In honor of ‘Labyrinth’ briefly returning to theaters this spring, impress your friends with trivia from the filming of the cult classic.
Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, a fantasy film that both touches the heart and tickles the funny bone, returns to cinemas April 29, May 1 and May 2, 2018, for a limited engagement. (It’s also being adapted for the stage!) This classic film, which premiered June 27, 1986, broke new ground with its cinematic achievements in special effects (first CGI character), puppetry (largest puppet ever created) and animatronics (most realistic facial control). Jim Henson created a world full of unforgettable characters — finger-biting fairies, talking door knockers, and a narcoleptic old man with a cantankerous talking hat that is also a bird. And those are just some of the minor characters.
Considered a failure upon its original release, Labyrinth has proven itself a cult classic and true cinematic treasure. Not only has the film been incredibly successful financially; it’s been embraced as an enduring family classic. Parents and children over three generations have shared a love for this film that continues to grow as new generations are introduced to the film by their loved ones.
Here are a few gems you might not have known about the making of Labyrinth.
1. The Goblin King could’ve been a Prince
Music legend David Bowie plays Jareth, the Goblin King — an iconic character and an equally iconic performance. It might not have happened if Jim Henson hadn’t turned to his children when he wanted to know who was considered “cool” and “hip” to the younger generation. Henson always wanted a rock star in the role and strongly considered casting Sting, Prince or Michael Jackson as his Goblin King. His kids, specifically Brian, made it clear David Bowie was the ultimate choice to play Jareth. Part of Jim Henson’s brilliance was knowing a great idea when he heard it, and Bowie was offered the role. The perfection of Bowie’s being cast in this role is undeniable as you watch him dance the “Magic Dance” in his lair, all “As The World Falls Down” way down in the “Underground.”
2. Bowie was a child at heart and a baby on the mic
It was always Henson’s intent for the rock star he cast as Jareth to also create music for the film. When Bowie showed up for rehearsals, he more than delivered by presenting Henson with nearly completed recordings of the songs he’d written, so fully realized he’d even gotten a choir to sing background vocals on one of the tracks. Bowie’s contribution to the songs on the soundtrack stretched his own creativity further than ever in the track “Magic Dance.” The muscle he had yet to develop in this case was in the realm of baby gurgling. Bowie tried endlessly to record the cooing sounds of the infant of one of his background singers. In the 1986 documentary Inside the Labyrinth, Bowie said, “One of the backing singers had this cute little baby. Couldn’t put two gurgles together [laughs hysterically]. And it wouldn’t work for me. I kicked it [sly grin], and I did everything to make it scream. It really buttoned its lip, so I ended up doing the gurgles. So I’m the baby on that track as well.”
3. Controlled Chaos = The Magic Dance
Originally the “Magic Dance” sequence was going to be a song-and-dance number featuring 20 puppets, the baby Toby, and Jareth. But once they got on set for rehearsals, it was clear 20 puppets wouldn’t be enough to make the room look full. They needed more. A lot more. As rehearsals continued, the number of puppets jumped from the original 20 to a more-than-doubled 42. Brian Henson said the set looked like Swiss cheese when it was empty because of all the holes for puppeteers to stick their hands through. Not only were more puppets added, but an additional 12 little people were cast as dancing goblins to fill out the space. Eventually many of them were put on wire harnesses and pulled into the air, giving them an unnaturally high jumping ability. All this while Bowie sang and danced around little Toby, played by conceptual designer Brian Froud’s infant son, Toby Froud. The scene turned out wonderful. The controlled chaos looked so real that after viewers saw Jareth repeatedly throw Toby into the air and catch him, some London newspapers dug into production for possibly endangering a child during filming. In actuality, there was absolutely no danger to young Toby, whose mother was two feet in front of him during the filming of every scene. In front of and behind the cameras, everyone was a professional who took all precautions to ensure safety in each scene. And the child that Jareth throws into the air is, of course, a fake baby.
4. The Bog of Eternal Stench really stank
“Something grew in there,” said Brian Henson, referring to the Bog of Eternal Stench, “so it really did stink!” The set had an odor and, from the gooey surface to the slippery rocks, was extremely difficult to work on. Brian said they almost lost a $300,000 Panavision camera in the depths of the bog when the first assistant cameraman (AC) walked off the edge of one of the “piston rocks” and started to sink. The “piston rocks” were designed to rise above and sink below the surface of the bog so the characters could cross it without touching the stinky muck underneath, which in the story would make them smell horrible for eternity. This section of the set had to be very deep for the mechanics to work, and it was marked with chains suspended from above so people knew where the deep part of the bog was. While holding one of the incredibly expensive cameras, the first AC accidentally stepped off a rock into that section of the tank and instantly grabbed the chain. However, because the chain was covered in slippery bog goop, he just slid like a fireman down a pole. Continuing to sink, he thrust the camera into the air. Miraculously, one of the other ACs grabbed the camera just before it went under. The first AC wasn’t so lucky, having been completely submerged in the bog. Fortunately for him, it was just a movie set and the goop didn’t make him stink for eternity.
5. Hoggle was blind but only when he kept his mouth shut
One of the most beloved characters in the film, Hoggle, is adorable yet disgusting, crude yet sensitive, sad yet hopeful and, magically, through performance, all those things at once. Hoggle is performed by Brian Henson, his face is animatronically operated by Brian and three other puppeteers, and the little person inside the Hoggle suit is Shari Weiser. All these performers working together make Hoggle a truly collaborative creation. He also would’ve been nearly impossible to pull off had it not been for the discovery of a “cheat” that turned into one of the audience’s favorite traits of the wretched and adorable little fellow. Originally Hoggle’s head was designed so that Shari could see through a camera hooked up to two viewfinders over her eyes. However, this instantly nauseated her, and it was clear the viewfinder option wouldn’t work. When the viewfinders were removed, Hoggle’s head was mostly empty. It was soon discovered that the only time Shari could see anything while inside the suit was when Hoggle spoke. To this day people tell Brian Henson they love the way Hoggle is constantly walking around mumbling to himself, cursing trees and rocks and anything else annoying him at the moment. It makes the character one of their favorites. This trait was created entirely because it was the only way Shari could see where she was going while inside the suit, making Hoggle a shining example of functionality leading to a trait that makes a character not only better but beloved.
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