Fairies and Fantasy: Labyrinth

For a new project I’ve taken on, it devolves upon me to watch movies dealing wih dwarfs and goblins, fairies and ogres, wizards and witches, spells and enchantments. To begin this journey into wonderment, I chose to begin with Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy project starring a young Jennifer Connelly as The Maiden and a not-so-young David Bowie as the Goblin King. I have not seen the movie since its release 22 years ago.hitcounter

Ho. Lee. Crap.

First of all, I love David Bowie. Love love love David Bowie. I even loved David Bowie in 1986, after Let’s Dance and Tonight made him officially irrelevant (or, as my friend

puts it, “once you’re on the cover of Time, your career is officially over”). I own both Tin Machine albums, plus the ultra-rare live Tin Machine album Oy Vey, Baby. So I think my cred as a David Bowie fan is pretty high. And the casting of David Bowie as the Goblin King sounds perfect. Bowie is at his best when playing enigmatic, otherworldly creatures — space aliens, Andy Warhol, Nicolai Tesla.

But Oh. My. Freakin’. God.

I could look past the Tina Turner wig and the overwrought kabuki eyeshadow. I could sort of look past the Mad-Max-goes-gay-Nazi wardrobe. I could even, if pressed, look past the fact that the writer (Terry Jones!) hasn’t given the Goblin King anything in particular to do. But I find I cannot look past the aspect of David Bowie’s performance in Labyrinth that should have been the strongest: the songs.

I spent far too muchof the running time of Labyrinth wondering what the hell happened. Bowie has a rich understanding of song forms, why didn’t he write anything remotely appropriate to the narrative of the movie he was appearing in? It honestly sounds as though the Henson people approached him to star in their movie and then, as an afterthought, said “oh, and will you come up with a few songs?” and Bowie, the ink not yet dry on the contract, looked up and blinked and said “uh, yeah, sure, why not?” and then, as the shoot date loomed, hastily scraped together some scraps of unfinished jams from the Tonight album and gussied them up in the studio.

In a great musical, the songs advance the plot. In a middling musical, the songs entertain. In Labyrinth, the songs neither advance the plot nor entertain. They are, in fact, obstacles to overcome. Labyrinth repeatedly says “We’ve got some more movie coming up folks, but in the meantime we’ve got to get this woefully misbegotten song out of the way.” Harold Arlen this is not.

The lack of a plot doesn’t help matters (how can a song advance a plot if there is no plot to advance?). Labyrinth is about a maiden, Sarah, whose step-brother is kidnapped by the Goblin King. What does the Goblin King want? Good question. The Goblin King, for some reason, wants Sarah’s infant step-brother. But wait — the Goblin King, immediately after snatching Sarah’s step-brother, sets her a challenge — 13 hours to negotiate his fiendish labyrinth and rescue the boy. So, wait, does he want the kid or not? If he wanted the kid, why would he give Sarah the opportunity to get him? Why would he cut her any kind of deal at all? She has nothing on him, she has no leverage. If he wants her infant step-brother, he would just take him and be done with it. And, as he is the Goblin King, “fair play” cannot be the answer. No, obviously the Goblin King wants Sarah to negotiate the Labyrinth for some other reason. What might that reason be?

Sarah, the viewer will note, is a spoiled brat, a snotty princess with a room full of tchotchkes who considers an evening of babysitting to be the Spanish Inquistion (hey, don’t look at me, I’m not the one who brought Terry Jones into this). Maybe the Goblin King wants to force the rash Maiden into growing up a little, maybe he wants to teach her a lesson. Well okay, but then he’s not a very good bad guy, is he? The Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t want to “teach Dorothy a lesson,” she wants to kill the little bitch — the “teaching a lesson” part of the story falls to Glinda, who gives Dorothy the ruby slippers to protect the maiden on her journey to self-actualization.

So the Goblin King doesn’t want Sarah’s brother, and he doesn’t want to kill her, and “to teach her a lesson” makes absolutely no sense. Why is he doing this then? The reasoning the Goblin King gives at the end of the movie was that the Labyrinth is meant to be a kind of seduction of Sarah — he put her through the test of the labyrinth in order to break her down, erase her ego, and then make her suseptible to his gobliny predations.

This makes a certain amount of sense, and it is perfectly satisfying in fantasy-movie terms. The Maiden’s job in a fantasy scenario is often to be seduced by the corruptions of adulthood before regaining her senses. But here the notion is utterly undeveloped. If the Goblin King’s intent is to seduce Sarah, why doesn’t he do anything to achieve that end? Indeed, the Goblin King, once he’s set Sarah on her course, barely stops to think about her again. Once he gives her his challenge, you know what the Goblin King does? He goes back to his lair with his goblin puppet buddies and waits. He lounges on his Goblin King throne, he plays with the infant step-brother, he sings excruciating 80s pop to him, he shows off his grey tights with their penis-enhancing cut (David Bowie’s Penis should really have its own credit in this movie — there’s a shot where he thrusts it, in close-up, into the face of a dwarf, that literally snapped my head back in revulsion). When he learns that Sarah is successfully negotiating the labyrinth, the Goblin King is startled and enraged, and then goes and throws a monkey-wrench in her path, but otherwise he pretty much just sits around, stares out of windows and sings his clattering, tuneless crap. The Goblin King, apparently, has nothing to do, and yet he can’t be bothered to actually participate in the narrative he has set into motion; when he does act, it’s with petulance and impatience. Some villain! It’s as though we’ve caught the Goblin King on a bad day; what he’d really like is to be in another movie, but this one will have to make do for the time being. It’s as though the Wicked Witch of the West, once her sister is killed, were to threaten Dorothy’s life and then go back to her castle and sit around bored for a while. Yeah, yeah, ruby slippers, okay, um, how about flying monkeys?

Imagine the worst Bond villain in the series. Imagine Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Imagine Scaramanga, with his third nipple and his midget sidekick and his stupid fucking plan to somehow corner the energy market and, oh yes, develop a death ray, and, you know, as long as we’re at it, kill James Bond. Scaramanga is one of the worst villains in the history of motion pictures, but his story arc is the goddamn Dark Knight compared to the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

As I’ve said, the plotting of Labyrinth is, essentially, nonexistent. The movie has a setup and a finale, and then “a bunch of stuff” in the middle. I can hear the story meetings quite well — a group of talented designers and puppeteers — no, but really quite talented — sitting around a table saying “Oh! And you know what would be great?!” without any sense of plot, theme or character. Hey, you know what would be great? A dance number where the puppets’ heads come off! Hey, you know what would be great? A big drill contraption! Hey, you know what would be great? A big orange beast thing! etc. And let it be said that the design, apart from the horror of Bowie’s costumes, is quite excellent indeed. The optical effects have not aged well, but the practical effects are all charming and wonderful, the talking doorknobs and the snakes that turn into feather boas and the walls that seem to be there but aren’t. There is real imagination making its way through Labyrinth, but almost no sense of structure. Or, to put it another way, it has a Gilliamesque approach to design, and a Gilliamesque approach to structure as well.

Sarah meets a handful of characters. There is Hoggle the Dwarf, Ludo the Beast or Ogre or Something, and Didymus the Creature Who Both My Wife And I Thought Was a Fox But Turned Out To Be a Yorkie. The purpose of these characters is, or should be anyway, to reflect some aspect of Sarah’s problem. And I guess in some vague way they do. Hoggle kind of but not really teaches her something about friendship, Ludo teaches her the value of kindness to strangers, and Didymus teaches her about chivalry. Then, none of these lessons turn out to have any value whatsoever in Sarah’s goal of “retrieving the baby.”

And let’s look at that goal again. Sarah is 16 or so and, in spite of the fact that she looks exactly like a teenage Jennifer Connelly, we are told that she has never had a date. And, as far as the narrative is concerned, she doesn’t seem to want any dates. Is she “saving herself”, somehow, for the Goblin King? If she is she doesn’t demonstrate that desire — she just pouts and whines and refuses to take care of the baby. When the baby is taken away however, she instantly regrets her actions and feels compelled to rescue it. So Sarah goes, in one plot point, from “maiden” to “mother” without having the pleasure and/or terror of any of the steps in between — no courtship, no romance, no wedding, no initiation. You’ve never had a date? Boom! Too late, you’re a mother now — deal with it!

And so the movie actually ends with Sarah, having (spoiler alert) rescued the baby and abjured the Goblin King, going to her room and putting away all her dolls and games and fairy tales and tchotckes. In Labyrinth, you’re either a child or an adult, there is no in between.

As always, I invite my faithful readers to submit their favorites of the genre under discussion.  What should a screenwriter well-versed in the Fantasy genre see?


193 Responses to “Fairies and Fantasy: Labyrinth”
  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Bowie’s very prominent codpiece, which becomes more apparent when it is at Hoggle’s eyeline during shot/reverse shot conversations the two have.

    His costuming actually really reminds me of Khan’s from Star Trek II.

    There’s plenty to suggest that the entire fantasy of the film exists in Sarah’s mind, given that basically all of the characters exist in stuffed-animal form in her room. So I’m pretty forgiving of the lack of plot by thinking of the film in those terms. The labyrinth and the Goblin King can be seen as analogous, and the ways in which it frustrates her and the ways in which she pursues its center/its king can be read, if not in Freudian terms, then at least in context of adolescent desire and confusion.

    It’s still a phenomenal mess of a movie though.

    • Todd says:

      If only Bowie had worn a codpiece. As it is, I can tell his religious affiliation just by watching one of the dance numbers.

    • iainjcoleman says:

      There’s plenty to suggest that the entire fantasy of the film exists in Sarah’s mind, given that basically all of the characters exist in stuffed-animal form in her room. So I’m pretty forgiving of the lack of plot by thinking of the film in those terms.

      Yeah, but Time Bandits does all that too, and still manages to be a brilliant story with a bloody great villain.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hm. Still looking to the 80’s, there’s Willow, but it having been years since I last saw it, that might not be so great now that I think of it. There’s also The Princess Bride, the Lord Of The Rings mega-trilogy… and then things go distinctly downhill from there.

    Generally, tolkeinesque fantasy has been a pretty badly written genre all-around.

    • Todd says:

      That’s what I’m beginning to find out. I was at the video store tonight and the Fantasy section quickly divided itself into “things I’ve already seen” and “things you couldn’t pay me to watch.”

      • rennameeks says:

        It’s very much a maligned genre, sadly, and unfortunately, the post-Lord of the Rings surge of fantasy films really didn’t do much to help it.

