Early in Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH (1986)—before Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) witnesses her baby brother kidnapped by goblins—and well before she matches wits with David Bowie’s Goblin King to win him back—we follow a tracking shot through her bedroom, as it takes stock of books and belongings. It’s a veritable “Who’s Who” of the fantasy form: Hardback copies of Grimm’s fairy tales, the saga of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are … there’s even a print of Escher’s Relativity hanging on the wall. Henson is paying tribute to his forefathers. And in this, the last film he ever directed personally, he translates the language of those influences into his own Muppet tongue.
The film even opens with fantasies: A CG owl flies through the opening credits, leading us into a field, where Sarah—dressed as a princess—is running lines from a script. True to the thematic interest yet again, it’s a wish-upon-a-star that kicks off the narrative: She desires freedom from her annoying baby brother, Toby; and once she gets it via those dastardly goblins, she desires to save him from the titular maze. Sarah’s ostensibly up against Bowie in this quest, but the only weapon that Henson outfits her with is her own wit—because the villain in need of vanquishing is merely the result of her own worst impulses.
LABYRINTH is a dream-movie, as oneiric as any kid’s film before or since. Henson normally found himself grounded by more traditional puppetry, but here he reveals a painter’s eye for the strange and surreal: There may be no sequence in his oeuvre as transfixing beautiful as the one that transitions us from Sarah’s world into that of the labyrinth. As Bowie creeps up on her, bedroom wallpaper quickly morphs into a painted backdrop of his maze—and then, within the space of another cut, the painted backdrop has become a physical set, sprung from her subconscious. The aesthetic flourishes of pop-cinema and the products of an overactive imagination are made one and the same with a single edit.
Once Sarah enters the netherworld, her mind populates it with the works captured in the aforementioned tracking shot. She ends up with three puppet partners to help her along the way: her figurative tin man, scarecrow, and cowardly lion. The labyrinth and its illogical inhabitants are her wonderland. The story structure is pure Grimm: a princess with a particular character flaw is put through tribulations to cure it. An entire musical sequence is designed to recreate SFX pioneer Georges Méliès “bouncing heads” routine. Even the Escher print is granted a narrative rhyme: Sarah eventually finds the King within a three dimensional Relativity, joyfully bounding through Escher’s impossible design.
These are more than mere references— LABYRINTH is marking itself as a compendium of the fantasy form. It begs the question: what purpose do these shout-outs serve? They are totems, not just for Henson, but also for Sarah (that was her bedroom we spied them in). She literally walks through representations of them—of Oz and Alice and the rest—living the texts that have populated her life. The mirror images of those stories that recur throughout the labyrinth provide her with the context required to correct her character flaws. The artworks themselves have revealed themselves to be a psychological necessity. Fantasy fiction becomes therapy.
Henson’s grand achievement in illustrating that point is that his tone isn’t prescriptive, but celebratory. LABYRINTH reaches the same conclusion as hundreds of other kids films, before and since its release: the characters Sarah met throughout her journey return to her, and dance by her side. But their existence sprung from Sarah’s mind, and her mind sprang from books, novels, movies, and paintings. The dance becomes a literal representation of the way that living with an artwork—not just enjoying it, but thinking about it, analyzing it, and in some cases, dreaming it—can be an integral part of one’s identity. And that’s posited to be true even if those artworks are “silly” or “childish;” even if they concern alternate universes, or puppets. That’s nothing less than an artistic manifesto—the method behind Muppet Madness.