Labyrinth Blu-ray review

Jim Henson's last movie gets the high definition treatment. Simon joins David Bowie in the 1080p Labyrinth...

I once had a conversation with something who’s gone on to far greater and important things with me (actually, I’ve had several that have fallen into that category, but I’ll get to the point) about Jim Henson’s extraordinary The Dark Crystal. Said person’s argument was that, at heart, he felt it was a three-star film, yet a three-star film that was easily one of his ten favourites of all time.

I wouldn’t quite place Labyrinth that high on my own list of personal favourites, but the sentiment is nonetheless not far off (and it’s worth at least four stars anyway!). For Labyrinth is, particularly now, a film I can sit back and pick a few holes in, perhaps arguing that it’s more a collection of interesting events rather than a cohesive whole. But I don’t really want to do that, because – warts and all – there’s an argument that Labyrinth is about as imaginative a kids’ films as you could find in the 1980s. Plus, there’s the small matter that I really do love it.

That’s unsurprising, though, when you see who’s behind the camera. Working in partnership with George Lucas, the genius at work here was nonetheless the late, great Jim Henson. With a gleeful script from Terry Jones chock full of fabulous characters, unusual ideas and a real sense of fun, it’s then left to Henson and his army of puppets to bring it to the screen. The man does not disappoint.

In what would be his last big screen release before his tragic death at the age of just 45, Henson throws everything he’s got at the screen. As I remarked to my wife about half way through, every time Henson’s camera moves somewhere else, you simply expect one of the static objects within the frame to suddenly move. Be it a creature whose only job it is to turn slabs upside down to hide chalk marks, or just a collection of small eyes moving in the background, the film retains its sense of wonder and surprise many, many years later.

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Then there’s the David Bowie factor. I still can’t really work out if his inclusion as the evil Goblin King here is masterstroke or distraction, but it does the film’s soundtrack absolutely no harm whatsoever. Not for nothing will you still find the soundtrack CD to the film widely in stock at big record stores.

The actual plot is quite straightforward. A very young Jennifer Connelly, playing Sarah, wishes that the goblins would come and take her annoying baby brother away (and, on a side note, her character’s mother’s fashion choices give away the decade the film was made from 50 paces), and they duly oblige. Thus, a quick natter with David Bowie later, and she must get to the castle in the middle of the labyrinth of the title (oh, for the days when model-based effects were more prevalent – the labyrinth still looks just brilliant).

This then allows the film to take the form of moving Sarah from one puzzle to the next, almost computer game style, before arriving at the inevitable boss level. It’s a fun adventure, too, perhaps a little long but always working its damnedest to put a smile on your face. Plus there’s more imagination per frame here than 99% of films aimed at the same audience then and since. It’s worth noting too that Connelly is really very good here, not least because she and Bowie, as is noted in the film’s supplements, are effectively the only two humans in it!

Labyrinth has, happily, held up really quite well, and rewatching it for the first time in years I found it an absolute joy. It also brought home just how badly cinema and television has missed Jim Henson.

What an amazing and unique talent the man was.

The Blu-ray

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The Blu-ray transfer I was really quite impressed by. It’s not great at picking up the minutest of details, but it’s certainly a step up from the last special edition we saw on DVD. Colours look fresh, and I couldn’t see much in the way of blemishes on the transfer. It does highlight an ironic problem, however, with high definition. Strings that were fairly invisible on the DVD edition are now clear as day, and sequences such as the lose your head dance really show their age. Furthermore, the owl at the start – apparently the first ever computer generated character in a movie – is showing his age too.

These are perhaps unfair criticisms, but it’s nonetheless hard to avoid them. It’s still a good picture transfer, it’s just the problems with it are a by-product of that! The audio fares better, as you might expect, and I particularly enjoyed the musical numbers, of which Dance Magic remains my personal favourite. It’s a welcome, quality surround sound track you find on the disc.

The supplements, with the exception of one, come across from the special edition DVD, and they’re all presented in standard definition. While it looks horribly dated, I actually found the ‘making of’ to be substantive and interesting, packed full of behind the scenes footage, and Henson himself talking through his approach to the film, and the challenges they all faced. It’s superb, with no feel whatsoever that a PR rep was hovering overhead controlling what was said, and it’s all the better for it. Visually it looks terrible, but the content carries it through.

Further supplements? They keep the standard refreshingly high. A commentary tracked is provided by Brian Froud, the film’s concept artist, then you get a pair of Journey Through The Labyrinth documentaries, that knocked together eat up the best part of an hour. These are retrospective pieces, with lots of talking heads looking back. Again, there’s a feel throughout them that someone actually bothered.

Finally, there’s The Storytellers, a picture in picture supplement. This is exclusive to the Blu-ray release, and as you’d expect, it means at reasonably regular intervals, a talking head pops up in a small picture in the corner of the screen and starts nattering. These are quite interesting, too. I loved hearing Cheryl Henson, for instance, discussing how the roots of the story were in her family’s life (and she also talks about her father’s disappointment with how critics reacted to Dark Crystal), and Connie Peterson from the creature workshop looking back at making one or two of the faces from the film!

Labyrinth is a film, in many ways, in a class of its own, and the sheer love for it that beams, with utter justification, through the extras for once doesn’t feel like sycophantic nonsense. This Blu-ray upgrade is, fortunately, a smart one, and while it’s not a massive improvement from the Anniversary Edition DVD, there’s enough to justify treating yourself here.

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The Film:

4 stars
The Disc:

Labyrinth will be released on Blu-ray on August 31, 2009.


4 out of 5