  3. chadu says:

    Todd, here’s the Filmography from my fairytale RPG, The Zorcerer of Zo (published in 2006):

    The 10th Kingdom (TV miniseries, 2000)
    The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
    Beauty & the Beast (1991)
    La Belle et la bête (1946)
    The Brothers Grimm (2005)
    Castle in the Sky (1986)
    The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005).
    The Dark Crystal (1982)
    Ever After (1998)
    Hoodwinked (2005)
    Hook (1991)
    Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
    Into the Woods (1991, TV)
    Jumanji (1995)
    Kwaidan (1964).
    Labyrinth (1986).
    Lady in the Water (2006).
    The Lion King (1994)
    Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001)
    My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
    The NeverEnding Story (1984)
    Peter Pan (1953) [also the excellent live-action version (2003)]
    Pinocchio (1940)
    The Princess Bride (1987)
    Princess Mononoke (1997)
    Shrek (2001) and Shrek 2 (2004)
    Sleeping Beauty (1959)
    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
    Spirited Away (2001)
    The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
    Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) [also Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)]
    The Wizard of Oz (1939) [also The Wiz (1978), Return to Oz (1985), and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005)]
    Zathura (2005)

    I would definitely add Prince Caspian, Stardust, and possibly Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

    (Also, Chapter 1 of ZoZ is my analysis of fairytales and folktales, especially in terms of how to apply their tropes to roleplaying, if that’s of interest.)


    • Todd says:

      Gosh, I guess my filmic vocabulary is better than I thought — I’ve seen almost everything here. What about Dragonslayer, Dragonheart and Eragon, not to mention Ridley Scott’s Legend?

      • sboydtaylor says:

        Most of my buddies and I grew up on these:

        The Sword and the Sorcerer
        The Never Ending Story

        Kids don’t have outrageously high standards for movies — and watching these movies (except Excalibur) now is kind of like eating “comfort food”. You mostly do it for nostalgia.

        Though I have to say, the imagery in Legend is gorgeous. And I still love the shadow-dancer/seduction scene where Darkness steps through the mirror.

        I absolutely HATED Time Bandits when I was a kid, though I remember others of my friends liking it. I thought leaving the protagonist kid an orphan and homeless at the end of it was disgusting and negated anything good about the movie. Haven’t watched it since, so perhaps my adult mind would react differently.

      • chadu says:

        Dragonslayer has it’s charms, but I’m not convinced it’ll hold up. (Last time I watched it, I was less happy with it than when I first saw it.)

        Dragonheart… has moments. Some SF author wrote a short story (and it’s killing me that I can’t recall who) that has a better implementation of the “knight and dragon working together” concept.

        Have neither read nor seen Eragon.

        I’ve only seen Legend once, in “mai yute,” so I have only hazy memories of it. I recall that inserting a nigh-omnipotent but dumb Pure Evil into a fairytale romance might end up with similar features with your analysis above of Labyrinth.

        • spacecrime says:

          The short story could be “The Dragon and the George” by Gordon R. Dickson, which went on to become a series of novels. That one is mostly “human in dragon body with dragon friends,” but it does have humans (the “georges”) and at least one dragon working together.

      • chadu says:

        Okay, here’s one that’s a horrible guilty pleasure:


        Going further afield:
        Big Trouble in Little China. GO ahead, I dare you to tell me it’s not a fairy tale. Also, Jack Burton is the sidekick, but post-DVD commentaries, we all know that.

        The various Conan flicks.

        The animated Hobbit and LotR.

        Farthest afield: Amelie (hey, it has a gnome… sorta), though I believe it bleeds into Magical Realism rather than fairytale.

        Actually, I can go one better going wayfar away… Chocolat (and thus we segue to Ponette).

      • chadu says:

        Ah. This reminded me of something.

        Excuse me, Mr. Scriptwriter-mans, but in your opinion, are the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards reputable?

        A script I co-wrote has made it to the semi-finals.

        • Todd says:

          Forgive me, but I’m not familiar with the Page awards. Which means only that they have neither been the source of a brilliant, world-changing screenplay nor the site of a mass slaughter. My response to you is: Wow! Congratlations, sir! Please keep us posted on how it goes.

      • planettom says:

        How about the really bad 1982 SORCERESS, probably one of the first R movies I saw. Apparently not available on DVD, and, as usual when I discover something’s not available on DVD, my desire to see it again has increased tenfold beyond all reason.

    • mimitabu says:

      so much miyazaki! where’s the vision of escaflowne or magic knight rayearth or revolutionary girl: utena or even record of lodoss war or like green legend ran or maybe nadia the secret of blue water. sure, most are TV shows not movies… and if it has to be miyazaki, nausicaa of the valley of the wind, not mononoke!!


      • chadu says:

        Note that the list above is from a book on “faerie tales” rather than more general “fantasy.”

        All the ones you list (that I’ve seen) count more as general fantasy… Maybe NotVotW might make the cut, but I hadn’t seen it yet when I wrote the book.

        (Castle in the Sky is a bit of a stretch, but no more than NotVotW.)

        • mimitabu says:

          understandable. it’s just that whenever i see a list of works that has non-anime and anime, and the only anime listed was directed by hayao miyazaki mode, i see red (with a text card saying “STOP REMAKING THE SAME MOVIE!” placed over it). well, i don’t see red, but i post on the internet.

          completely disregarding fantasy and any misunderstanding i had of your list, if you haven’t seen vision of escaflowne, SEE IT! everything about that anime, from the visuals, to the characters, to the story, to yoko kanno’s characteristically amazing soundtrack, to the relationship of the characers, to the pacing, all of it is beautiful. it’s a perfect anime, and it’s basically straight up fantasy (with a tiny bit of steam punk tendancies thrown in). i suppose it’s “portal fantasy”, but to me the main character is from a mundane world solely to get the viewer to relate to her more; the world of escaflowne functions allegorically for the real world (and the allegory could have come right out of miyazaki, come to think of it), but the fantasy world in which 99% of the action takes place exists all on its own. the anime could just as easily have started on “gaia” instead of earth.

          this goes for todd too, perhaps. if you have the time and inclination to watch 26 episodes of anime, you can’t do much better than escaflowne. i’d caution against the (if memory serves) pretty much incoherent movie though.

          • mimitabu says:

            the word ‘mode’ is put unnecessarily in my first run-on sentence, b/c i initially was going to describe the “mode” i enter when i hear “miyazaki-as-anime representative”. he’s a talented guy, makes beautiful movies to look at, but the creativity well ran dry after his very first movie. pretty ironic considering the plot of kiki’s delivery service. getting into self-indulgence mode, time to click post and turn off the comp.

  4. medox says:

    This might seem an odd suggestion, but Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, although at first glance a horror film, is really a modern-day fairytale at its core.

    A young boy ends up trapped in an old house, guarded by a villainous and monstrous couple, inhabited by strange creatures in the basement and walls — where he finds a innocent girl in need of rescue. He must use his smarts, his will, and friends found along the way, to get a happy ending.

    Classic fairytale stuff.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve actually seen The People Under the Stairs and remember being struck by, as with many of Mr. Craven’s movies, how it had been mis-marketed as a horror movie. We’ve seen plenty of fairy tales turned into horror movies, but almost none turned in the other direction.

      • medox says:

        Exactly. So many times there is something else going on in Craven’s movies, using the horror genre like a costume.

        Other thoughts (while I remember them):

        — I know this has been said before, but Star Wars (at least the original trilogy) is really a fantasy adventure story in sci-fi trapping as well.

        — For recent filmic representations of your typical, classic fantasy elements, it would seem miniseries are where they are to be found:
        The 10th Kingdom
        The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns
        Arabian Nights
        Mists of Avalon
        Gulliver’s Travels

        I wonder why that is? Maybe since fantasy is so often “world-dependent,” you need an hour or so just to ease the viewer in to the whys and hows and wheres?

    • smallerdemon says:

      Don’t tell Harry I haven’t seen that movie. 😉

  5. rickj says:

    And so the movie actually ends with Sarah, having (spoiler alert) rescued the baby and abjured the Goblin King, going to her room and putting away all her dolls and games and fairy tales and tchotckes.

    Except that Sarah, in the middle of putting her dolls away, tells Hoggle and company that she needs them (not sure why, since she told them to wait in the lobby while she faced Bowie) and so they all appear in her room for a final dance number.

  6. misterseth says:

    I remember seeing Labyrinth in the mid 80s. At the time, I was expecting it to be another ‘Dark Crystal’ (a REALLY great Henson fantasy film that I’d wish you’d cover). Sadly, it wasn’t. I’m surprised it has a good cult following tho.

    • Good movie, but what was up with the 80s-style porno score?

      • chadu says:

        The score was not as bad on recent viewing as I recalled it being.

        • How bad do you remember it? Because I saw it for the first time less than two years ago and could barely concentrate because of how synthy sleezy the music was.

          • chadu says:

            I remember it as truly HOR-REND-DOUS (insert Strong Bad voice here).

            When I re-watched last year, it was a mildly odd choice, but not completely off-putting.

            INTERESTING TANGENT: The original version (Stewart Copeland?) of the score for Babylon 5‘s pilot, versus the re-imagined Christopher Franke score. (The latter is, of course, superior.)

    • greyaenigma says:

      Just avoid the soundtrack.

      We need a remixed version of that with totally new music.

  7. de_course says:

    Some more that haven’t been mentioned

    They’re TV miniseries, but Hogfather (2006) and The Colour of Magic (2008) are definitely worth a look.

    And as much as I hate to say it, Conan the Destroyer (1984) (which is not as stupid as Conan the Barbarian (1982)). Watching Destroyer will save you from having to read novels with Frazetta covers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the covers.)

    • chadu says:

      Re: Some more that haven’t been mentioned

      Discworld (post first two or three books) is always worth it. I suggest MOrt then Guards, Guards

    • gdh says:

      Re: Some more that haven’t been mentioned

      The TV adaptation of The Colour of Magic was pretty underwhelming, but I was surprised at how well Hogfather turned out. I absolutely loved the book and the TV version came pretty close to doing it justice. If you want an intelligent story about fairy tales, childhood beliefs, and what they all really mean, Hogfather is it.

      I’m curious to see how the Going Postal adaptation works out. Of course, that’s not exactly proper fantasy. The more recent Discworld books all seem to be about taking that world, golems, fairies and all, and modernizing it, dragging it kicking and screaming into the Century of the Anchovy.

      • de_course says:

        Re: Some more that haven’t been mentioned

        Yeah, I actually haven’t see TCoM yet. But Hogfather was amazing. I’m surprised how closely it managed to track the book while still being “filmic”.

        The more recent Discworld books […]

        The Tiffany Aching books are quite recent. Just saying.

