If you were to merely mention the word Labyrinth in the company of sci-fi and fantasy fans, you'd probably be met with smiles, random quotes and remarks about David Bowie's codpiece. But no matter which of those scenarios played out, plenty of folks would fondly remember the fantasy/musical, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a Fathom Events revival that continues later this week. Though if you talked to Jim Henson about the film's prospects upon its initial release, you'd hear a much different story that involves his personal surprise at the film's disappointment. In celebration of this week's screenings, Henson's son Brian talked about his father's disappointment, and how it started with the failure of The Dark Crystal, below:
Oh, it was very disappointing. If he had been alive still today to see how the gross revenue has consistently performed... It's turned out to be great success in the long run. But at the time, I think... I don't want to read too much into what my dad would have said, but the general feeling was he'd done The Dark Crystal. It was a huge, huge effort. It took many, many years to develop a whole new look and style and feel. And it was received as too weird, Dark Crystal was, a little bit by the industry. Not so much the audience. The audience was like, 'Wow! This is real deep fantasy.' But it wasn't funny and and it wasn't full of music, Dark Crystal, the way that people expected Jim Henson to be.
Now when it comes to the Jim Henson canon, The Dark Crystal is the perfect sibling to Labyrinth, in more ways than one. The film was a more grown-up (and definitely more serious) product than Henson was known for. Keep in mind that at this point in time, Henson was better known for his Muppet films and specials, as well as his assistance in creating Sesame Street. While Muppetry was certainly his bag, the last thing audiences expected was a dark fantasy epic that had the potential to scare children. So after the initial failure of The Dark Crystal's downer epic, Jim Henson and conceptual designer Brian Froud wanted to craft another fantasy project together.
Only this time, they wanted it to be something much less serious and more in line with the Henson brand that most folks knew and loved. You'd think that when he pivoted to the audience that usually plays around with, Jim Henson would have been able to at least make a base hit of a film. Yet after all of the efforts he put into making Labyrinth the more crowd-pleasing fantasy film, the film failed to make its budget back, something that even The Dark Crystal had no problem achieving. When all was said and done, Labyrinth's grosses barely covered half of the film's $25 million budget.
You probably think that's a disappointing fact on its own, but when you read how Brian Henson describes the lengths his father went to in order to make sure the film was a hit to SyFy, it only get worse. The younger Henson explained Labyrinth's formula for potential success as follows, and you can see why his father would have been surprised for it all to fail. Brian Henson said:
But he knew he wanted to keep working in that world, that universe of fantasy. So he and Brian Froud came up with Labyrinth as the next one. But I think he thought he was responding to what the world wanted. If you're going to do another thing like this then bring in some of the funny, like the Muppets, and bring in some of the music like the Muppets and bring in a guest star, like always worked on The Muppet Show. So we brought David Bowie in. We introduced the music, made the music a strong element, and make it funny. And he brought in Terry Jones [of Monty Python] and he made it funnier. I think he felt, 'Well, this is what I probably should have done with Dark Crystal.' And then he was very surprised that it didn't do well.
In the end, both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth would become cult classics and legendary successes with the legions of fans that stumbled upon the film in their childhoods. Sadly, Jim Henson would never see that day, as he passed away just four years later due to toxic shock syndrome. While the man behind these worlds of fancy may no longer be with us, his work still speaks volumes for how creative his mind truly was, and you can celebrate that work by going to see Labyrinth's 30 anniversary screenings on May 1 and 2, courtesy of Fathom Events. Check your local listings for showtimes and availability.