Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Labyrinth: Special Edition (1986)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.

Journey into the fantastical world of Labyrinth, starring David Bowie and a cast of incredible creatures created by Jim Henson and produced by the Master of Myth George Lucas!

Frustrated with baby-sitting on yet another weekend night, Sarah - a teenager with an active imagination - summons the Goblins from her favorite book, Labyrinth, to take her baby step-brother away. When little Toby actually disappears, Sarah must follow him into the world of the fairy tale to rescue him from the wicked Goblin King (Bowie)!

Guarding his castle is The Labyrinth itself - a twisted maze of deception, populated with outrageous characters and unknown dangers. To get through it in time to save Toby, Sarah will have to outwit the King by befriending the very Goblins who protect him, in hopes that their loyalty isn't just another illusion in a place where nothing is as easy as it seems!

Director: Jim Henson
Cast: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson, Christopher Malcolm, Natalie Finland
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles English; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated PG; 106 min.; $24.95; street date 10/12/99.
Supplements: "Inside the Labyrinth": 55-minute Documentary; Production Notes; Cast & Crew Biographies; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - David Bowie, Trevor Jones

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/C+/B-

Unlike the Roger Eberts of the world who do this for a living, we Internet critics pretty much have free rein over what DVDs we review. As such, I often like to convey why I chose to screen a particular title, especially if I give the film itself a bad review; I think it's helpful to explain why I subjected myself to an unpleasant experience. (Don't want people to think I'm a masochist!)

I have no trouble whatsoever explaining why I picked up a copy of Labyrinth, for it's historically rooted. Why did I see the film during its theatrical run in 1986? Bowie. Why did I buy a copy of the soundtrack LP? Bowie. Why did I later spend too much money for an import CD of the soundtrack back when no US release of the CD existed? Bowie. Why did I acquire the laserdisc of the picture? Bowie. So please use your deductive reasoning skills to figure out why I bought the DVD release of Labyrinth. Hint - it starts with a "B" and rhymes with "snowy"...

(Have I pointed out that I'm a big Bowie fan?)

Despite such apparent devotion to the film, I have to admit that it really is just the Bowie connection that's attached me so strongly to Labyrinth. If you put literally any other actor into the role of the Goblin King, then I not only don't purchase multiple copies of it over the years, but I also probably never see it in the first place. (Okay, I suppose if Jagger or someone had done the role, I'd have given it a look, but Bowie takes the movie to a whole different level for me.)

This attitude should not convey an opinion that Labyrinth is a bad film, because it's not. However, it's not a terribly good film, either. I think it's much more interesting than Jim Henson's previous fantasy film, 1982's The Dark Crystal, but I find much of Labyrinth to seem pedestrian and fall flat.

Essentially, Labyrinth is just another rehash bastardization of The Wizard Of Oz. While the newer film's special effects are much better - and it's a given I like the songs more, though I won't get into an argument over which film has the superior music - Labyrinth, like The Dark Crystal, benefits from strong craft and attention to detail but it lacks a crucial spark that would have made it truly come alive. At no point during this film was in danger of feeling enchanted by the proceedings.

Some of the blame for that lies at the feet of the human actors involved. Yes, I do love Bowie, and unlike most other rock stars (Sting, Jagger), he really can act. You wouldn't know that from his work here, though. His performance as Jareth is pretty much a dud. You'd think that Bowie'd be able to step into a part as a "Goblin King" and vividly inhabit it, but that's not the case here. He seems awkward and vaguely uncomfortable in the role and he shows no signs that he was willing or able to really open himself up and let himself go in the film.

The only other prominent human actor in Labyrinth is Jennifer Connelly as our protagonist Sarah. (Conceptual designer Brian Froud's infant son Toby plays Sarah's infant brother Toby - poor kid, getting typecast at such a tender age! - and a couple of nobodies are seen as Sarah's father and stepmother early in the film, but their collective screen time is pretty minimal, especially in the case of the parents.) Connelly showed us that she soon was going to be an exceptionally attractive woman, but she displayed no signs that she would be much of an actress. She's not terrible, but Sarah seems to be something of a nonentity in her own film. Like the movie itself, there's little spark behind Connelly's performance and Sarah never develops into much of an interesting or compelling character.