    • medox says:

      Re: Some more that haven’t been mentioned

      Oh yes, I second Hogfather in particular.

      I don’t think anything can match the Discworld in my head, but that came pretty close.

      (I’d love for them to do one of the Watch stories — but terrified at the same time. They are usually my favorites.)

  8. mcbrennan says:

    I was roughly Jennifer Connelly’s age when I saw this, and I loved David Bowie then as I do now. (No shock that I, too, have Oy Vey, Baby, perhaps the greatest contractual-obligation album title ever). And I more or less enjoyed this film when I saw it, but I enjoyed it the way I enjoy, say, going to the beach. It’s pretty there, and you sit for a couple of hours watching strange characters go by at random, and you go home. The story’s terrible, nothing good happens, there are no likable characters and Bowie looks freakishly unattractive (as opposed to to his usual freakish and attractive.) Yet I think of it fondly, mostly out of my ongoing affection for Bowie, Henson, and unmitigated failure. The weird thing is that a lot of younger people really love this film; my cousins (now in their early 20s, neither of whom were alive when this film was released) think it’s brilliant, and it served as their introductions to Bowie (for some insane reason they liked, erm, “Magic Dance” enough to explore his catalogue and are now huge fans of his “good stuff”.) (It also served as their introduction to Cary Grant, since they later discovered Bowie’s whole “You remind me of the babe” spiel is lifted almost verbatim from Grant in The Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer.)

    I’m hard-pressed to think of any “genre” fantasy films that haven’t already been mentioned, but I’ve always been a bit more of an outer space girl. Ladyhawke, maybe, or The Neverending Story? Excalibur? Drgonslayer? Legend‘s pretty good. I guess my “fantasy” tastes tend to run more towards Harvey (It is about a puca, after all).

    • mimitabu says:

      since there’s already a million comments, i’m going to shamelessly add on a reply to mcbrennan’s here, that:

      “I’m hard-pressed to think of any “genre” fantasy films that haven’t already been mentioned, but I’ve always been a bit more of an outer space girl.”

      = about sums up what i think the objective situation is for live-action fantasy. it’s only been done well when it was called “science fiction” and set in outer space. i don’t think it has to be this way, but it more or less is.

      (and the only fantasy i actually still like as fantasy is anime, and more often than not space anime rather than “let’s fight wizards” or “once there was a strange mysterious land” anime)

  9. pseydtonne says:

    “David Bowie’s Penis should really have its own credit in this movie — there’s a shot where he thrusts it, in close-up, into the face of a dwarf, that literally snapped my head back in revulsion”.

    Thanks to that scene and many others in this flick, it has its own theology. The FAQ is probably the best part — the author picks a fight with himself and can only be placated with a mixed Icee.

  10. iainjcoleman says:

    Beowulf and Grendel, the 2005 Scandinavian adaptation of Beowulf. While I have some philosophical disagreements with the screenplay as it relates to the original poem, the movie is probably the most interesting of the post-Jackson classic fantasy adaptations. Plus, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is superb as the hapless Unferth.

  11. jbacardi says:

    I hated this flick the first time I saw it, and my opinion hasn’t changed much. My kids, though, who were born in the 80’s, loved it- so rest assured that I’ve seen it a LOT more than I would have otherwise. I keep running into people who claim to simply LOVE it, usually people my kids’ age who grew up with it like they did. Just goes to show ya. All I can do is say “…well, uh, yeah. Dance magic dance. Yeah.”

    About Bowie, he just utterly and completely lost his mojo the second, apparently, that Let’s Dance hit the racks (I was gonna say the 80’s in general, but IMO 1980’s Scary Monsters is arguably his best album), and he didn’t get it back until he finally reconnected with Tony Visconti for Heathen and Reality, two albums which absolutely blew me away- especially the former. If you haven’t heard those because you’ve given up on Mr. Jones, you should give them a shot.

    • Todd says:

      Oh, I haven’t given up on Mr. Jones. Although I did sell back my copy of Black Tie, White Noise.

      Scary Monsters, which was the first Bowie album I bought, I felt was like his dissertation, a summing-up of his “Berlin Trilogy” experiments in pop-album form. It’s probably his creative high-point.

      • jbacardi says:

        Which almost made his 80’s slump understandable for a while; I mean, when you’ve summed up that spectacularly, where else is there to go? Of course, I wish he’d just gone on vacation rather than do that embarrassing duet with Jagger.

        I got rid of my copy of Black Tie too, as well as Tonight, but I kept everything else. I’m kinda wishing I had them back now, but the urge soon passes. When pressed, I can make a case for a few songs on Never Let Me Down.

        Y’know my favorite role of his in the 80s? Vendice Partners in Absolute Beginners: “Tomorrow’s watch- today!” in that lower-voiced, clipped diction he used. Helps that I really liked about 3/4 of that film…

        • Todd says:

          Midway through Labyrinth my wife said “wait, David Bowie isn’t always this terrible — what was that other 80s musical thing he was in?” by which, of course, she meant Absolute Beginners.

  12. faroffstar says:

    This doesn’t have much to do with your assessment of the plot, but I remember as a kid being totally amazed by the contact juggling at the beginning and then being really sad when I learned that they weren’t david bowie’s hands in the film.

    For a good fantasy film I recommend Pan’s Labyrinth, though it’s not entirely a fantasy movie. I remember loving the Last Unicorn as a kid.

    • chadu says:

      Second on LU.

    • Todd says:

      “sad when I learned that they weren’t david bowie’s hands in the film.”

      I remember wondering if those were his hands and thinking “well, he’s David Bowie, he probably has some kind of background in magic or prestidigitation, he seems like the sort.” Now I’m sad too.

      • bassfingers says:

        It’s Michael Moschen (sp?). He did a TED talk and I’m sure there are videos of him on YouTube. Amazing juggler. Used to be neighbors with Penn Jillette when they were growing up.

        (Our tagline for Labyrinth was “Watch the singing Q-Tip play with his balls!”

  13. stormwyvern says:

    I had a great fondness for this film when I was younger, but I agree that it doesn’t hold up well upon rewatching it as an adult. “Dark Crystal” is a better Jim Henson fantasy film and “The Neverending Story” does the “kid escaping to a fantasy world” thing better, even if Bastion spends most of his time as reader rather than active participant.

    Has anyone mentioned “Pan’s Labyrinth” yet? That should probably be on your list.

    I know there have been mantises and earthquakes and Batman and David Bowie crotch to deal with, but can we PLEASE finish with “Schindler’s List” sometime soon? I don’t think there’s much more than an act left to go, right?

  14. Anonymous says:

    the way you put it,the goblin king seems a lot like the monarch.He’s sitting around his lair in a skin tight costume.Is he wanting to punish her ,or have sex with her,or both? Maybe he considers it his task or pleasure picking on a spoiled brat til they break or learn their lesson.Making the world abetter pplaceone jerk at a time,like Hannibal Lector,or the guy from the Saw movies.but then again wasn’t it all in her head?

    kind of went from one point to another

    • Todd says:

      A story is welcome to take place “all in her head,” but that doesn’t excuse it for being dramatically incoherent. And replacing David Bowie with The Monarch would instantly make Labyrinth a classic. Come to think of it, that’s what Time Bandits is — the villain in that is quite Monarch-like: he fulminates and curses and waves his arms about, but he’s essentially all threat and no harm — a Pythonesque villain. The Goblin King is David Bowie in a Monty Python movie, and nobody gave him the memo.

  15. eronanke says:

    This movie, for young girls, is a giant metaphor for their growing sexuality; the shock, the suddeness, and the emotional changes that lead them to become women.

    Their first boyfriends, especially the first man they sleep with, is like the Goblin King – for a short time he seems to have all the power and control the universe. The begging the Goblin King does is particularly powerful, “Let me rule you, and I will be your slave” (quoting from memory). It’s all about the bargaining when she realizes that it is actually her who has the power of consent in a sexual relationship.

    • Todd says:

      The structure you imply above would make an excellent fantasy scenario — if it were to be developed properly. As it is, the Goblin King only kind of tries to seduce Sarah, and the card he holds in his seduction is an infant child.

      If we apply your metaphor, which, as I say, is an excellent metaphor indeed, then the Goblin King represents, shall we say, a “bad boyfriend,” whose mind-games Sarah puts up with and then dumps, after she’s pregnant, so that she can “get a baby.” In which case, again, I say “wtf??”

      • You might be focusing too much on the baby as a baby. The little brother might as well have been a magic box, a dollar bill, a secret scroll, or a grapefruit. It was simply an item entrusted to her care, which she, through foolishness/laziness loses and has to get back before its owners return.

        • Todd says:

          I would gladly watch Labyrinth again if Jennifer Connelly were pursuing a grapefruit. And David Bowie sang “Dance Magic Dance” to it.

          But the baby is not just a baby, and it wasn’t chosen at random. It’s not a “maguffin,” ie it’s not a meaningless totem that the narrative revolves around. Labyrinth is a movie about a young woman coming of age, it matters that she’s pursuing a baby. If she were pursuing a dollar bill or a secret scroll it has vastly different implications for the protagonist’s arc.

          • Okay, not quite a macguffin, but not necessarily symbolic of her own possible future children. Here’s my thought process: I have three younger sisters, and they and their friends loved this movie. Just adored it. Like most middle class American girls, the first valuable thing they were responsible for was a baby or small child – they all babysat from a young age. So that fear of losing the child they were minding was a very real and understandable one to them. It was a practical worry they knew well, which I think detracts somewhat from the idea that the baby brother strongly symbolizes the end result of her own sexuality.

          • laminator_x says:

            I think the baby is the more general responsability of adulthood. She wishes her childhood imaginings could free her from the grown-up tasks at hand. -> She rises to the challenge of embracing her own maturity (both by taking responsability for her brother and not loosing herself in Bowie’s crotch). -> At the very end, she recognizes that as long as her grown-up business is taken care of, she can still have a bit of fun with childish pursuits as time permits.

            That being said, the execution was highly uneven.

      • eronanke says:

        The baby = control of her life, of the situation. It gets passed from parents, to her (she squanders it), to the ‘boyfriend’, and then back to her.

        • Todd says:

          But how does a baby symbolize “control?”

          • eronanke says:

            Maybe control is a bad word for it; more like responsibility and accountability in a metaphorical sense.

            Her parents have it at the beginning of the movie, and then, when they go off to lead their adult lives, they entrust it to their daughter, who is obviously ill at ease with the situation. Her initial anger at her parents is not about being given responsibility, but are as a result of her feelings of abandonment.

