I can’t bring myself to call them puppets, because I don’t feel that what Jim Henson does is puppetry. There’s no name for it. It’s some other kind of magic, really.
— Writer Terry Jones, “Inside the Labyrinth”
In an age of CGI technology, puppeteering may seem more nostalgic than state-of-the-art. But the extras included on the Collector’s Edition DVD of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth — including Brian Froud’s character sketches and a mock-up of the “Fire Gang” scene’s compositing — underscore the forward-looking ingenuity it takes to manipulate foam, plastic, and steel into emotive creatures.
Even beyond their construction, Henson’s puppets provide memorable performances. And performance is at the center of Labyrinth, his follow-up to the all-puppet The Dark Crystal. The film follows 15-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) as she strives to solve the labyrinth and confront the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie), who has stolen her baby brother, Toby (Toby Froud). As her journey draws from the fairy tale books in her bedroom, it’s concerned with identity and performance.
We first see Sarah acting out scenes from her book, Labyrinth, costumed as the defiant heroine with whom the Goblin King has fallen in love. Playing an object of desire, Sarah feels briefly free; when it beings to rain and she must return home, she also returns to feeling like a powerless teenager. (And here, Connelly’s overacting amid her family, while grating, underscores its status as a performance.)
Once Sarah is transported to Jareth’s world, she must examine her own expectations, then defy them, in order to solve the labyrinth. This trajectory is made visible in Jareth’s Escher-inspired castle, with its numerous staircases that lead impossibly everywhere and nowhere. The physical disorientation of the labyrinth reflects Sarah’s inability to locate herself in her own fiction. As a reader of the story, she should know the way; as a character, she’s hopelessly lost.
During one magic/drug-induced fantasy, Sarah attends a ball in a bubble, a masque with live-action people costumed to resemble the goblins who populate the fairy tale. Dressed as an adult, Sarah pushes her way through the crowd in search of Jareth, who tries to seduce her in slow-motion dance. While his advances are in keeping with the narrative of Sarah’s book, also called Labyrinth, she must resist, in order to change the story and find Toby.
The final confrontation between Jareth and Sarah takes place in his castle. When he growls, “You have cowered before me and I was frightening,” it becomes clear that it is her cowering that makes him frightening, rather than the other way around. Sarah is the origin and end of the fiction, its cause and effect simultaneously. This is underscored when she must recite the scripted lines from her book to break Jareth’s spell: her performance grants her freedom.
A similar focus on performance shapes the making-of documentary included on the DVD, “Inside the Labyrinth.” Once Henson and his crew translate Froud’s eccentric visions into puppets bound by the demands of material physics, they must get them to move, or “act.” Their efforts to make a 15-foot giant walk on its own or get the five actors who make up Hoggle’s face, body, and animatronic elements cohere underscore the film’s astounding technical achievement. The “Dance Magic” sequence, for example, includes 45 puppets, 53 puppeteers, a baby, Bowie, and flurry of live chickens. The entrancing result is testament to the team’s understanding of performance, in fictive and physical worlds alike. Ultimately, Henson’s creatures are endearing and enduring because they are more familiar than fantastic.