What’s real and what isn’t? Bah, reality’s overrated if you ask us. Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and teen tearaway Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) would probably agree (come to think of it, it's probably the only thing they’d ever agree on).
Calling on past head-trippy fantasies
Alice In Wonderland
The Wizard Of Oz
(the latter appearing in novel form in the junkyard scene),
drags fairytales kicking and screaming into the modern day (or rather the modern day of the '80s, when the flick was made).
A hyper-real, vibrant daydream,
's main strength lies in its fairytale roots, which give the fantastical story a platform from which to launch into some deliriously outlandish scenarios. While Dorothy escapes her mundane Kansas existence by flitting off to the magical Land of Oz, here Sarah is dealing with a wicked stepmother and a screaming half-brother when she takes on her labyrinthine quest.
Cue themes of friendship, growing up and the challenges of life as she attempts to reclaim her baby brother from Jareth's clutches.
She’s A Heroine
"She’s pretty strong-willed, pure and, psychologically I guess, the Virgin Mary figure that some guys seem to yearn for."
David Bowie there, describing his young adversary Sarah, as played by future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly. As a fourteen-year-old hormonal hurricane, Sarah is bratty and forthright but impossibly likeable.
In-between her numerous rants of "It’s not fair!", Sarah's brash sensibilities mean she’s at least clever enough not to act intimidated by the Goblin King even if her insides are shuddering. ("It’s a piece of cake!" she insists, chin-juttingly when he asks her what he thinks of his impossible maze.)
Not only that, but she defeats her foe by using her brains, and doesn’t rely on Prince Charming to come to her rescue. Go girl power.
Connelly herself, however, views the flick as something of an old home video that’s too torturous to watch.
"I haven't seen that movie in a long time. I loved working on that movie. I loved everyone involved," she says, before adding: "I can't bear to see myself at that age! I know it's a well-loved movie, but can you imagine having to see yourself when you're 13 or 14? I'm like, ‘Oh my God! Listen to my voice! Look at me, I'm a bratty little kid!’"
“Come Inside And Meet The Missus!”
Crafted using the gorgeous, romantically sketched pics of husband-wife team Brian and Wendy Froud (whose son played the part of baby Toby), the creatures of
exemplify creativity run rampant.
Equal parts horrible, hilarious and haughty, the sheer variety and detail of the puppets, as forged by the geniuses at director Jim Henson’s workshop, is boggling.
Utilising everything from latex to ‘little people’ inside suits, this was the height of hi-tech in '86. Most impressive remains Ludo's giant man-operated puppet, which was equipped with a television monitor inside the puppet’s stomach for the operator to see what he was doing.
For Bowie, though, the challenge of acting opposite big hunks of latex initially proved difficult:
"I had some initial problems working with Hoggle and the rest because, for one thing, what they say doesn’t come from their mouths, but from the side of the set or from behind you or wherever because that’s the way it’s done.
"Once I’d overcome the disorientation, we all got along great! The goblins were terrible company at lunchtime, though..."
As The World Falls Down
Terry Jones’ original script didn’t feature this sequence, and word has it that he was a bit miffed when Jim Henson went ahead and added it to the film. But there’s no denying that
would feel odd (well, odder) without it now.
From that haunting tune (‘As The World Falls Down’, breathily breathed by Bowie) to the creepy masks and the helter-skelter feel, this is a standout moment of mature philosophising in a film that has subtext by the swampload.
Talking of subtext, just what is the scene about? Well, could the masked dancers represent the strange, scary, almost-here grown-up world that Sarah is about to enter? Is Bowie being positioned as a bit of a paedo? Tellingly, Sarah has to smash a mirror to escape, something we’re sure Jacques Lacan would have lots to say about...
Riddle Me This
Extending the metaphor that Sarah is on the verge of adulthood and all the confusion that brings, the labyrinth that she travails is filled with mind-boggling riddles.
Puzzles inspired by Raymond Smullyan, an Escher-like room with topsy-turvy stairways, language games ("One of us always tells the truth, and one of us always lies") ensure that
is more than just a pretty-looking quest movie.