            When her first attempt to retain control and manage her accountability fails as a third party enters the fray, (the Goblin King/boyfriend), she is under his sway and is taken into his reality – he makes the choices, and, for a while, she’s content to let him make them. Or, at least, she doesn’t understand that that’s what is occuring. He tries to trap her with materialism and temptation (her faux-bedroom & the ‘forbidden fruit’ aka, the peach)

            Her realization that it is in her power to make the decisions she should be making, she drags his world into hers, (hence the puppets at the end in her bedroom). It is certainly not a break-up – she doesn’t need to leave that world of his, but she needs to define its nature and its extent in her world. The return of her parents, them none-the-wiser to the loss of the baby (ie, the girl’s maturation during the course of the film), alludes, to my mind, a more secret and personal development, ie, a sexual/romantic one.

            • Todd says:

              I agree that an infant child symbolizes adult “responsibility” — but look, she’s a young woman, unmarried, left at home with a baby she must take care of. How does that symbolize anything other than motherhood? And then the Goblin King — what? Takes the baby (ie, relieves her of her responsibility)? And then, feeling guilty, she goes “through his labyrinth” in order to “get her responsibility back?”

              I totally see the thing about the Goblin King being a bad boyfriend, and about the labyrinth being the controls he makes her jump through until she comes to her senses, but this bad boyfriend, for some reason, has stolen the baby instead of leaving her with it, which would seem to be the logical course of any self-respecting bad boyfriend.

              He tries to trap her with the peach, which gives her a hallucination of a masked ball (Masked Balls would be a good alternate title for Labyrinth), which has a seductive power, but it’s out of nowhere, it’s developed from nothing and develops to nothing, it’s presented on the same plane as the riddling doorknobs, the stench-filled bog and the chivalrous terrier.

              And the Goblin King doesn’t tempt her with her fake bedroom, that’s a kindly old trash peddler.

              • eronanke says:

                No, no – he takes away her accountability in that her first relationship is an uneasy one; she’s inexperienced, so she lets him make the decisions, lets him control the world they inhabit – he is the Goblin King, and the dreamworld she goes to is his.

                That’s why I include the maze-moving, the trash-peddler, etc, as all his machinations – the entire universe is his. The scene in the Escher room is a perfect example of this – she is trapped by gravity while he is not.

                I can’t accept that the baby = baby (and motherhood). There’s no lesson in it, no relevancy. It’s hard to accept that a girl of her age would be considering or dealing with motherhood issues; it is a time of rebellion and irresponsibility for her. She isolates herself from her family, leaving her open to a one-sided power relationship with a man.

                • Todd says:

                  Okay, let’s say for the moment that this is the metaphor. What, then, is the Goblin King’s endgame? What is his Monday Morning plan? He’s given her 13 hours to jump through all these hoops to retrieve her metaphor — what then? What happens if she doesn’t make it? Why does he give her the chance? What is he trying to get her to do? If he’s trying to control her, why is he also trying to get her to beat him?

                  (Except, of course, that he is a figment of her imagination, and therefore will do whatever she needs him to, including sitting around bored and not paying attention to her for hours on end.)

                  • eronanke says:

                    He’s in a position of power over her, and he simply does not want to let go; he assumed she would never get through the gauntlet, but giving her the chance to do so is proof to me that he isn’t a ‘bad guy’, just one as inexperienced as her.

                    Between the two of them, it’s a fumbling attempt at a mature relationship; his pleas at the end are an attempt to alter his behavior to allow him to retain the childish control he feels he needs – her denial of that is her first mature move. She has outgrown him. But, what she learned and what she enjoyed about their interactions, (the puppets in the end), she keeps.

                    • swan_tower says:

                      but giving her the chance to do so is proof to me that he isn’t a ‘bad guy’, just one as inexperienced as her.

                      I think the disjunct between your two points of view boils down to: is the Goblin King a manifestation of Sarah’s subconscious, or an independent entity in his own right? The movie never seems to make up its mind.

                    • Todd says:

                      My problem isn’t whether or not the Goblin King is an actual guy or not, it’s that his plan is ill-thought-out and inconsistent, and sets in motion a narrative that is, any way you slice it, dramatically inert and thematically incoherent.

                    • eronanke says:

                      I chock it up to him representing a typical 14-yr-old boy.

                    • Todd says:

                      A 14-year-old boy with a package like that doesn’t need a plan.

                    • eronanke says:

                      That’s actually helps idea of his symbolism; a young woman who has never had sex before is always concerned, nay, worried about the genitals of a male she is considering sleeping with – hypersexualizing him in this way is just what a confused 14-yr-old girl would do.

                      But, damn, if my first sexual experience was David Bowie, I would have definitely stayed in his crazy maze.

                    • Todd says:

                      hypersexualizing him in this way is just what a confused 14-yr-old girl would do.

                      Not to mention putting him in a Tina Turner wig.

                    • eronanke says:

                      It’s a good thing I have it on DVD.

                    • Todd says:

                      You mean instead of having it in real life?

                    • swan_tower says:

                      Sorry, I posted that comment in a hurry — someone showed up at my house, so I stopped without having said everything I meant to.

                      I agree that the movie is inert and incoherent; no question about that. But figuring out where the problems lie, and how they could have been resolved, depends on whether the Goblin King is a metaphor or a person — not automatically exclusive of each other, mind you, but often difficult to reconcile, and I don’t think this movie achieved that. A person should have motivation, agency, depth, etc, and that should reflect in their actions. A metaphor in tight pants, on the other hand, can get away with courses of action that seem strange on the surface, so long as they follow a psychological logic underneath (the psychology in question being Sarah’s, not the Goblin King’s). The back-and-forth here seemed to suggest that one was arguing for GK-as-character, the other for GK-as-metaphor.

                      I discussed this with the person who showed up, actually, since we were going out to dinner, and she suggested that you could try to interpret the labyrinth itself as the antagonist, and the Goblin King as one of its tools/manifestations, like any other creature inside it. Which I think is at least interesting, if ultimately no more successful at creating sense out of the plot.

  16. mitejen says:

    It’s interesting the very different reactions other people have–I definitely fall into the category of ‘love this movie way too much to have an objective viewpoint,’ but I do like to hear other opinions on it.

    I saw it when I was about 7, and being that most of the movies people seemed to want me to watch were about pretty princesses and other bullshit I couldn’t care less about, the fact that Sarah goes to play with monsters was a huge deal for me. I LOVED monsters. I saw Gremlins when I was 4, Clash of the Titans when I was 3, and all the other 80’s Fantasy movies people have listed so far. I just always liked monsters more than anything else, and since Jim Henson (a name synonymous with ‘God’ for me then) made them–well!

    I read up on this movie over the last few years, and apparently the script that Jones turned in bears almost no resemblance to the finished product. I don’t know what his original plans were, but thematically it was similar, a young girl enters a fantasy world and learns a lesson about growing up, it was just the execution that changed quite a bit.

    And re: Bowie’s crotch: for a young girl who’s been taught by Western media that ‘boys are different from girls’ but with absolutely no frame of reference other than crude pictures on public bathroom walls and visits to her grandparents’ farm to see the bulls, the contents of his pants were an endless fascination to myself and my female companions. Ken dolls were of no use, with their vague suggestion of something. What mysteries did those tights conceal? What was the big deal about the Male Area?

    It was the subject of many slumber party discussions, and this movie will therefore always hold a special place in my heart.

    • Todd says:

      Hopefully you’ve been brought up to speed on that topic by this point.

      • mitejen says:

        Unfortunately the first ‘viewing’ was my dad.

        He was on the attic ladder doing something while ‘gone commando.’ Anytime he worked on the house, he wore raggedy denim short-short cutoffs.

        I looked up to ask him a question and immediately realized I was now old enough to find my swim fins all by myself.

  17. sbrungardt says:

    I think a lot of what’s contributed to the Fantasy genre in film has been relegated to cartoons and anime. That said, if you’re willing to watch those, there are some staples of the genre (some of which have been mentioned already), that I think you should hit up:

    The Last Unicorn
    Flight of Dragons
    Record of Lodoss War

    • Todd says:

      Wow, never heard of them, I shall pursue knowledge hence.

      • swan_tower says:

        Lodoss War is (unless I’m sorely mistaken) anime. There’s some phenomenal fantasy over in that genre, but it’s coming from a different cultural framework and textual history, which makes it distinct from a lot of Western fantasy. (Not a bad thing, of course. But relevant to how the stories should be viewed.)

        • laminator_x says:

          That’s part of what makes Record of Lodoss War so entertaining. It’s our own fictional roots reflected back from a foreign cultural framework. RoLW is to Tolkein-style fantasy as the Rolling Stones are to the Blues and early Rock and Roll.

    • nom_de_grr says:

      I read the first two as “The Last Dragon”, which was a movie I am not ashamed to love.

  18. swan_tower says:

    I know from your comments elsewhere that fantasy isn’t so much your thing, so let me say: speaking as a professional fantasy novelist and somebody with an advanced degree in folklore who studied fairy tales specifically, Labyrinth makes no goddamned sense.

    I have friends who adore it, but they all encountered it in childhood. Me, I was old enough to be scarred by the pants and “Dance, Package, Dance.”

    Anyway — until fairly recently, good fantasy movies were about as common as unicorns in Central Park. My theory is that this is due in part to the relatively primitive state of special effects; any attempt to create something overtly fantastical (like creatures or spells) looked slightly goofy, and so filmmakers could almost never resist the self-defensive urge to make the story slightly goofy, too. (Or very goofy.) If you’re William Goldman and Rob Reiner, you can make that a feature instead of a bug — The Princess Bride might be the only ’80s fantasy movie I consider actually good, and you’ll note the near-total lack of special effects there — but mostly it led to movies without any central gravitas. The Lord of the Rings hit like a lightning bolt partly because the people making it utterly refused to treat it any less seriously just because it was fantasy, and the result was worlds away better.

    Good fantasy movies nowadays . . . the thing that’s lacking, from a genre perspective, is “secondary world” fantasy film: things like The Lord of the Rings that are set in a different world, rather than a tweaked version of this one. Even Labyrinth is framed by mundanity, and so is Harry Potter. Looking at my own shelves, the only other examples I can find are The Dark Crystal and Princess Mononoke. You might also try the BBC’s miniseries of Gormenghast; I’m not sure how well the weirdness of Mervyn Peake’s ideas plays in that, since I read the books first and had a deeper understanding of the setting, but it’s worth a shot.

    Mostly I scratch the fantasy itch either by reading, or by watching films that contain a fantastical component, rather than being straight-up fantasy per se. Actual fantasy movies are mostly found in two periods: the ’80s, when most of them were bad, and now, where they’re doing better (Narnia, Pullman, Stardust, etc). In film, the genre is only just now starting to grow into its own.

