Thursday, 12 February 2009

You Remind Me of the Babe... What Babe? The Babe with the Power

So the other night it came up in conversation that my wife had never seen Labyrinth. Tch, those crazy Japanese, eh? We rented it from the local Tsutaya (google it) forthwith, and watched it over beer and sushi.

The last time I'd seen Labyrinth, I must have been about 10 or 11 years old, so my memories were hazy, like when you try to recall the details of a dream you once had. I kept saying, "Oh yeah...." at inopportune moments. I'd even forgotten Jennifer Connelly was in it, for instance. The film has definitely aged in the 16 or so years since I last watched it, but it is still highly entertaining and deliciously eerie.

In particular, I love the fairy-tale skew to the plot, characters and atmosphere, and there are a couple of things I want to take from it and incorporate into a game (probably Changeling: The Dreaming or an especially fairy-tale-esque Basic D&D campaign:

1. Non-humans are literal.

This is a trope in Brothers Grimm tales too: the way mythical beings take what people say utterly seriously. Thus even though the Jennifer Connelly character does not really mean that she wants the goblin king to take her baby half-brother away from her, the fact that she says she wants it is enough for the goblins. "What's said is said," as David Bowie points out when he comes to collect. This message - that once something is spoken, even if you don't really mean it, it cannot be undone - is quite profound as a caution to children, but it's also a great fantasy trope in itself, with the potential for causing lots of problems.

2. There can be deadly danger in innocent play.

When Jennifer Connelly encounters the Fire Gang in the forest, they seem playful and ready to incorporate her into the game. But it turns out that her participation would involve them removing her head from her body - and they won't take 'no' for an answer. Suddenly the entire episode turns very sinister. It's like certain scenes in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, where "let's play" is an invitation to either death or entrapment, or at the very least a perhaps permanent distraction from the mission at hand. Again, a profound about having to leave childhood and childish things behind, but also a great way to cause problems for a band of adventurers.

3. M. C. Escher was brilliant.

When I was a kid I was a huge fan of Escher - I had lots of books of his art, and often tried to emulate his weirder pieces. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he was as much an influence on my liking for the fantastic as Tolkien was. What I hadn't remembered at all was how much Labyrinth was directly influenced by him also: from the design of the Labyrinth to the faded delicate vistas to the layout of the goblin king's castle, Escher's mark is everywhere. I definitely think that as well as monstrous Things That Should Not Be, unlikely Buildings That Should Not Be should also make more appearances in fantasy gaming.


  1. I watch Labyrinth at least once a year, if not a lot more.

    LOVE that movie. Ambrosious was my avatar for quite some time.

    Hoggle is perfect Boggan, and Ludo makes a very nice troll.

  2. I never forgot Jennifer Connelly was in Labyrinth. I had the biggest crush on her, and Evil Mia Sara from Legend ...

  3. I recently had the same experience with Labyrinth as you did; hadn't watched it myself in a decade or two, and my wife had never seen it.

    It definitely has aged, but once I pointed out that all of the effects were _mechanical_, and none of it CGI because it didn't exist when the film was made, much of the "oh this is just stupid" faded away to "wow, I'm amazed they could do this."

    From my perspective, I've gotta say this film was a lot better when I was 20. Now that I'm 42, I can see the flaws in the writing and acting. But on the whole, I still like it, and given its limitations, I think it stands up well against more modern fare.

  4. I'm a huge Labyrinth (and Bowie) fan. This movie is a major influence on how I look at fantasy gaming in general -- right up there with LotR. :)

  5. Final boss = Bowie's codpiece.

  6. After I saw this in theaters I immediately wanted a magical labyrinth of my own. Sadly, the one I got for Christmas that year was not magical.

    The production design in Labyrinth is fantastic. Brian Froud, I believe, did the visual concept work. I'd love to get my hands on an "Art of Labyrinth" book if such a thing exists.

    For years I thought I remembered Bowie singing a song about the Labyrinth, so I surpised to find I'd apparently made it all up when I saw the movie recently.

  7. Well, that's torn it. I'm going to have to watch it again this weekend.

    Goblins, talking bird hats, orange caterpillars in scarves, the helping hands, the little creatures that shift the marked tiles around, David Bowie. That film has it all!

  8. Can you believe they were actually thinking of Michael Jackson for Bowie's part?

    There is no Art of the Labyrinth book that I'm aware of, but Froud also did the art for the Dark Crystal, and there's a gorgeous art book out for that one.

    I thought I'd gotten over my crush on Jennifer Connelly, until she was in Dark City. Sigh...

  9. Lorechaser: What would Ambrosius be? A pookah? ;)

    Scott: See, I was only about 10 when I last saw it, and at that time I was still in my "Girls? Yuk!" phase.

    Joseph: Oh, it's definitely flawed. Bowie has the look and the tunes, but is pretty dreadful in the acting department.

    Trollsmyth: Michael Jackson as the goblin king kidnapping children suddenly has a whole new sinister meaning now, doesn't it? I never knew why Jennifer Connelly wasn't a bigger star. She's got the looks and the talent, but never seemed to reach that certain level. Maybe she never wanted to.