This feature originally ran in March 2015. We revisit it today to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Labyrinth.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Versus. This time, resident CoS Muppetheads Matt Melis and Dan Caffrey ask the age-old question: Which movie is better, The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth? Cue Bowie.
Matt Melis (MM): Rewatching The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth this past weekend reminded me of just how much Jim Henson spoiled us children of the ’80s. In addition to the beloved frog, pig, bear, and “whatever” vehicles, there was an incredible breadth of side projects — Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Storyteller, and films like these two — all done with the same depth of care, love, and imagination. Personally, I am a magic-ball-carrying Labyrinth man, but should your allegiances fall far, far away from the Goblin City and the Bog of Eternal Stench (“Smmmellllllsss”), Dan, trust me that it’ll only be friendly fire from me today. Both of these films tickle certain fancies and spark different parts of the imagination. So, what is it, Dan? Gelflings or goblins?
Dan Caffrey (DC): I’m so glad you brought up The Storyteller, as it’s very much in the same dark children’s fantasy realm as both of these films. But I also think the key to all of Henson’s more complex, fantastical material — that includes Fraggle Rock — is that he never viewed any of it as children’s fare. Everything I’ve read about the man (and I’ve read a lot) tells me he was just as interested in building worlds as he was in life lessons.
Anyway, I could go on and on about the merits of all of this, but let’s start off with your original question: gelflings or goblins? When I was younger, it was definitely goblins, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowly wandered over to the pod people’s doomed village (sorry, I need to not get carried away with The Dark Crystal references here).
I was about six when I saw both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and I actually had a hard time getting through the latter at first. It was slow, we saw two deaths in the very beginning — not cool, action-related deaths either, but depressing old-age deaths — and I was bothered by how much time we spent with the Skeksis. I got that they were supposed to be the villains, and we would naturally spend a lot of time with the villains in any fantasy story. But we never got to see much action from them. There’s little fighting with the heroes, little scheming, little anything. What we do get to see though is lots of footage of them wasting away in their castle: torturing slaves, killing small, furry creatures for their dinner, having drawn-out sword fights, etc.
What I’ve since realized is that was part of Henson’s plan: to immerse us into this strange world. Let’s not forget, the original (and, in my opinion, far superior) cut of the film didn’t even have the Skeksis speaking English. There weren’t even subtitles. In Henson’s mind, it was a way to force the audience to pay attention and get sucked into this strange place. The more fascinated we were, the more invested we’d be. The problem is, test audiences weren’t especially invested, nor were regular audiences for that matter. The Dark Crystal really only became a hit on home video (I feel so old saying that), where in the decades following its original release, it’s taken on a rabid cult following. I wish I could fault people for not initially being into it, but like I said, it wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated what Henson and his team were trying to do: create the first live-action movie without a single human in sight.
Anyway, I could go on and on about why I think it’s a superior movie, but let’s get Labyrinth into the mix first. As much as I love it, you probably love it more. What draws you into it now, and what drew you into it when you first saw it?
MM: If I had to pick one phrase to articulate Henson’s projects in the ’80s, it would be, as you mentioned, world building. Let’s promise to circle back to the technical achievements of these films, but this also gets at the nub of your question, Dan. One of the challenges of fantasy is initially drawing someone into another world — making them suspend disbelief and care about a world apart from their own. And I’d argue, both as a child and an adult, that the story and characters of Labyrinth offer the far superior entry points into a dark, absurd land.
A coming-of-age story (Labyrinth) serves as a far smoother entry into a strange world than a coming-of-an-age tale (The Dark Crystal). Ten minutes into the latter, and Henson is still trying to clue the reader into what exactly has taken place; it leans heavily (lazily?) on the old prophesy trope to move the action forward or explain away story gaps; and concludes with a reverse Jekyll and Hyde moment and a collective “why I’ll be damned” shrug/roll credits. Labyrinth avoids this type of mess by offering the viewer a story that both child and adult know by heart: a journey into another world that teaches us about our own. That framework, simple as it may be, welcomes us to devote the bulk of our attention to the fantastical world unfolding all around us.
Of course, a large part of that world is the unforgettable characters. And who would ever want to forget the oafish but kindhearted Ludo, the conflicted curmudgeon Hoggle, or the quixotic Sir Didymus and his cowardly (wise?) sheepdog steed, Ambrosius? Our heroine, a young Jennifer Connelly, proves endearing by film’s end, and Bowie, suspicious trouser bulges and all, captivates and seduces (oh, yes) as Jareth the Goblin King. Can The Dark Crystal boast the same? Aside from Kira (whom I have nothing but adoration for) and the occasional memorable moment from the prominently nippled (um, yeah) Aughra, the other primary characters are a dull-as-dishwater, reluctant hero, Jen, and the Chamberlain, the prototype for Jar Jar Binks.