    • swan_tower says:

      I should add that, from the perspective of your question, the AFI “10 Best Fantasy Movies” list is not worth your time. They may be fine movies, but most of them are not what you would call fantasy. (More magical realism, though that’s a misapplication of the term.)

      Returning to the notion of recommendations — the Pirates of the Caribbean series works decently well as fantasy-adventure.

      • That series only works for me if I think of it as a set of bedtime stories a bar prostitute tells her young son about why he’s fatherless. “Dad can’t visit, see, because he’s a sort of demigod on a magic pirate ship.” Taken that way, I really enjoyed the lot.

        • swan_tower says:

          <lol> Kinda like how I can disarm my academic brain if I tell myself that 300 is a piece of Spartan propaganda. All the problematic issues of gender and grotesquerie and so on fall neatly into place if you focus on Dilios’ framing narrative, and think of it as a story told by a Spartan, about Spartans, to Spartans — and therefore a faithful reflection of the Spartan national psychosis.

          PotC has its flaws, but it’s fun.

          • Todd says:

            Ms. Tower: thank you for gracing my blog with your comments. I’m glad to know I wasn’t losing my mind regarding Labyrinth. If you would not mind, I would very much like to know what you think are the best fantasy YA novels being written right now.

            I find the first Pirates movie to be quite solid, narratively speaking, and crackerjack entertainment to boot. The other two somewhat less so.

            At some point I’ll have to reckon with 300 again, but that day has not yet come.

            • swan_tower says:

              <lol> “Ms. Tower” — that’s the first time I’ve gotten that one. (I’m Marie Brennan, in my writerly persona, which is the relevant one here.)

              Fantasy YA specifically . . . are you looking for urban fantasy (set in this world) or secondary-world? I’m more familiar with the former right now, since I just wrote one myself, and did a brief crash-course in the genre before sitting down at the keyboard, but I can list off titles for either.

              • Todd says:

                Let’s start with urban. Or, specifically, the clash between urban and secondary. Many thanks.

                • swan_tower says:

                  There’s a clash?

                  I’m wondering if by that you mean what we call “portal fantasies” — things where a character gets pulled from this world into another one. Aside from Narnia and (sort of) Pullman, no YA examples are leaping to mind, but I’ll think about it. I’m sure there are some, even if I can’t think of them right now.

                  Recommendations that have come to mind:

                  For classic children’s/YA fantasy (the line is blurry, because YA as a publishing category is a relatively new thing), I’d plug Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia C. Wrede, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones, and Diana Wynne Jones. (Srsly. The woman is awesome.) That’s the genre J.K. Rowling walked into.

                  For more recent urban fantasy: not everything Meg Cabot has done is fantasy (she’s best known for the Princess Diaries), but her Shadowlands series — which she originally published under a different name, but I can’t remember what — is pretty good, and Avalon High plays with Arthurian tropes in an interesting way. Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely and Ink Exchange, especially if you’re looking for faerie-related stuff. Maureen Johnson’s Devilish. Jennifer Lynn Barnes — Golden, Tattoo, and others. Holly Black: Tithe and others in that series, and The Spiderwick Chronicles (which I don’t think anybody has recommended yet in this thread; the movie is decent, and involves faerie-type-stuff). Garth Nix, especially the portal-ish Keys to the Kingdom series, though that’s more middle-grade than YA. Ditto the Everworld series by Applegate, but I only ever glanced at the first one, which was not terribly memorable.

                  That’s probably enough to start you off with. 🙂

                  • bassfingers says:

                    I heard Arthur Levine gave a good talk at the SCBWI conference in LA last weekend… He tells of a lady riding the elevator with him some years ago who insisted that writers should write, and publishers should publish, things that are selling right now and leave the other stuff alone. (at the time, the children’s market was almost entirely picturebook…)

                    He replied that he had a first novel from a British single-mother sitting on his desk that he was thinking about publishing. It dealt with magic, but was a good young adult read. The lady in the elevator recommended against it.

                    He decided to ignore her advice, so the world got to hear about Harry Potter after all.

                    • swan_tower says:

                      writers should write, and publishers should publish, things that are selling right now and leave the other stuff alone.

                      That may be the single most retarded piece of publishing advice I have ever heard.

                      How does that woman think new developments and trends happen?

                    • I think if anyone finds out the true identity of the woman in the elevator, she may find herself hung in a public square.

          • Exactly. If I can work out what sort of flawed perspective the story should be coming from, I can deal with the gaping plotholes and general silliness.

          • laminator_x says:


            You hit the nail on the head with 300. It’s not historical fiction, it’s a campfire tale the night before a battle. I’d expect no more verisimilitude from it than I’d expect Paul Bunyan stories to accurately depict lumberjacks.

  19. smallerdemon says:

    Too bad you don’t life in San Francisco (I don’t know, maybe you do) since they are showing Labyrinth on the big screen at The Castro Theater this Saturday. In fact, they are having an entire week of pre-CGI fantasy films, so it would fit right in to this. 🙂

    We’ll be seeing it, of course. We are also set for seeing The Dark Crystal and Legend on Sunday.

  20. laminator_x says:

    For all this movie’s problems (Dance Magic Dance being perhaps the nadir thereof), there’s one line near the end that positively slays me:
    “You asked me to take the child, so I did. You were scared, so I frightened you. Do you have any idea how tedious it is living up to your expectations?”

  21. smallerdemon says:

    What should a screenwriter well-versed in the Fantasy genre see?

    The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad is probably tops of my own childhood fantasy list. I was born in 1965, so I am little older than most of the internet generation that grew up on 80s films as kids. That said, I was a theater manager during the 80s and saw nearly every movie released during that period, so I am familiar with them all. 🙂

    I recently watched The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad with a seven year old, and she loved it. She did NOT like that [SPOILER ALERT] the Griffin dies since the Griffin represents “good” in the context of the story.

    Looking at my own shelf, I find that it’s painfully bereft of much fantasy. However, I would certainly that Time Bandits should be on your list of fantasy films a screenwriter should be familiar with, along with Gilliam’s other great effort, The Adventures Of Baron Münchausen.

    On my own shelf, though, Labyrinth is there, as it is a favorite of my wife. I mostly leaned toward scifi as a kid, so I have several of those instead, but I do have the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (largely because I saw two of those in a fantastic premier setting, one with Peter Jackson in attendance).

    Ah! Wait, I have the first three Harry Potter movies as well, all of which I do enjoy. Also, I have Terry Pratchett’s recent TV 4 airing of Hogfather. I would recommend also having read all of the Discworld series just to understand how the fantasy genre can be skewered and then turned into a sublime delicacy of more than 30 books that make up the richest and most complex and actually readable fantasy universe out there today.

    The recent edition of Dante’s Inferno I strongly recommend as a piece of modern adult fantasy. It is all done with small puppets, but it’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seen on the screen.

    Another adult oriented fantasy, as far as I’m concerned, is Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which I see as a dark adult fantasy.

    The Dark Crystal should certainly be on the list.

    I love good fantasy, though, which is likely why I don’t own but a few fantasy movies. Good fantasy movies are few and far between.

    (sorry about all the edits)

    • curt_holman says:

      Harryhausen fantasy

      “I recently watched The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad with a seven year old, and she loved it. She did NOT like that [SPOILER ALERT] the Griffin dies since the Griffin represents “good” in the context of the story.”

      Not to get pedantic (he said, before getting pedantic), but Golden Voyage of Sinbad (sic?) is the one with the cycloptic centaur and the griffin at the end, plus the cool six-armed Kali statue that comes to life; Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is the one with the shrunken princess, the cyclops, the Roc, the dragon, the skeleton, etc.

      I was waiting for someone to mention Harryhausen fantasy films, which may be a little afield from your project, since his best ones are loosely Arabian or ancient Greek. And you’ve probably seen them already, but I’d definitely consider The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, and possibly the other Sinbads and Clash of the Titans (which I don’t remember as well).

      Parts of the Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit hold up pretty well; other aspects do not.

      Neil Jordan’s In the Company of Wolves is a fascinating spin on fairy tale archetypes: if you haven’t seen it, you’d be crazy about it.

      The ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ four-hour miniseries is surprisingly good, but far afield.

      You should have a Legend-watching party; I remember it as looking great yet being terrible to sit through.

      The Robert Zemeckis/Neil Gaiman Beowulf has some very interesting ideas, particularly as a “revisionist” take on the story, but the animation probably suffers on the small screen (especially without 3-D).

      Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is much heavier on the realm-of-magical-creatures aspect of the story than the previous film, and would “count.”

      • smallerdemon says:

        Re: Harryhausen fantasy

        Ah, I see. 🙂 It was a typo. Danke. At this late date, though, should I change it, or leave your correction?

        I think they MSTied one of the Swedish or Norwegian Sinbad movies and it was called Seventh or Golden also.

        I did indeed mean The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad.

        Going to see Legend in 35mm tomorrow. 🙂 We actually watched Labyrinth today in the theater.

        • curt_holman says:

          Re: Harryhausen fantasy

          If memory serves me right, MST3K riffed on ‘The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.’ Wasn’t that the one in which they made a running joke of saying ‘That isn’t Sinbad?’ (Since the protagonist was probably some other adventurer entirely in the film’s native language.)

          • smallerdemon says:

            Re: Harryhausen fantasy

            *heh* INdeed, you are correct sir! That one, admittedly, is not high on my list to run a VHS to DVD conversion on. 🙂

  22. mr_noy says:

    A couple of observations: 1) It seems to me that, more than any other genre, fantasy is dependent on production design. A lot of old science fiction films hold up long after their effects have dated because we are still intrigued by the ideas behind the films. Fantasy, on the other hand, no matter how well written, tends to fall apart when the imagined world presented to us fails to convince. I think that’s why Labyrinth still appeals to so many people, in spite of it’s glaring narrative flaws – the world it presents is never less than imaginative and interesting.

    2) Fantasy films fall into two basic categories, what I’ll call Internal/External. In Internal Fantasy, the fantasy world is presented as being inside the mind of the protagonist. It still has to be a convincing reality and it serves a metaphoric purpose. Labyrinth and (interesting coincidence) the far superior Pan’s Labyrinth both use the fantasy world to depict the various obstacles that beset a girl’s journey on the road to adulthood. Pan’s Labyrinth has more to do with a girls emotional and political maturation in the face of fascism while The Thin White Duke’s Labyrinth has more to do with a girls sexual maturation in the face of David Bowie’s codpiece but both films use a quest narrative within a fantasy framework. The metaphoric fantasy land of Internal Fantasies seem to be primarily concerned with female protagonists going back to Oz’s Dorothy and Alice in Wonderland. External fantasies, like Lord of the Rings or, to use lesser examples, Beastmaster or Conan, ask us to accept their fantasy lands as places that actually exist. Interestingly, the External Fantasies tend to have male protagonists. The way these narratives split down gender lines only occurred to me as I wrote this. I’m not a big follower of the fantasy genre so I might be guilty of a gross generalization – but it sounds right.

