies, but it is a worthy feature all the same.
As a slightly amusing aside, my wife is so scared of this film—or more accurately of David Bowie—that she flat-out refused to be in the room while I was watching it! This phobia actually led to a quite hilarious moment during The Prestige, because I neglected to warn her of his impending arrival. I don't think I'll be showing her The Man Who Fell to Earth any time soon either...
Prior to receiving this Blu-ray the best version of Labyrinth I’d seen was the original region two DVD release from way back in the early days of DVD, so I was expecting a big step up in visual quality. There was no way that it was ever going to look as good as a modern fantasy movie like Stardust, but when you take the age and technical limitations into consideration I think that most people would have to agree that the BD looks pretty good. The 2.40:1 (1080/24p AVC) widescreen transfer is quite grainy at times, which causes the occasional bit of shimmering, but that’s eminently preferable to having the grain digitally scrubbed out of existence.
Detail is surprisingly strong throughout, especially in comparison to the DVD version. You only have to look at the intricate model work and the sets to appreciate how much of an upgrade it is, as there’s now real depth to the image (the walls of the labyrinth and the Goblin City as seen in the screenshots are a good example of this). The film has a warm, natural palette—particularly when the action transitions to the realm of the Goblin King—and the exterior shots have an inviting golden glow to them that made me fuzzy with nostalgia. It’s hard to gauge the accuracy of the skin tones when so many of the characters are puppets, but they look reasonably accurate for the most part (although there is a hint of red on occasion). The transfer is also relatively clean, and although I did spot the odd bit of debris from time to time it’s nothing that will ruin your enjoyment.
If I had to make one criticism it would be that contrast and black levels aren’t quite as good as I’m used to (okay, so that’s two criticisms), but I believe this has more to do with the source than any deficiencies in the transfer and they’re not bad per se. All things considered this is a very pleasing presentation of an ageing film, and one that’s sure to delight fans.
The original DVD release offered only a limited bitrate Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio track, so the presence of a TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack here is most welcome (although it would have been nice if the original soundtrack had also been included for the purists). The disc also includes TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks in French and German for those non-English-speaking individuals who are inclined to listen to dub tracks.
I was most curious as to how the dialogue would come across in this track, as quite a lot of eighties films can sound quite ‘canned’. Labyrinth doesn’t entirely escape this fate, but it’s not as bad as some films from the same era. The chief offenders are Hoggle and Ludo, whose dialogue is of a lesser quality than most of the other characters (human or otherwise), but other than that things aren’t too bad at all. The track is heavily biased towards the front of the soundstage and there’s not a whole lot of directionality, but the surrounds are occasionally used for effects during the livelier scenes or to add a bit of ambience in the quieter moments.
Bass is surprisingly powerful for a fantasy film such as this, beginning during the opening credits and continuing throughout. In fact there are moments when the bass is just that little bit too powerful, almost hurting my eardrums during periods of prolonged low frequency noise. The various Bowie songs all have a strong presence in the mix, especially ‘Underground’ and ‘Dance Magic Dance’, which sound better here than ever before, and the score warbles away in the background as a solid accompaniment to the action. This isn't the most impressive eighties remix I've ever heard, but it is definitely the best I've heard Labyrinth sound on any format.
Audio Commentary by Conceptual Artist Brian Froud: Brian Froud was responsible for Labyrinth's conceptual artwork, but he also designed costume, creatures, and worked closely with director Jim Henson and writer Terry Jones to develop the story. He covers a huge array of topics with very few periods of dead air, and he does so in a manner that holds your attention throughout. This is definitely a track worth listening to.
The Storytellers: This is a BonusView feature that offers new interview clips from people like Cheryl Henson and make-up artist Nick Dudman via a picture-in-picture window at the bottom right of the screen. Henson talks about the film being inspired by her and her sisters, touching on the parallels between their own experiences growing up and the choices Sarah has to make in the film. Unfortunately the PiP segments are few and far between, and in fact it's a good eight minutes before the first one appears. Still, what little there is happens to be fairly interesting and is usually pertinent to the on-screen events.
Making of Documentary: Inside the Labyrinth (00:56:27 SD): Ah, they don't make 'em like this any more! This is the original making of as found on the first DVD release of the film, and it's one of those incredibly nostalgic eighties featurettes that presents the behind-the-scenes footage in a very straightforward manner. There’s none of this talking heads, Flash Harry nonsense here, no sir. Instead, what we get is a lengthy piece that features plenty of interviews with everyone from Jim Henson, David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, to Brian Henson, Brian Froud and Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame). The more observant among you might also notice George Lucas lurking behind the camera in one scene, and Star Trek fans will get a kick out of seeing Cheryl ‘Gates’ McFadden earn her ‘Dancing Doctor’ moniker. There’s a lot of on-set footage with Bowie rehersing the various song and dance numbers, some amusing scenes of Henson trying to direct the baby and a group of chickens, and footage of some of the amazing puppets and animatronics created for the film. In an age of hyperbolic, back-slapping EPK fluff, I really miss this sort of down-to-earth featurette.
Journey Through the Labyrinth: Kingdom of Characters (00:27:58 SD): This featurette features interview footage with Brian Henson, Brian Froud, George Lucas and a number of the film's puppeteers. They discuss the creation and operation of all of the major puppets, from Ludo and Diddimus, to the junk lady and the giant robot. There's also some exploration of the metaphors used to explore Sarah's journey from adolescence to adulthood.
Journey Through the Labyrinth: The Quest for Goblin City (00:30:04 SD): In this featurette Brian Froud, George Lucas, Brian Henson, Gates McFadden and some of the crew explore the origin of the film. Among other things, they discuss Jim Henson's desire to make a more 'absurd' feature after the seriousness of The Dark Crystal.
BD-Live: The usual Sony BD-Live link is included, but as with most of their titles it’s just features a load generic trailers rather than anything specific to Labyrinth.
Labyrinth isn’t my favourite eighties movie, but it was still a part of my childhood and as such it will forever have a place in my heart. It’s been some time since I last sat down to watch the film, but that allowed me to approach this review from a relatively fresh perspective. The flaws are more apparent when viewed through adult eyes, but I still found the film entertaining and the wonderful production design and enchanting creatures are as impressive as ever.
Technically the disc is everything I could have hoped for. The strong visual transfer evokes memories of my youth, while the TrueHD audio adds another dimension to the musical numbers. The extras are also fairly impressive, although the BD-exclusive material is a bit disappointing in comparison to the older featurettes. Even so, it is very easy for me to recommend this title to fans both new and old. If you have kids it’s also a great alternative to the frenetically paced, CGI laden features that seem to dominate today’s box office.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 31st August 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 French, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 German
Subtitles: Arabic, Danish, Dutch, English, English HoH, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish
Extras: Commentary with Brian Froud, The Storytellers, Inside the Labyrinth, Kingdom of Characters, The Quest for Goblin City
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jim Henson
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud
Length: 101 minutes
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