RIC MEYERS: The Dark Labyrinth
Twenty-five years ago, the late, great Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, tried to beat Lord of the Rings to the cinematic punch by co-writing and co-directing a similar and derivative, yet pioneering and daring, “adult” fantasy. Four years after that, approximately twenty-one years ago, he tried to combine Star Wars, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Where the Wild Things Are, and M.C. Escher, among other things, to create a new coming of age teen tale.
This week, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing handsomely packaged, two-disc, special editions of both these cult classics – The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In each, Henson managed to find a mature theme to impart (that living beings are a combination of good and bad, not one or the other, and that teens should choose their own path and not put themselves in others’ power, be they loves or peers), but, unfortunately, communicated them in a stagy, plasticky, Las Vegas/ DisneyWorld/ Universal Studios Theme Park kind of way.
He seemed to have little choice, of course, since his chosen medium was the puppet, and, back in the 80s he was limited to what those puppets could achieve, no matter how hard he pushed their envelope. What these new DVDs have over his old movies is that very knowledge. Once a viewer knows how hard he tried and how much work was put into pulling the difficult concepts off, new admiration for the attempts, if not the finished products, is hard to suppress.
It’s little wonder that both special editions were released at the same time, since the extras for both were obviously made at the same time. Both include the original, Henson-produced “making of” documentaries released back in the 80’s, as well as two new behind-the-scenes featurettes incorporating “rediscovered” test footage and 21st century interviews with those involved – most of whom worked on both movies. Entertaining discoveries can be enjoyed on both.
For The Dark Crystal, co-directed by Henson (Kermit) and Frank Oz (Miss Piggy/Yoda), it becomes clear that Henson was the level-headed yin to Oz’s more forceful yang, and, like the team of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder before them, never were quite as good separate as they were with each other.
The biggest kick on Labyrinth is the discovery that Star Trek the Next Generation’s doctor, Cynthia “Gates” McFadden, was the film’s dance choreographer. She expresses admiration for the project and love for Henson, as does the likes of conceptual artist Brian Froud, scriptwriter and Monty Python member Terry Jones, and producer George Lucas.
Another realization that can be clearly gleaned from viewing both is that one other vaunted filmmaker owes as much to Henson as Henson owed to Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and J.R.R. Tolkein: Guillermo del Toro. I no longer think it’s any coincidence that his great new film (and terrific special edition DVD) is named Pan’s Labyrinth. He took what Henson attempted as a jumping off point and solved all the 80s era problems with his own historically-imprisoned adult fantasy about a young girl taking on responsibility in this life and the next.
That much is made (dark) crystal-clear in the moment a crone holds up her own, blinking, eye in her hand to better see the elf/hobbit-like “gelfling” she has captured in some octopus-like tree roots. This, and the films’ themes, so evoke the Pan’s Labyrinth creature with eyeballs in his palms that the debt of gratitude del Toro owes to Henson requires no maze to discern.
It’s a shame that Henson himself is not here to realize it. I’m fairly certain that he would have been happy to see how he had influenced del Toro, and would have admired how the Spanish director dispelled all the previous films’ artificiality. Had he survived the onslaught of Streptococcus pyogenes that killed him in 1990, Henson would have turned seventy-one on September 24th, and would have, no doubt, contributed to the extras on these DVDs.
He also probably would have taken solace in the fact that both films have taken their rightful place as, despite their derived inspirations, unique cult favorites – combinations of dance, music, fantasy, puppetry, sets, locations, and live action that can find comparison only in such other unique phantasmagoricals as Taiwan’s Legend of the Sacred Stone (an epic box office hit starring the Pili Puppets – sort of a Crouching Muppets, Hidden Thunderbirds – which was bought by a seemingly incompetent South African distribution company and never seen again).
In the cause of full disclosure, I think it’s obvious that I admire the films and DVD packaging, but I would be remiss not to mention that they aren’t perfect. The new featurettes can be redundant, both in interviews and archival footage, while the new Labyrinth docs suffer from scripter Terry Jones, and stars David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly’s lack of participation (‘though it’s hoot to see their 1980s interviews).
Despite these minor quibbles, the new DVD releases are cause for reconsideration, rediscovery, and celebration.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.