    • laminator_x says:

      There’s a deeper split along gender lines as well in what aspects of the self get replaced by fantastic elements.

      In “Boy” stories, the protagonist may seem outwardly to be insignificant and weak, but turns out to have fabulous secret powers, is the chosen one, rises from obscurity to greatness, etc. (See Lloyd Alexander’s novels.)

      In “Girl” stories, the protagonist seems to have a cruel false family who doesn’t love her, but if she can only overcome adversity to connect with her real lost family, fairy gormother, handsome prince, etc, she will be delivered from her sorry circumstances. (See the Little Princess.)

      These are of course broad strokes with many exceptions, but they are instructive generalizations.

      • swan_tower says:

        Please, god, let us get more fantasy movies that don’t draw on those patterns. They’ve been old and tired in the genre for a couple of decades now.

      • mr_noy says:

        I think you nailed it on the head in regards to how male protagonists are usually portrayed in these kinds of works. While I’m not into fantasy, per se, (I am immediately repelled by any book with a cover by Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo or The Brothers Hildebrandt) I love Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Those were my favorite books when I was 8 or 9. I read them again when I was in my early 20s and I was impressed by how well they held up.

    • Todd says:

      Thank you for this intelligent and insightful post.

      • mr_noy says:

        You’re quite welcome. Who knew that Labyrinth, a film that even its defenders acknowledge as a “guilty pleasure” would have inspired so much discussion? Another thing that occurred to me is that while Internal Fantasies are predominantly written about young women, the examples I cited (and the majority, I would imagine) are all written by men. The Potter series fit neatly into the predominantly male External Fantasy model which laminator_x elaborated on. Interestingly, that was written by a woman, yet when writing to that format she chose the typical male protagonist. swan_towers expressed her frustration with these repetitious and possibly outdated patterns but one wonders to what extent these tropes are culturally ingrained? Would we still be reading Lewis Carroll’s work if he chose to write Alan in Wonderland? Or if Rowling wrote Harriet Potter?

        It would seem that the gender of the protagonist largely influences the structure of a fantasy story as well as the audience’s expectations and acceptance of that story.

        • laminator_x says:

          I think one of the (many) elements of Potter’s broad appeal is that he actually follows both patterns at once. While the more obvious adventure elements follow the Special Boy pattern, it’s intertwined with his annual deliverance from his muggle-pseudo-family into the world of his Magical Real Family. The two patterns even unite when his Real Parents ghosts or his Fairy Godfather Dumbledore to intervene to support him at climactic moments.

        • swan_tower says:

          Dammit — I had a long and thoughtful comment, and then I hit the wrong key and lost it.

          Let me see if I can give you the condensed version, since I haven’t the heart to re-create it all. Most children’s/YA fantasy these days is written by women, not men; Lewis Carroll is an exception, not a rule, and he’s a creepy quasi-pedophiliac exception at that. They write about both boys and girls, in both “internal” and “external” fashions, in part because women are culturally conditioned to view the male perspective as the universal default anybody can identify with, whereas the female perspective is presented as the deviation and mostly of interest to a (female) minority. Epic or quest fantasy, on the other hand, is mostly written by men (at least in the adult corner of the bookstore). The women who have written it have not met with as much success, which probably says something about the gender dynamics of the publishing industry.

          The “internal”/girly pattern you identify is often, especially in film, a product of a mindset that annoys the snot out of me, which keeps fantasy at arm’s-length by treating it as an allegorical representation of something else, or as all in the character’s head. Most fans of the genre would rather see films that accept the fantasy: take its baseline conditions and use them to tell an interesting story that illuminates the human condition in a more indirect fashion. (The kind you couldn’t write a trite high school English paper on.)

          To pull it back to Labyrinth: I don’t want a metaphorical mask pasted over a girl’s encounter with male sexuality or whatever the hell we try to interpret that film as. I want a story which creates a convincingly strange, numinous, amoral faerie realm, through which the character journeys and changes, so that at the end she has learned to navigate that different reality and thereby grown as a person. “You have no power over me” should have been the last subconscious piece falling into the puzzle of the Goblin King’s metaphysical reality, rather than some arbitrary declaration of . . . whatever. If it’s all in her imagination, then I’m irritated, and I feel like I’ve been cheated.

          • laminator_x says:

            I think a great number of hack writers caught a whiff of Jung or Campbell in college and think that the tropes are a formula they’re supposed to follow.

            Good writers may be aware of the patterns, but use them to inform their creative choices rather than use the tropes to make up for a lack of inspiration.

            • swan_tower says:

              Well, yeah. Though often that whiff came by way of the fiction they were reading, which they mindlessly copy, instead of broadening their horizons.

              In other words, don’t copy Jordan copying Brooks copying Tolkien copying Norse sagas; copy Norse sagas, and maybe cross-breed them with the Ramayana or hard-boiled detective stories or something else interesting.

              I like boiling stuff down to formulas from the descriptive side, for the purpose of analysis; it’s when people follow the formulas prescriptively that it leads to unpleasantly predictable fiction.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Even as a kid, Labyrinth left me cold. Theoretically, a George Lucas/Jim Henson collaboration should have blown my tiny mind, but to me it felt like a horrible, boring dream from which you cannot wake. I remember being unimpressed by the songs, too.

    To your list of films to watch, if you haven’t seen it already, I recommend adding Stardust. It’s not perfect, but it has a wonderfully breezy, offhanded attitude toward the subject matter that I wish more fantasy films possessed.

    — N.A.

  24. narzoth says:

    I always thought that Sarah wanted a fantasy adventure like the ones in her books. The Goblin King wanted to give that adventure to her, in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for fashion. He’s not so much out to stop her, as he is directing her journey and setting up the conflict for her.

    That’s probably why he’s sitting around bored and petulent in his castle. That’s where the villian is confronted. He’s amusing himself with a few petty details while waiting for his part in the big climax.

    Really, he should have made his Labyrinth a little less automatic. Then he could have engaged with the protagonist more directly…but at the same time, he’s constrained by Sarah’s expectations. Expectactions which are mostly described by the drivel she reads.

    • gdh says:

      The Goblin King is just playing it by Guild of Calamitous Intent rules is all.

    • Todd says:

      That’s actually an interesting theory — it just doesn’t make for a compelling narrative.

      • narzoth says:

        I’ll agree that when you pull it out of all the glitter and fluff, the narrative is pretty weak. Yet, I still like the movie. I don’t know if it’s the wistful, reaching-for-the-old-tales vibe, or if I’m just a sucker for anything with Muppets in it.

        It’s probably the Muppets.

        Oh, and if no one’s mentioned it yet, give Mirrormask a shot.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’d like to second Mirrormask. It steals a lot of story beats from Labyrinth (apparently, while brainstorming ideas for the film in Jim Henson’s old vacation cottage, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean stumbled upon a videotape containing a longer original version of Labyrinth), but manages to be brisk, witty, moving, and thematically relevant. And the lead actress in particular does a spectacular job acting against imaginary creations.

          — N.A.

          • sbrungardt says:

            See, I had the opposite reaction to Mirrormask; I found it to be meandering and unclear of what message it wanted have, from a narrative perspective.

  25. amnesiack says:

    I like Willow and Mirrormask.

  26. swan_tower says:

    Anti-recommendation: I couldn’t even bring myself to go watch The Seeker (the movie formerly known as The Dark Is Rising, until apparently somebody noticed they had bastardized their source beyond all recognition and right to the name). The trailer alone so utterly destroyed the mood of the novel, I could barely stand to watch it, and I don’t think the actual film improved on it.

    Which touches on something else I forgot to say — sorry, I keep thinking of additions. A lot of our current crop of fantasy movies are based on novels, so depending on what you’re doing, it might be useful to spend some time reading and then comparing the sources to their screen adaptations. You talk about your “journey into wonderment,” and just that — a sense of wonder, a sense of the numinous — is supposed to be one of the features of fantasy in prose, but a lot of their filmic counterparts fail to evoke it. If you’re working on a fantasy project, that’s an aspect worth thinking about.

    • Todd says:

      I picked up The Seeker in the video store last night, looked at it and thought “huh, how did this come out and I had no awareness of it?” Then I thought that might be a sign of something and I put it back. Odd that it’s from Walden Media, who pride themselves on bringing fantasy novels faithfully to the screen — or, in the case of Prince Caspian, improving on them.

      I asked this at another of your comments, but in case you miss it, let me ask again here: what are the more worthwhile fantasy novels being written today? What do you read, in your Swan Tower, that makes you think “ah, this person has done their homework, understands the history of the genre and is forging new classics that re-shape it?”

      • swan_tower says:

        It apparently sank without a trace. Which, I suspect, was a mercy. But the book is very worth reading. It’s part of a series; I do recommend, however, that you read The Dark Is Rising first, then backtrack for Over Sea, Under Stone, which comes first but is not half so interesting.

        I agree with you that Prince Caspian was improved by its adaptation. Not only did the film clear up some of the book’s structural problems, it went some way toward addressing the problems with Susan in the series. (I’m curious how they’ll continue on with that if they end up filming The Last Battle.)

    • popebuck1 says:

      I like to think of The Seeker as what would have happened to the Harry Potter books in a parallel universe, where they all listened to the idiot studio hack whose first comment was “Does the kid have to be British?”

      • swan_tower says:


        And also, “Nah, this whole double-murder and child abuse thing is too dark — can we make it more bubblegum-pop?”

        Or rather — seeing as how Philosopher’s Stone is pretty lighthearted in its tone overall — “How’s about we dark this up a bit, maybe have Snape sexually abuse him at Hogwarts?” Because that’s about the level of violation the trailer inflicted on the actual mood of The Dark Is Rising.

  27. A few bits on Labyrinth (which I love if only for introducing the word “oubliette” into my nascent vocabulary):
    (*) David Bowie also portrays the man that Sarah’s mother dates. Make of that what ye will.
    (*) Tokyopop has been publishing a manga sequel to the movie wherein a grown-up Toby is brought back into the world of the Labyrinth by the Goblin King who promptly abdicates and leaves his kingdom to Toby.

