Dance magic, dance, Supa-Fans! It is hard to believe it’s been 35 years since David Bowie’s Goblin King sang and danced his way into pop culture history with Jim Henson’s much-revered 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth.
Considered by many to be one of the best examples of ‘80s filmmaking, and a firm reminder as to why the legendary Jim Henson remains one of the most imaginative and influential puppeteers of all time, Labyrinth currently holds a special place in the history of popular fantasy films. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Henson’s classic, however, and when the film was first released in 1986, it did not enjoy anywhere near the same level of acclaim that it enjoys today.
The idea for Labyrinth first started whilst Henson was looking for a new project to work alongside with Brian Froud, the well-known fantasy illustrator and Henson’s prior collaborator on 1982’s The Dark Crystal. It was Froud who first suggested that the film should feature goblins, and after being struck with the image of a baby surrounded by goblins, the basis for the film’s plot was born.
With Froud’s early conceptual sketches in hand, the pair approached children’s author Dennis Lee and tasked him with writing a novella on which they could base the final script. When Henson later approached Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones to write the screenplay, however, Jones discarded Lee’s version and instead sat down with a collection of Froud’s drawings and started fresh from there.
As the film drew closer to production, the story underwent multiple changes which included changing the setting from Victorian England to modern-day America, and even the character of Jareth the Goblin King was first intended to be another puppet. All told, at least 25 different treatments and screenplays were written and re-written between 1983 and 1985, and even Star Wars’ George Lucas, who served as Executive Producer, had run many of his changes over the finished product.
When auditions for the role of Sarah commenced in 1984, a swathe of little-known actors (who would eventually all become big names in their own right) all read for the role including Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marisa Tomei, Laura Dern, Ally Sheedy and Mia Sara. Eventually, it was 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly who won Henson over, and he had cast her within a week of her audition.
As for Jareth, when Henson decided he wanted a live actor for the role rather than another puppet, he had first considered offering the role to actor Kevin Kline, before deciding he wanted a big-named musical star to change the film’s whole style. Before settling on David Bowie, Henson had also considered Sting, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson as potential Goblin Kings.
Working with a budget of $25 million US, filming officially began in April of 1985, and in the early days both Bowie and Connelly had admitted to facing numerous problems when required to interact with their puppet co-stars. In an original promotional interview for the film’s release, Bowie had remarked: “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.”
When Labyrinth finally opened in US cinemas in June 1986, audience reception was lukewarm at best, and by the end of its theatrical run it had only recouped just over half of its original $25 million budget and it would also mark Henson’s last attempt at directing a full-length feature film. Jim Henson’s son, Brian, would later suggest the poor box office performance and critical reception at the time would mark the beginning of a particularly difficult period in Henson’s career.
When Labyrinth was released on home video, however, it stirred a whole new level of attention and moved from box office flop to much-beloved cult classic. In 1992 Bowie told an interviewer that he was often recognised more for his role as Jareth, than for his illustrious career as a rock star. He said: “Every Christmas a new flock of children comes up to me and says, ‘Oh! you’re the one who’s in Labyrinth!”
Thankfully, Jim Henson was able to see the growing affection for his final film with his own eyes before he passed away in 1990. Brian Henson remembers fondly, that by the time of his father’s death, he was more than aware of Labyrinth’s newfound popularity and “he was able to see all that and know that it was appreciated.”
And now, 35 years on, audiences are getting ready to return to the Labyrinth once again, with a new sequel currently being prepared by Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson, with both Jim Henson’s children Brian and Lisa directly involved.