I feel among friends when I enter into the world of Labyrinth, and I care that we all meet up again in that looking-glass finale, corny as it may be. For me, The Dark Crystal is more a tour through Henson’s Creature Shop, with none of that emotional attachment. Am I missing something about this film, Dan? Am I selling it short?
DC: I don’t think it’s a matter of missing anything, but more a matter of taste. I’ll fully admit that Labyrinth is the more fun of the two films and perhaps the more accessible. But where you see the characters as lacking depth, I see them as being a product of subtractive storytelling. Henson and co. only tell us the bare minimum we need to know in The Dark Crystal. I don’t find Jen dull, necessarily, but singularly minded. The little guy loves nature and is only concerned with healing the Mystics and, as a result, the entire world he lives in. Maybe humorless is a word we can both agree upon? He definitely doesn’t have as much color as someone like Sir Didymus. Then again, he lives in a less colorful, less humorous world than Labyrinth. I guess what I’m saying is that the world of The Dark Crystal is far more dismal than Labyrinth, so it feels more alien. It’s more difficult to enter. But that’s a challenge that’s become very appealing to me as I’ve gotten older. Fantasy films often get bogged down in exposition, and the original, less dialogue-heavy version of The Dark Crystal is the ultimate example of showing and not telling.
Not to get too off track, but I want to talk about some of your more specific points. Does Aughra have prominent nipples (there’s a sentence I thought I’d never type in my life)? I’ve never noticed them. I’m not going to cheat and look this up. I think it’s more fun if we just post an image of her for proof in this article once we’re done.
And I’d like to counter your point about the Chamberlain, who I’ve always found terrifying. Maybe his squealy tone, speech patterns, and constant “hmmm-ing” are reminiscent of Jar Jar, but to me, they represent him trying to be regal and charming without really knowing how to do so. One of my favorite scenes has always been when the other Skeksis strip away his ornate robes, revealing a creature underneath that’s skeletal yet flabby, pale, and rather impotent looking. We see how un-royal the Skeksis are, both physically and personality-wise.
I have a book called The Making of The Dark Crystal that cites this as a deliberate choice by the Henson camp — the idea of making the race so imposing and aristocratic with their clothes on, but so pathetic with their clothes off. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The Skeksis aren’t actually powerful. Violent, yes. Powerful, no. Let’s not forget that they’re a dying breed and are only able to harm others through the crab-like Garthim. I guess they physically assault the pod people/slaves, but only after they’ve been restrained.
Anyway, the Chamberlain’s appearance and demeanor seem very planned out, as do so many other little production touches in the film, from the anatomy of the different species to the little critters we see in the forests and deserts throughout the film. So my question is, how do you feel about The Dark Crystal’s production values? Do they feel lazy, or are they just as inspired as Labyrinth’s?
MM: It does come down to taste, but it’s also a matter of mood. Henson admitted that The Dark Crystal got heavier than anticipated, which is perhaps why the next major world he created, the caves of Fraggle Rock, tackled similar ideas of interconnectiveness with elements of darkness but also songs and silliness. I do think you have to be in a specific mood to sit down with The Dark Crystal. And, admittedly, it’s not very often that I’m in that mood. Labyrinth, of course, caters to a much wider array of viewers: young adventurers, singing tots, and desperate housewives.
Now, you asked what I thought of The Dark Crystal’s production values, and there I think we both can agree that this film is absolutely breathtaking. If readers get nothing else out of this back-and-forth, I hope they are reminded of the imagination and ingenuity it took to create both of these films. For all its shortcomings as a story, The Dark Crystal offers a moment akin to when people first heard dialogue in movies or when Dorothy opens up the door to reveal an Oz steeped in a rich palette of colors. To see an entire world brought to life solely through puppetry and film techniques is on par with those experiences. I have absolutely watched The Dark Crystal purely for the visual landscape and the wonder it so naturally elicits.