    A lot of fantasy films out of the 80s tried to emulate CONAN THE BARBARIAN’s success by being outings of boobage and bloodshed. Most of those films did not have a screenplay by Oliver Stone or a Basil Poledouris score and so are generally lacking.

    Films I would suggest are:
    (*) The Dark Crystal — Henson’s first non-Muppet project
    (*) Excalibur — unquestionably the best King Arthur movie made
    (*) The Thief of Bagdad (1940) — currently being discussed by Ebert on his journal.
    (*) Legend — I personally prefer the original cut rather than the director’s cut
    (*) Ivanhoe — not a fantasy story, but has the definite feeling of a fairie tale with knights and damsels in distress.
    (*) Troll — very 80s but I like it
    (*) Alice in Wonderland — just because

    I would also recommend the following graphic novels/trades:
    (*) The Books of Magic miniseries by Neil Gaiman
    (*) The Books of Magic ongoing series
    (*) Fables and Jack of Fables by Bill Willingham

    • “(*) David Bowie also portrays the man that Sarah’s mother dates. Make of that what ye will.”

      What? I just watched the movie last night, and he certainly isn’t dating her STEPMOTHER in the movie, and I do not recall an appearance by her mother, so this vastly confuses me…

      • Anonymous says:

        Courtesy of IMDB:

        “After you see the Hoggle bookend, there is a scrapbook shown. It shows newspaper clippings of Sarah’s famous actress mom with another man, David Bowie.”

        • Todd says:

          I remember seeing Bowie in a newspaper clipping stuck to Sarah’s mirror, but I don’t remember the woman being identified as Sarah’s mom. I figured the newspaper clipping was just supposed to be a teenage girl’s cut-out clipping of some theater star (she also has many 80s Broadway posters up in her room).

  28. smallerdemon says:

    I have been listening to Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World this morning. It is easily in my top ten albums ever, but I mentioning it here because you can hear why someone thought Bowie would be able to pull some great fantasy oriented music out of his psyche, but instead we basically got a few more of Bowie’s 80s fluff hits that deliver very little impact and are largely free of any musical depth or exploration. The Man Who Sold The World is full of both of these things and has a lot of Lovecraftian fantasy elements in it and therefore may have been Henson’s and or Lucas’ inspiration for wanting to draft Bowie into the project to add some depth of gravity to the Goblin King, but instead we get 80s Bowie and 80s over-the-top stereotypical costuming for movies like this.

    Bowie’s Goblin King
    David Warner As Evil

  29. fireriven says:

    Has no one suggested Mirrormask, the film the Henson company commissioned to try and recreate the acquisition-of-a-cult-following crazy-success of Labyrinth? It’s straight from Dave McKean’s brain, design-wise, and Neil Gaiman’s head, story-wise, which makes for an interesting mix of the bizarre, the promising, the fantastic, and the doesn’t-quite-accomplish-what-it-wants-to.

    Also, when you watch Legend, make sure you manage to watch both iterations. There’s the theatrical release with it’s tres-80’s soundtrack and black-and-white message… and then there’s the director’s cut which is startlingly different and compelling (though long).

    • yes!

      Oh you beat me to the punch, fireraven! Todd, reading your review had me wanting to read your impression of another girl-in-phase-of-transition: Mirrormask.
      I took too long to sift through other comments to see if any one had suggested it.

      On a Neil Gaiman run, the more recent Stardust is worth a look for fun.

      • Todd says:

        Re: yes!

        I’ve heard many good things about Mirrormask — I shall have to look into it. Or through it, or whatever one does with it.

        • ndgmtlcd says:

          Re: yes!

          Like he said it’s a doesn’t-quite-accomplish-what-it-wants-to movie. McKean had never directed or produced a film before and he tried to do everything on this one, on a ridiculously small budget, within an absurdly small time frame.

          Mckean is a genius level, multi-talented individual, and I think that’s what caused his downfall here. You need experience to do a good film and he had none, and no budget to buy some.

        • popebuck1 says:

          Re: yes!

          Re Mirrormask: Neil Gaiman has said that his role as screenwriter was basically to shut up and do whatever McKean wanted. And unfortunately, it shows.

          The story, as with Labyrinth, is basically nonexistent (though I like the stuff about the “anti-heroine” who takes over the heroine’s real-world life, which I understand is something Gaiman threw in late in the proceedings) – essentially, it’s just one thing happening after another, with no rhyme or reason – but the visuals are so, so, so dazzling, I just didn’t care.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Few thoughts.

    Mystery Science Theater 3000 parodied a few of the “you can’t believe how awful they are” fantasy flicks.


    And it might be good to check out the ill-fated(?) Korgoth of Barbaria, from Adult Swim’s proposed line-up of 2005.

    Also, when are you going to finish your Schindler comments?


    Ted H.

    • smallerdemon says:

      Re: Few thoughts.

      Ah, Korgoth. Is it up on AS’s web site? I should do a video capture of it from my DVR and convert it to a high quality video. What a major disappointment that it didn’t get picked up and we ended up with Assy McGee instead (because, well, Assy McGee is a cheap ass Flash animated piece of dreck and Korgoth was clearly a thrownback to 70s animation pieces and was traditional animation).

  31. bassfingers says:

    A few not yet mentioned… I’d toss in Krull (and perhaps even the 80’s Flash Gordon) as fantasy.

    Big Fish? (I still blame Tim Burton for Spalding Gray’s suicide, but *shrug*…)

  32. Anonymous says:

    Ms. Tower mentioned The Spiderwick Chronicles, which I happened to catch in movie form on an airplane flight a few months back, and was pleasantly surprised by.

    The screenplay’s very busy — there’s a distinct sense that they’re trying to cram multiple books’ worth of events into a single film, so some characters sort of rush in and out just long enough to shout crucial plot points.

    But, to the producers’ credit, they brought in John Sayles to polish the screenplay, so the family-interaction stuff feels unusually real and honest. Then they rounded up a ton of fantastic, perpetually interesting actors, including Freddie Highmore, In America’s Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, and David Strathairn, and let them add depth and humanity to the material. The critters are unique and well-designed, and the interaction between the “real” and “fantasy” worlds has some entertaining touches. I’d rank it solidly in the “better-than-average” camp.

    — N.A.

    • swan_tower says:

      Then they rounded up a ton of fantastic, perpetually interesting actors, including Freddie Highmore, In America’s Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, and David Strathairn, and let them add depth and humanity to the material.

      This is what made Pirates of the Caribbean leap to life: they got good actors, and then those good actors took their job seriously. If Geoffrey Rush had decided to just chew scenery through the whole thing because it was a silly pirate movie, it would have been a silly pirate movie; instead, he gave it some legitimate effort, and so did the guys around him, and the result was an AWESOME pirate movie.

  33. misterseth says:

    Another series you might want to consider looking into is the Night Watch series (Nochnoy dozor). A Russian sci fi film that’s kind of a cross between Harry Potter and the Matrix.

  34. stephenls says:

    The most interesting statement I’ve read about this movie, and I don’t know what it means within the context of your complaints, is this: Throughout her navigation of the labyrinth, what’s-her-name only makes progress when she rejects or subverts fairy tale tropes — whenever she tries to employ them, it doesn’t work. At the end of the movie, she escapes from the Goblin King by quoting her book: “You have no power over me.” It’s the one time she goes with the fairy tale instead of abandoning it and makes progress towards her ostensible goal.

    But the look on Bowie’s face when he tosses his balls away and sends her home isn’t anger or fear. It’s disappointment. As if he was trying to teach her something, and it looked like she was getting it up until the very end, but ultimately she didn’t so he just gave up.

    I have no idea whether this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers and Bowie, or whether the writers were out to lunch and Bowie was honestly disgusted with the movie and wanted it to end. I certainly don’t know what the hell it was he was trying to teach her if, indeed, this whole thing is intentional and not fans reading too much into it, and don’t know what it means that the Goblin King in owl form is still watching the house in the final scene, either.

    (I like Labyrinth, but mostly because I was introduced to it young, and appreciate the spectacle. The songs are useful as an in-joke, such as when a friend, out of nowhere, “You remind me of the babe” and then every surrounding friend proceeds to quote the rest of the song in sequence,” but not actually entertaining as songs.)

    • Todd says:

      “But the look on Bowie’s face when he tosses his balls away and sends her home isn’t anger or fear. It’s disappointment.”

      You had me at “tosses his balls away.”

  35. urbaniak says:

    I’m thoroughly enjoying this thread (and impressed — 149 comments at last count!) and I’ve never seen the movie. Curious about the Terry Jones connection, I googled upon this interview where he talks about his ideas vs. Jim Henson’s.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for that, o Google-fu wizard.

      For those who look at the interview and say “tl;dr”, here are the headlines:

      Jones wanted the labyrinth to represent the obstructions that the Goblin King sets up to prevent Sarah from reaching his heart, a kind of emotional firewall. As she negotiates the labyrinth, she keeps trying to solve it, until she realizes that the Goblin King does not intend for her to solve it, he’s cheating, and she is better served acknowledging that there is no solution, the only solution is to enjoy the journey. Sarah wins, Goblin King loses.

      Jones also seems to have conceived of the picture as a kind of picaresque revue of British nonsense, a la Alice in Wonderland, aspects of which remain in the movie. (Alice, it’s worth noting, triumphs over the Queen when she simply throws up her hands and refuses to play any more. NB: it doesn’t work, dramatically, for Carroll either, which is why all movie adaptations are cinematic washouts.)

      Perhaps the most salient dramatic point of Jones’s version is that he never intended to show the center of the labyrinth, that he intended it to be a big mystery up to the end of the movie. When David Bowie was hired and expected to sing (the other choice was Michael Jackson — gasp!) Jones was mortified. Whatever could possibly be the dramatic point of showing the Goblin King at the center of his labyrinth before the protagonist gets there?

      But Henson, it seems, knew better — he knew that what audiences wanted to see was David Bowie in tight grey stretchpants singing lame 80s pop to a baby.

  36. One film I don’t think has been mentioned (I am late to the thread, thanks to being stranded on a small island by a typhoon yesterday), is “Strings”.

    My mum sent me the DVD for Christmas with “this is bizarrely beautiful” written on the gift tag. Which it was. It’s a Danish/UK/other bits of Europe co-production (English dialogue) made with marionettes – but the marionettes are in-character. That is, everyone can see their own strings stretching up into the sky. Babies are made by carving them from a block of wood (and the mother produces the baby’s strings).

    The plot is a fairly standard fantasy dynastic warfare, rebels-in-the-forest type affair but it’s enjoyable enough.
    The ending’s a bit weak, but it is very much worth getting. Like my mum said, bizarrely beautiful.