It also has grey matter between its ears. And that’s what’s important, kids.
A Song Is Worth A Thousand Words
Another Henson idea (Jones thought he was barmy) had
transformed into a pseudo-musical, with David Bowie penning a number of songs that he would perform throughout the flick. In the end, he scribbled five numbers, each as catchy as the last.
"One of them was ‘Chilly Down’," Bowie said at the time, "a little swamp-type number for the Chillies, strange woodland creatures who waylay Sarah on her travels.
"With ‘Dance Magic’ - the song for Jareth and the baby, sung by them and the goblins in the castle throne room - I had problems. The baby I used in the recording studios couldn’t, or wouldn’t, put more than two gurgles together. So I ended up doing the baby gurgle choruses myself! It’s an up-tempo song and visually exciting."
Two official music videos were released to coincide with the film, with ‘As The World Falls Down’ and signature tune ‘Underground’ afforded their own releases. We've got the soundtrack on our iPod - it's that good.
Quite Simply, David Bowie
Jim Henson had two people in mind to play his villainous Goblin King – Michael Jackson and David Bowie. Luckily, he went for punk rock king Bowie, who brought with him his very own rock star vibe. (We can’t imagine Jacko in that crotch cup...)
"There is a generation that kind of know about
," Bowie acknowledges. "Kids are brought up to me and their mums say, ‘This is Jareth, from
The character is a complex adversary whose sole goal – to kidnap children and transform them into goblins to join his ranks – is confused when he encounters beautiful young thing Sarah. Bowie sweeps about his sumptuous castle set like a thing possessed, clearly revelling in the dress up while bringing depth and snark to the role.
"I think Jareth is, at best, a romantic," Bowie reveals, "but, at worst, he’s a spoilt child, vain and temperamental - kind of like a rock n roll star! I think he has inherited his Kingdom of Goblins reluctantly and runs it under duress."
A Grand CGI Entrance
Thought the puppets were groundbreaking? How about that opening sequence, in which a CGI owl flits about the credits?
According to some bloke on the Internet, it was the movie world’s first attempt at a photo-realistic CGI animal in a feature film. Sure it looks a bit glitchy, but it’s far more charming than anything we’ve seen of late.
The Devil’s In The Detail
Yep, the flick made more blatant nods to the likes of Escher and Smullyan, but all sorts of neat little details were woven into the film’s tapestry for the benefit of repeat viewings.
From the placement of toys that resemble the lead characters in Sarah’s bedroom (there’s a Hoggle bookend, a Jareth figure on the desk, even an ornate music box that plays ‘As The World Falls Down’), to the blink-and-you’ll miss it pic of Bowie as Sarah’s dead mother’s beau,
is straining at the seams with detail.
Cleverest of all, Henson hid Bowie’s image throughout the labyrinth itself, making him an omnipresent influence throughout the goblin kingdom.
Forget the stones that create Jareth’s face from a certain angle (channel 4 nicked that for their prog intros). Look out instead for his visage in a rung that Hoggle is climbing after the Cleaners incident, then in the corner of the hedge maze, as well as in the forest canopy and on the bordering wall of the Bog of Eternal Stench...
A True Classic Never Dies
Compared to some of the hollow, money-baiting kid flicks of the last 20 years (
Lava Girl And Shark Boy
holds up thanks to its winsome charm, its clever winks to the audience, its timeless story and, yes, those songs.
Contrast it with this year’s big, brash, subtle-as-a-kick-in-the-face 3D
Alice In Wonderland
emerges as the clear victor.
It was pioneering at the time, utilising cutting edge puppet technology, post-production scenery blending and a little bit of green screen, but
also had a story to tell.
True, its grass roots, mostly in-camera practical effects are now regarded with more than a hint of nostalgia, but there’s no denying the film relied on tried and true classical storytelling, and therein lies its strength. Go on, grab that dusty DVD (or get thee to a retailer). It's time to go back to
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