October 10, 2002

Under the Radar

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This column is about those movies, independent or studio, which because they were released the same weekend as a huge franchise film or were ahead of their times or the critics just didn’t ‘get’ them, were never seen by as many people as they deserved to be.

They don’t make them like they used to. There’s nothing like the movies you watched when you were a kid. Of course, this has more to do with your perceptions than reality, but still. That handful of movies — your childhood canon before you ever knew what the word meant — you rented every weekend without fail. You know the ones I’m talking about: not only do you know every line of dialogue, your long suffering parents do, too. For me, those movies were The Princess Bride (yeah, me and everyone else born in the early ’80s), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Labyrinth. I watched the latter film again recently and I was struck by a number of things. I still loved it of course; it stars David Bowie and muppets, how could I not? When you watch the same movie over a period of years you are hardly watching the same film every time. As you change, so does what you’re looking at. So this column is really about two movies.

The Jim Henson production is a straight-forward quest tale about a prickly teenage girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who wishes that the goblins would come and take her baby brother Toby away, “right now.” They do. She has to get him back within thirteen hours or he’ll become a goblin himself and stay that way forever! To save Toby, she has to navigate through the Labyrinth which guards the goblin kingdom and finally confront Jareth, the goblin king (David Bowie, is that Luxemborg in your tights or are you just happy to see us?). Along the way she discovers her own strength and grows up a bit. This will not surprise anyone who’s ever seen a movie before, and it’s not supposed to. With a story like this, it’s not where you end up but how you get there. What’s most important is that we identify with Sarah and we do. She’s a recognizable kid, not a creation of Hollywood. She’s not particularly nice to her stepmother, thinks she knows more than everyone around her and has a real objection to being made to stay home and look after the bratty younger brother. But she realizes immediately the seriousness of the situation. If she doesn’t get Toby back he’s gone forever. He’s her responsibility and she’s going to fix this. We’re with her all the way as she goes into an alien world and competes against a formidable adversary.

That’s what I saw when I was a kid anyway, now I realize that there’s a lot more going on here and all of it’s good. Before I get too serious about what is, after all, a muppet musical, let me just note again that this movie has the neatest puppets Henson has ever created and David Bowie. With hair extensions. In tights. Performing with muppets. This could be the coolest thing ever. That said, the film has something interesting to tell us about the power and danger of fantasy, the nature of maturity and romance. There’s something unmistakably different about the tone of this movie. I think the reason is that Sarah clearly sees herself as an adult, a mature heroine and the movie treats her as one. Not in the early scenes, when her melodramatic fights with her family come off as ridiculously as they should, but this changes when she enters the goblin world. Every creature she encounters there treats her as an adult and she reacts as one. She and they both know the seriousness and difficulty of her quest, which convinces the audience of its importance.

Sarah is a teenager though and more than once falls back on that childhood staple cry of “it’s not fair!” Jareth regards her with amusement: “who ever said it was?” He and his subjects try to trick and foil the girl, but they do not condescend to her as the movie never condescends to its audience. The real glue of the film is Bowie’s presence. He somehow manages to avoid appearing totally laughable in a frosted blonde monstrosity of a hair-do, and costumes which are not so much elfin as ’80s. Instead he looks comfortable in the character’s skin. The film does something different and interesting by folding Jareth into both the villain and romantic lead roles. Bowie perfectly embodies that dichotomy with his regal attitude and casual confidence. His mismatched eyes, pale skin, high cheek bones and accent all combine to make him look both lovely and a little cruel. He creates a character that is unutterably unique and maybe a little in love with his adversary. The film is wise to know that Sarah is enough of a child to be oblivious to this and never states anything explicitly. This ability to tell two stories at once perfectly encapsulates the film’s appeal. It’s a children’s film that treats its heroine, its audience, and itself as adult and can be enjoyed by everyone.

Archived article by Erica Stein