    • Todd says:

      Marionettes who know they have strings is a great concept. I once wrote a puppet show about a group of puppets who are convinced that there is a hidden force that controls their lives — a conspiracy theory drama for puppets. The conspiracy is referred to as The Brotherhood of the Hand in Shadow.

  37. rennameeks says:

    The lack of the villain’s motivation reminds me so heavily of Enchanted, where the third act falls apart (at least for me) because the wicked queen never actually transitions from “Die, skank!” to “I have grown to hate you so much that even though you’re not going to marry my son, I want you to die anyway.” Of course, we know that multiple writers worked on the film (heh), so that sort of consistency was likely lost between drafts. Of course, that’s still more motivation than the Goblin King has here. I didn’t see Labyrinth until adulthood, so all of its cringability and lack of real plot bothered me. Your assessment is spot on. (An aside: I did like Enchanted despite its flaws, again, far more than I can say for David Bowie Crotch Hour.)

    Fantasy is one of my pet genres, sooooo….the short list of must-sees: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (one of the strongest structurally, IMO, which is why it’s my favorite), Willow, and the first of the Harry Potter movies (none of the others captures the essence of the books as well, and I still think that Dumbledore was badly mis-recast after the loss of Richard Harris, eliminating all movies after the second, despite the fifth film being a particularly strong adaptation – quite interesting, since that book was rather bloated with extras, much like this sentence is).

    • Todd says:

      It’s been a while now since Enchanted, and I can’t remember what the Queen’s motivation was supposed to be going into Act III. I know the big climactic battle in the hotel was developed on my watch, but in my draft she had a lot more to do in Act II. A lot of times, a great Act III climax is dreamed up, pinned down and set in stone, and then the later writers have to come up with weak motivations to justify the finale when everything leading up to it has shifted.

      • rennameeks says:

        In Act I, her big motivation was not wanting her son to marry Giselle, as that would threaten her position as queen (or something to that effect, it was rather glossed over in the final version). In Act II, she has her lackey Nathaniel try to kill Giselle, since her son had gone to rescue her. In Act III, she grows tired of Nathaniel’s failures and shows up to kill Giselle herself. This is all well and good, except Giselle has already fallen in love with Robert and doesn’t want to return home at all, let alone to marry the prince. The queen KNOWS THIS and in fact uses this knowledge to manipulate Giselle into taking a bite of the poisoned apple. After Robert wakes Giselle, there is a climactic final battle on the roof during which Giselle saves Robert. It wouldn’t be a problem if the queen had truly hated Giselle in particular, more like the wicked queen in Snow White. But she didn’t want her son to marry ANYONE, which means that by all rights, her fury should have shifted to Nancy, who had hit it off with her son pretty quickly. However, then the center of the climactic battle would have shifted off of Robert and Giselle, so that option really wasn’t a viable one.

        The problem was that the queen really was absent for much of Act II, so her hatred for Giselle never had a chance to build. If anything, it was her annoyance with Nathaniel that was played up, in order to flesh out his side story. There’s never a moment where the queen suddenly changes to being so evil that she doesn’t want Giselle to live, even though she’s no longer a threat to the queen’s position. We’re just supposed to accept that she’s capable of such hatred from the beginning….but if she was truly that evil, she would have just killed Giselle from the start, not pushed her into the real world. That could also have been fixed by the queen pushing her with the intent of killing her. THEN Giselle’s repeated escapes from death would definitely tick off the queen, regardless of whether she was a threat to the title. At that point, it would be okay for the queen to fall into the age-old pattern of having won and gotten what she wanted, but still not being happy because her plan didn’t go exactly the way she wanted it to. Ahh, those perfectionist villains.

        So really, the failing of Enchanted‘s Act III truly happened in Act I, which seemed to be hurried along just to get to the real core of the film. It’s quite sad, because the movie turned out well otherwise, and I still enjoyed seeing it, despite its core flaw here.

        I don’t know what other parts of the final film can truly be traced back to you, but the whole overall story did seem to have the Alcott touch, just in terms of personal viewpoint. I had a feeling that certain parts (like the climactic hotel battle) were developed on your watch, since there were clever spins on the traditional that just seemed like they would have come from your head, at least in the way they were done. That was another reason the queen’s lack of motivation at the end annoyed me; it was something that you personally would not have allowed to happen if you’d been there for the entire development process, so it must have happened afterwards during the shuffle.

  38. I think I can’t say much new that hasn’t already been said. I confess I liked the movie more as a child, and on watching it over a few times as an adult (including last night) the plot and acting have definitely lost their luster. I do still appreciate the visuals of the film and will always love the Muppets, pre Jim Henson death.

    As for films I’d recommend, those that might retain some love from me due to nostalgia include: Legend (though it definitely has some odd plot funks going on), Willow, The Princess Bride, Flight of Dragons, Disney’s Sword in the Stone, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
    I’d recommend Pan’s Labyrinth and Howl’s Moving Castle, which are my favorite fantasy films as an adult you might not have seen, Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring being those that are favorites I’m sure you HAVE seen.

  39. mimitabu says:

    i saw labyrinth when i was about 21, and hated it. a friend loved it from her childhood and forced me to watch it with her. tellingly, she fell asleep about 20 minutes in. i barely took the movie in. it was a mess, and i didn’t bother trying to follow it. (i noticed people mentioning willow, and want to relate the anecdote that another friend once forced me to watch that, and i willed myself to fall asleep within minutes of the movie starting, despite it being around noon)

    i can’t think of any really good fantasy besides lotr (and i want to say the harry potter movies, but those are basically fan service for fans of the books, not actual movies). i’ve been looking for them all my life, because i love fantasy. for me, fantasy needs to take you to another world that’s clearly delineated from the real one, and is vast. movie fantasy worlds never strike me as vast (especially lotr, though the movies sure were vast). compelling characters are a plus, but as long as you the viewer get fully immersed in an interesting enough world (in which a fitful amount of adventure happens), i’d be happy. hasn’t happened since i was a child, and when i watch the movies that did it (the neverending story for example), i see that my imagination had done most of the work.

    fantasy is a strange genre… i’ve always longed to experience it, even though it’s (or what intrigues me about it) the perfect opposite of everything i’m interested in and everything i myself try to do artistically. i barely care about plot, and i couldn’t care less about setting (as you can imagine, these factors add up to me being a bad writer, helped along by laziness). even if characters are important, for fantasy qua fantasy, characters seem to function like setting. the whole thing is like what i imagine going on a safari is supposed to be like.

    i make this self-indulgent comment just to offer the opinion that what fantasy needs is a world that’s as interesting as characters in great movies/books. the tightest plots and most involving, complex characters set in a drab fantasy world will disappoint the expectations of the viewer–and it seems to me that all cinematic fantasy worlds are drab. it’s a genre whose potential really has never been realized… and i think people are desperately hungry for such a thing to be done (see lotr phenomenon).

    it suddenly occurs to me that, duh, star wars is the perfect fantasy movie. (: why can’t people make more movies like that, only with wizards and shit?

    • Todd says:

      FYI, the recent movie Eragon is almost exactly that: Star Wars with wizards and shit.

      • mimitabu says:

        thanks, i’ll look into it. though, i have a sneaking suspicion that it may turn out to be “star wars with wizards and shit” the way national treasure and the mummy are like indiana jones. …without wizards and shit. the analogy sort of died, but i’m pushing it out anyway, because the point is clear enough.

        anyway, hope my easily-summarized-by-one-sentence,-this-sentence-in-fact:”if fantasy doesn’t create an entirely new and involving world, the greatest plot and characterization can’t save it from disappointing fans, imo,” wall-of-text was helpful. (: because i’m sure i’m the first one ever to have this idea. haha, my lj comments have really gone downhill. i’ve been reading novels too. oh well.

        • Todd says:

          Actually, your “fantasy world” post was quite helpful indeed, and illuminated a problem with my project in a way I hadn’t seen it before.

      • SHIT indeed. LOTS of shit.

  40. greyaenigma says:

    Forgive me for not having read through the entirety of the comments.

    My impression after several viewings was that the Goblin King wanted did not really want to seduce Sarah, tearing away her innocence, he wants to tempt her into not growing up. She’s trapped at a dance, tempted to twirl in glamour forever, and a wasteland inhabited by those that cling to those old toys with no intention other than being with comfortable things.

    I tend to look at the Goblin King as representing her irresponsible side — the goblins can only snatch her brother when she explicitly wishes it. It’s only when she realizes that he has no power over her — she is able to exercise her own will — that she is able to break free. And in doing so, she grows up.

    I’ve previously recommended Dragonslayer, one of my favorites from back in the day. Not a pinnacle of cinema, but nice epic fantasy.

  41. noskilz says:

    It doesn’t look like anyone has mentioned The Magic Sword or Jack the Giant Killer – although they may fall under the heading of films you couldn’t be paid to watch(they’re enthusiastic if not really what one would call awesome.) Krull might also be worth a look, if only for its oddness. Legend of Eight Samurai and Samurai Reincarnation might be worth a look. TheYokai Monsters series probably fall within the fantasy/fairy tale neighborhood. Would Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards be too far afield?

    It would be interesting to hear your reactions to some of the films that are being suggested – I recall Legend as being awful(strip out the dialog and it could have made a decent feature-length music video – supposedly the dvd collectors edition has two versions, hopefully one of them is good), and Dragonheart as one of the few times I went to the local dollar theater and felt ripped off. Still, every film is somebody’s favorite and I’m certainly in no position to throw stones when it comes to taste in films.

  42. dougo says:

    I actually sort of liked the second Dungeons & Dragons movie.

    And don’t forget Heavy Metal!

  43. robjmiller says:

    I’ll follow along the thread and throw in Mirrormask. Its one of the best fantasy films to come out in the last decade, putting the greatness of the Neil Gaiman/Dave Mckean duo on film. Also, you absolutely have to see the “fantasy’s answer to Star Wars” behemoth that is Krull.

    Honestly though, fantasy is typically done much better with animation than with live action. The suspension of disbelief necessary for fantasy is far better attained when you don’t have to deal with awful special effects. The upcoming Coraline stop-motion film will likely be fantastic (another Neil Gaiman joint). Neil Gaiman is really the current king of Hollywood fantasy, although I wasn’t terribly impressed with Stardust. In my opinion the best Neil Gaiman so far was the BBC miniseries Neverwhere, its absolutely amazing even with its low budget.

  44. What should a screenwriter well-versed in the Fantasy genre see?

    The Jim Henson-produced series The Storyteller.