Sunday, April 26, 2009

Labyrinth: an 80's Fairytale

I am of the considered opinion there are few films which have aged as well as Labyrinth.

This is not an opinion I've always held: as a child, I was at best ambivalent towards the picture. As I grew older, my feelings did not immediately improve. It is, after all, an easy film to criticize, particularly when compared to the more consistent Dark Crystal. While Dark Crystal maintains a constant tone and story, Labyrinth feels disjointed. Some scenes feel almost as if they're in a different movie.

There can be little debate that Labyrinth is a dated picture. Aside from the inclusion of David Bowie (iD&Di: .42), the movie is full of visual and auditory cues, from the animated owl in the opening credits to the soft-focus shot of the heroine at the end.

In addition, it is in some ways an incomplete picture. From interviews, I've learned there was supposed to be a great deal of back story tying the main character's absent mother to the play she reads during the opening, and none of it is in the final product (unless you count some sparse photos and theatrical reviews spread out on Sarah's dresser).

For years, these things grated on me, as did the euphoric absurdity of the ending, when Sarah summons her Muppet friends into her room for a final dance number.

But, as the eighties have drifted farther and farther away, it is as though the flaws have faded. Upon reviewing, I can find few aspects I could imagine differently.

The reason for this disparity is simple: while I once tried watching Labyrinth as a flawed fantasy, it now seems like a perfect 80's fairytale. From the casting to the techniques, this movie reminds us of everything we loved about the decade.

The lack of exposition matters less in hindsight: if anything, I find myself celebrating the movie's brisk pacing and imaginative settings and characters. Disjointed moments, such as the ballroom dance in a crystal ball, only enhance the strange dreamlike feel.

And, finally, the conclusion of Labyrinth has taken on new meaning in the past few years. I've heard it pointed out that the ending works as a parody of the finale of many similar works: Christopher Robin left Pooh, Dorothy left Oz, and so on. Many have noted that Labyrinth deserves credit for, if nothing else, rejecting this tradition.

But I find Sarah's final act more fascinating still. The eighties, we've seen, have refused to fade into obscurity. Properties such as the Transformers, GI Joe, and Care Bears have demonstrated a staying power that earlier children's programing did not.

Watching Labyrinth, I can't help but reflect on this. Christopher Robin left the Hundred Acre Wood because he was expected to grow up. In the course of Labyrinth, Sarah grows up as well, but, when the time comes, she refuses to set aside the things she loves.

In essence, she is willing to act like an adult, but unwilling to set aside childish things. That strikes me as a very appropriate description of the generation of toy-collecting, movie watching kids who grew up in the eighties.

While I still love Dark Crystal, I must admit that I find myself watching Labyrinth far more often. It may not rise above the era it comes from, but there are plenty of other movies which achieve that. No, this is a celebration of the 1980's; a fairytale dreamed up in a time of puppetry and pop music.

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