At the risk of sounding like I hate everything, I must acknowledge that I intensely disliked the main non-human character in Labyrinth. That'd be Hoggle, a gnome who starts as a nasty little flunky of Jareth's but eventually does a Grinch on us. I've always found the little bastard annoying and unpleasant, and that attitude has not mellowed over the years. Why does Sarah develop an affection for him? I have no idea - I kept hoping Jareth would blow him up.

Ironically, one of the strongest aspects of Labyrinth stems from its remaining characters. While its main participants are either dull or annoying, the smaller supporting roles showcase a wide variety of delightful, entertaining and amusing misfits. From the Cockney worm to the "Helping Hands" to the crusty old doorknobs to about a hundred other clever characters, it's these bit parts that make Labyrinth a watchable movie. They can't quite lift it above that level, but without all the creativity that went into them, this picture would have been absolutely abysmal.

Interestingly, as I watched the antics of these creatures, I was struck by the fact that they seemed to reflect a Monty Python kind of attitude. This made sense when I discovered that MP alumnus Terry Jones penned the screenplay. (Actually, that should be rediscovered; I'd know this fact, but had forgotten it.) Henson made a good choice with Jones, since his wit and flair definitely add a level of entertainment to what otherwise could have been a dull and ponderous affair like The Dark Crystal.

As with that film, I definitely respected all the work and artistry that went into creating the puppet-universe of Labyrinth, but craft and creative designwork don't necessarily mean you'll end up with a good movie. Ultimately, Labyrinth is a mildly entertaining diversion that offers many solid fantasy components but it never quite gels into a truly magical experience.

In addition to the fact that Jim Henson directed them, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth also share the fact that they were in video limbo for a few years. TDC made its sole appearance as a widescreen laserdisc in 1994, andLabyrinth followed the next year. Both went out of print fairly quickly and became pretty sought-after items.

This means that a lot of people are very excited that Columbia Tristar have finally reissued them as widescreen DVDs. Happily for these folks, as with TDC, Labyrinth has emerged as a very nicely done DVD.

The DVD:

Labyrinth is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It comes on a single-sided, dual-layered DVD that is also anamorphically enhanced. As usual, CTS have provided an excellent transfer. Labyrinth looked pretty good in its letterboxed LD incarnation, but the new DVD definitely increases the level of sharpness. Although it looks a little soft at times - particularly during some of the earliest scenes before Toby gets abducted - the image generally appears crisp and well-focussed. Print flaws are minimal - a little grain here and there - and I saw no evidence of digital artifacts.

The settings in Labyrinth tend to use very flat and plain hues - earth tones abound - so we have to look elsewhere to examine color reproduction. The film boasts some vivid hues, and we usually see these in the costumes of the various characters. The garb worn by participants such as Sir Didymus and the Worm show tremendously bold and bright colors, and this strong reproduction continues into more subdued hues such as the tinted armor of the Goblin warriors toward the end of the film and the leathered clothes of Hoggle; these colors look absolutely brilliant. Labyrinth isn't a Technicolor showcase, but it seems very accurate and quite spectacular at times.

Unfortunately, the audio aspect of Labyrinth doesn't fare nearly as well as does the video side of the equation. CTS didn't see fit to remix the film for Dolby Digital, so we're left with the movie's original Dolby Pro Logic 2.0 mix. This isn't a tragedy, but it is disappointing.

I wouldn't mind this fact so much if the DPL track sounded better, but it's a mixed bag at best. Dialogue comes across with variable levels of quality; sometimes it seems fairly natural and smooth, but it also frequently appears flat and dull. Badly dubbed speech occasionally rears its ugly head. This is especially noticeable during the scenes that feature Sarah's parents; my guess is that British actors were used and their speech was later replaced by work from American performers (but that's just my speculation). Anyway you look at it, the dialogue during those scenes doesn't integrate well into the film.

