Twenty-seven years ago this June, a Jim Henson-directed fantasy movie called Labyrinth was released and... well, quickly fizzled at the box office. The decidedly strange movie, about a girl (Jennifer Connelly) searching for a baby brother who's been kidnapped by a bewigged goblin king (David Bowie), was maybe a little too weird for mainstream audiences at the time, even though it was a grand production of puppets and Bowie songs and other odd things. It's since become a cult classic, and for good reason. Labyrinth is in many ways one of the last non-animated, spectacle films of the pre-computer age. A few computer effects are used in the film, but when you consider that 1986 was also the year that Pixar's groundbreaking short Luxo Jr. came out, heralding the beginning of a computer animation revolution and giving the company its desk lamp logo, Labyrinth's props-and-puppets approach to imaginative filmmaking feels like something of a death rattle of a certain era.
One of the peculiar joys of Henson's very strange movie is how tactile it is. He built most of the film's supporting cast, creating goblins and worms and dogs and knights and all manner of other creatures out of, y'know, puppet stuff. Actual stuff. Tangible materials. The sets too were all built and weathered and decidedly real. There is a big bit of computer animation in the beginning, involving an owl, but beyond that? Somewhere (maybe?) all the things on screen are sitting in a dusty warehouse somewhere, not archived on a harddrive. The illusion takes place out here in the world of the touchable, of the built and extant.
Who knows if they exist anymore. But the film is evidence that they once existed in a firm way, and that gives the movie its delightful weirdness, an almost Brechtian reminder that you are watching a movie, even while the story remains engaging and transporting. It's movie magic that, graciously almost, reminds you of its magic. Or at least it feels that way when I watch it now. Back when I was a kid it was wholly believable as a real world. I mean, I knew it was puppets, but that didn't really register in terms of the experience of watching the movie. Same for Labyrinth's filmic brethren, movies like The NeverEnding Story.
Now, so many years later, it's been announced that Disney has acquired a pitch called Labyrinth, "an action/adventure story about the journey of the mythical princess who must enter the complex and dangerous Labyrinth to save her father." Hm. Doesn't that sound a little familiar? You know, a bit like that other movie about a girl (not a princess, but still) on a rescue mission in a labyrinth? And yet this new Labyrinth is not being touted as a remake. So, it's just a similar movie with the same name. That's all. Plus, we should assume, given that it's Disney and it's the year 2013, this new movie will have way cooler special effects, right? What with computers and all? "Well, no, no it won't!" I cry to myself as I read the news.
You see, the cobbled-together feel of those earlier movies is essential to my cherished memory of them, and in some larger sense to the way my version of Film Appreciation formed over the years. So the idea of a different, modernized Labyrinth — or, hell, even a new journey to Oz — initially strikes me as rather horrifying. It's like burying something in the Indian burial ground and having it come back wrong. It's an arrogant act, unthinking in the face of the forces of history and nature. Movies of this kind are supposed to look this one way. Anything else is heresy.
But of course that's a silly thing to feel. First off, it should be repeated, we're not technically talking about a remake of Labyrinth. It just sounds very, very similar in an initial description. And even if it was a remake, that old movie isn't going anywhere. More importantly, with respect to the flow of time, most kids today would likely watch the old Labyrinth and be bored to tears by its obvious fakery. For them, a movie looking like a damn videogame probably isn't a bad thing. And I should be mindful of that. I don't specifically know that anyone was complaining that the old Labyrinth was too advanced when it came out, but maybe someone did? (Or maybe not, the rapid advance in special effects over the past twenty years has been unprecedented.) The point is, the arrival of a new, likely slickly computerized movie with a similar plot and the same name as a decidedly un-computerized movie from my childhood doesn't mean that anything is being torn down. It just means that it's more directly plugging into the brains of kids' today, right?
So that's me working through my initial rage at the idea of a digitally mangled version of Labyrinth. Or a new version of anything from that wonderful time when we are young enough to believe wholeheartedly what a (good) movie was showing us. It's just the past raging against the future, is what it is. And, hey, I don't really hate computer effects, do I? A couple of weeks ago I went to Jurassic Park 3D, a newfangled version of the 20-year-old movie that cemented CGI hold over the summer blockbuster, and those judiciously used computer effects were nearly as thrilling as they were when I was ten and seeing it for the first time. I certainly wasn't whining about CGI back then, because it was all too exciting. It very well could be that way for a kid today, watching The Hobbit or anything else that almost entirely eschews the tangible world. Their movie DNA is getting imprinted right now same as mine was then. So, I guess it's OK that they get lost in their Labyrinth, while I stay stubbornly lost in mine.