And again, let’s not forget that making these films necessitated that technologies be invented on the spot. It required so many talented and ambitious people — many of whom would go on to work on other Henson projects — figuring out how to do what had never been done before in real time. One of my favorite Henson projects of all time was a short-lived television program called The Jim Henson Hour, on which Henson would often go behind the scenes and explain how his company achieved many of its more remarkable effects. There’s so much imagination behind these productions and such ironic eloquence to the idea that the same technology that allowed a dinosaur-like Mystic to move and speak was also responsible for animating the finger-sized worm in Labyrinth. Again, the creative part in all of us has to marvel at these achievements.
So, Dan, you admit that the role of humor is almost nil in the world of The Dark Crystal. Do you appreciate the return of songs and silliness to the mix in Labyrinth?
DC: Oh, definitely. And I’ll be the first to admit that while I think The Dark Crystal is a better film, Labyrinth is the more fun of the two. I will say that said fun results in a pretty nonsensical ending. I get that it’s somewhat an homage to Alice in Wonderland, but I’m never a huge fan of the “was it real?” thing in works of fantasy. It always feels like a bit of a cop-out to me, proof that the filmmakers weren’t able to come up with a solid, tangible conclusion. Henson himself was always honest about being less concerned with the mechanics of story than he was with atmosphere.
But back to your question. I love, love, love the music of Labyrinth. How could you not? It’s funny, because I didn’t really know who David Bowie was when I saw the film, so I often associate him more with “Magic Dance” than I do with any of his more important work. I also love how the goblins in that song are decidedly non-threatening. The voice work almost makes it seem like they’re hesitant to get too rowdy. The second goblin that says “puppy dog’s tails” in “Magic Dance” sounds warbly and frightened. It always cracks me up.
My favorite creatures in Labyrinth are probably The Fireys. For my money, they’re the epitome of demented fun — a staple characteristic of the best Henson characters (Animal, Cookie Monster, Sweetums, etc.). On one hand, they have the best song in the film. It’s got a real Talking Heads jungle-beat vibe to it. You want to dance with them. But on the other hand, they’re able to detach their body parts, poke out their own eyes, and — let’s not forget — they try and take Sarah’s head! Man, I rewatched Labyrinth a few years ago and got genuinely freaked out when she escapes The Fireys by scaling a wall. But then they keep tossing their heads into the air to taunt her. That shot of their heads rising in and out of frame like balloons struggling to ascend into the sky? Just terrifying.
Speaking of Jennifer Connelly’s character, Sarah, what are your thoughts on her? You’ve mentioned Jen being a dull protagonist. Although I don’t agree with that, I still understand the justification. But what about Labyrinth’s protagonist? She’s pretty bratty and unlikeable, although that doesn’t necessarily bug me (I think she’s supposed to be that way at the beginning). What about you?
MM: I specifically remember getting sent to my room for answering my mother with Bowie’s best lyric from “Underground”, the song that plays over the opening and closing credits: “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl/ Because it hurts like hell (hurts like hell).” What my mom failed to understand at the time is that it’s all in fun: Bowie singing alongside puppets, clever skits like the door riddle, and adventures in babysitting with goblins. If you’re not having a good time during this film, it’s your own fault. And that’s part of the reason I am fine with the ending — with that fluidity between what’s real and what’s imaginary. The message and spirit remain the same regardless, and I think that ambiguity is sort of magical in a way. It reminds me of the closing scene of Fraggle Rock, where Doc and Sprocket learn they cannot “leave the magic behind.” Sarah similarly realizes that growing up doesn’t mean abandoning all aspects of childhood.
Connelly definitely lays it on bratty in the opening scenes, but she redeems herself pretty quickly by turning down Bowie’s tempting offer of being an only child and going after her baby brother, Toby. One powerful idea that both of these films tap into is that a young girl can be a hero and take matters into her own hands. Connelly knows she must be the one to undo the wish that took her brother away, and with a couple of dependable friends, she’s up to the task. Likewise, Kira is a strong female for both young girls and boys to admire. I love the scene where Kira saves Jen by revealing her wings and floating the two of them to safety. “I don’t have wings,” says Jen, who has never seen another gelfling before. “Of course not,” says Kira. “You’re a boy.” Now, Freud might have a wings-envy field day analyzing this scene, but the rest of us get the message: Kira is an equal partner in this quest, not merely a distressed damsel or gelfling eye candy.
Well, we’ve been through a lot, Dan, though there’s plenty more to talk about. I doubt there’ll be any conversions today. If nothing else, at least both of us can now spell “labyrinth” with confidence. And god willing, we’ll meet up and catch the long-rumored Dark Crystal sequel should it ever hit theaters. Sing us out, Bowie! “It’s only forever/ Not long at all.”