The remainder of the soundtrack also seems fairly flat. Effects actually sound okay, but the quality of the music is pretty erratic. Overall, Trevor Jones' score fares better than do Bowie's songs. The latter usually sound very thin and trebly, with almost no low end. The score doesn't exactly tax my system, but it seems a bit more robust. In any case, neither aspect of the audio sounds as good as it should.

(Speaking of Bowie's songs, I should probably interject some editorial comment about them, since I do know an awful lot about his music. The mid-1980s was not exactly what you'd call a peak creative period for Bowie; actually, I think he regards it as the nadir of his career and it was a time during which he indicates he even contemplated quitting music. Five original Bowie songs appear inLabyrinth, and while they won't make me trash my copy of Station to Station, I've always found them to be pretty endearing. They're light and too overtly "poppy," but they work well in the film and I continue to like them.)

In regard to the soundstage of the audio mix, Labyrinth offers what was probably a fairly average experience in 1986. Use of the rear channels is limited to some musical fills (the front speakers definitely dominate) and very occasional effects such as Ludo's roar and the gurgles and farts from the Bog of Eternal Stench; since this track is DPL, all of the audio from the rears is mono, of course. The front soundstage is more widely defined, but it tends to be monaural in nature as well. The music spreads fairly nicely across the three front channels, and effects emanate from the right and level on occasion, but not terribly frequently. A remix of this track would probably have helped, though the harsh and tinny nature of The Dark Crystal 5.1 track may indicate otherwise. As it stands,Labyrinth sounds okay and rates as a pretty average representative of film audio from the mid-1980s.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the only reason I've maintained any interest in Labyrinth over the years is because of Bowie. That factor in and of itself doesn't guarantee my purchase of a movie, though; there are plenty of films in which he appears that I not only don't own, but I also haven't even seen (gasp!). One factor that does pretty much ensure I'll pick up a DVD or LD of a Bowie movie is if it includes substantial supplements. Hell, I got the expensive Criterion LD of The Man Who Fell To Earth - I film I'd never seen - just because the audio commentary included Bowie!

Since the Labyrinth DVD was to include a documentary about the film, that put it into the "no-brainer" category for me. Happily, the program in question - "Inside the Labyrinth" - doesn't disappoint. As with the documentary from TDC, this piece comes from the same time period in which the film was theatrically released. Sometimes these kinds of programs are disappointing, as they concentrate mostly on promoting the film, but "ITL" is not that kind of documentary. The 55-minute piece offers a tremendous amount of interesting information about the creation of the film.

While some of "ITL" features "talking head" interviews with all the main participants, it also shows lots of great "behind the scenes" footage. Many documentaries show this kind of material, but not to the extent we see here; most of the running time is devoted to these kinds of candid shots. Considering the technical nature of the movie - most of the characters are puppets, after all - the program easily could have become dry and lifeless, but it's not. Each topic is covered thoroughly enough but not to the level where it loses interest. One fun section shows how they achieved the effect where Bowie twirls a glass ball on his hand; I loved this, because I'd always been very curious how it was done. In my book, the Labyrinth DVD is worth purchasing if only for this terrific documentary.

Labyrinth also offers some of the more typical DVD extras. It features the same trailers that also appear with TDC: one for Labyrinth, one for TDC, and one for Jim Henson's Storytellers. (One difference: TDC included multiple trailers for that film, whereas Labyrinth shows only one trailer for each of these three projects.) All three trailers are decent but nothing exceptional. The clip for TDC is probably the best of the bunch; it almost makes me want to watch the movie again, even though I know I didn't like it.

Finally, this DVD features sparse but interesting production notes in the booklet and some surprisingly brief cast and crew biographies for Bowie, Connelly, Henson and executive producer George Lucas. These are just like the ones that came with TDC. They're essentially glorified filmographies and are below average.

Despite that minor flaw, Labyrinth makes for a very nicely done DVD. I find the film itself to be thoroughly mediocre, though I think kids would really enjoy it. The movie looks great, but the sound is fairly flat and ordinary. Only one substantial supplement - a nearly hour-long documentary - is included, but it's a great one; in my opinion, that program alone justifies the purchase of this DVD. Ultimately, the combination of a decent movie and this terrific documentary place Labyrinth in the category of recommended DVDs.

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