A review requested by Trevor Downs, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser. This one's been bumped up the queue quite a few slots, but it needed doing.

This review is dedicated with profoundest gratitude to the memory and legacy of David Bowie (1947-2016), one of the most fearless musicians of modern times. There are few truly visionary artists, but he was foremost in their ranks, and how lucky we have been to witness his ever-fluid, thoroughly singular vision.

Jim Henson's tragedy was becoming extraordinarily beloved. If his Muppets, both those on The Muppet Show and on Sesame Street, hadn't become cultural touchstones at the instant of their birth, but merely generated enough ready capital for The Jim Henson Company to keep purring along, perhaps he'd have been able to keep up with the really weird shit that was always so important to him. Instead, he became the closest thing to the New Walt Disney that American pop culture has so far produced, and his name promised a certain level of sweetness and easygoing family comedy. Thus, when Henson gathered up all of his accumulated prestige from the 1970s and cashed it in on the 1982 fantasy The Dark Crystal, the results were slightly baffling to critics and audiences alike - the film scratched up a profit, earned muted positive reviews, and sunk into obscurity to await its eventual rescue by a small but adoring cult.

Undaunted, and still eager to move beyond wordplay and slapstick with brightly colored felt animals, Henson almost immediately returned to the idea of making an elaborate fantasy using highly realistic and technologically advanced puppets. This new film, Henson's third as director or co-director, would be a deliberate course-correction from The Dark Crystal: funnier, more humane. If the first film was essentially Henson unfiltered, its follow-up would put the filters back on. The result was Labyrinth, released in 1986 to an even cooler reception, losing money and, according to Henson's son Brian, driving his father into a depression that was the worst period of his professional life. Henson pere would neither direct nor initiate another feature-length project before his untimely death in 1990.

The happy news is that Labyrinth too picked up a cult following (the happiest news is that Henson was alive to see that cult forming), and my impression is that it's an even bigger cult than The Dark Crystal's. For all the value that the phrase "even bigger cult" implies. It's well-earned in both cases, though more explicable for Labyrinth, and here I could mention its clearer narrative, anchors in in the real world, literary antecedents that make its narrative less like Henson's fever dream, or I could acknowledge that the main reason Labyrinth is known and loved three decades after flopping is pretty obviously David Bowie. Who also earns it well.

Bowie's only playing a supporting character, top billing notwithstanding; the lead is wee little Jennifer Connelly, just 14 years old when production started. It was her fourth movie and third leading role, but this is the one that kick-started her career in earnest (she's better in Dario Argento's Phenomena, her leading debut, but who was paying attention to Italian horror in the mid-'80s?), and we might as well throw that onto the well-earned pile as well. There have been subtler adolescent actors navigating more richly complicated emotional arcs than Connelly in Labyrinth, but few if any with such a daunting technical difficulty to overcome: for virtually all of her screentime, Connelly is the only flesh-and-blood human onscreen, and all of her acting is done against puppets and special effects. Her twin challenges, then, were to interact with a bunch of machines covered in latex and fur and treat them naturally enough to convince the audience that they really exist, and to also ignore the army of technicians hiding just outside of the frame, behind objects, and under the stage bringing all those puppets to live. She does this without flaw: there's not one beat of Labyrinth where Connelly gives the game away no matter how weird the actions the script calls on her to perform or how florid her synthetic co-stars. For a teenager to unselfconsciously execute all of that is perhaps more impressive than it would be for the same teenager to go about the business of creating a fully realised character from the archetypes provided by the screenplay.

Connelly plays Sarah, a resentful teen girl with a toddler brother, Toby (Toby Froud), the result of her father's new marriage. Being in a new family is clearly already a trial - Sarah's brief interaction with her stepmother is ice cold on both sides - and being forced into the position of babysitting for a squalling child on a day that she'd much rather practice lines for the fantasy play she's in pushes her right over the edge. Drawing on the heightened language of the play, she makes a wish that the goblins will take Toby down to their world, and in the space of a thunderclap, she's confronted by the Goblin King (Bowie) to do just that. He'll let her rescue Toby under one condition: she has to make it through the labyrinth surrounding his castle within thirteen hours. That labyrinth, naturally enough, is kitted out with traps and populated largely by dangerous, or at least dangerously indifferent creatures from out of a tweaked, industrialised version of European folk lore.

This is, at heart, the whole Alice in Wonderland deal, though the touchstones that the film openly acknowledges are The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Maurice Sendak's then-recent Outside Over There. It's at least an open question whether we're meant to understand the film as a dream Sarah has in which she works out her frustrations at her brother and her uncertain feelings about having to take on adult responsibility through metaphors and symbols; even if that's not strictly true (there's good evidence in both directions), it's still very much the point of the thing. It is a coming-of-age tale mixed with story of sexual awakening that's expressed almost solely through visuals; even, one might argue, almost solely through Bowie's presence, and that of the summer sausage the costumers apparently sewed into the crotch of his extremely tight pants.

It's hard to imagine a better piece of casting for that character in this configuration: Henson apparently wanted Sting at first, and Michael Jackson was considered, but no-one, actor or singer or otherwise, could embody both sexuality and otherworldliness, as separate categories and as a single force, the way that Bowie did simply by virtue of being Bowie. His frame, his facial structure, the baggage about his career that the adults watching the film carry with them, and his uncomfortably probing examination of Connelly's face in their scenes together - all these things combine to present a perfect vision of sexual desire and sexual fear mingling. That's not even bothering to consider the extraordinary design of the Goblin King's costume and makeup, the latter giving him a leonine quality that only adds to the sense of watching a predator, sexual or otherwise. Nor the fact that Bowie's performance is pretty great in and of itself: most of the role is just standing there, but in the scenes where acting is necessary, he nailed everything required of him. Late in the film, he sings a fragment of a song, "Within You", expressing his disappointment at knowing that he'll never have Sarah as his consort, and the hauntingly sad look on his face injects an unexpected level of melancholy and sympathy for the villain. Particularly in a beautiful close-up that cinematographer Alex Thomson lights to leave Bowie's blue eye in light, his black eye in shadow, the shading wrapping perfectly around his downturned mouth. (It helps that this is the best number in a five-song soundtrack that's mostly fine - the one exception will crop up later - but is at no point top-notch Bowie).

A primarily visual villain fits right into a primarily visual piece of cinema. It's not that the script, derived from a story that Henson wrote with Dennis Lee, is bad. It's credited to Terry Jones, the first of several people who worked on it, and a lot of his absurd verbal humor can be spotted here or there; in other places there's a more naked appeal to sentiment that's closer to the Henson Company mainstream (though there's only one element of the film, a cocksure fox swashbuckler puppeteered by Dave Goelz and David Barclay, and voiced by David Shaughnessy, feels distinctly and unmistakably Henson-esque); in a few patches it goes for straight-up horror. What it's not is terribly smooth, nor is it even slightly unique - "Alice in Wonderland, but with fairy tale goblins and weird Henson Creature Shop nasties" takes us 90% of the way through everything the plot has to offer. It is, fairly transparently, a just-good-enough coming of age that benefits immensely from a protagonist with exceptional screen presence and a villain thick with subtext, and beyond those things exists primarily to serve as a spine upon which visual conceits are supported.

Ah, but what conceits! The film, like The Dark Crystal, was primarily designed by fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, and executed by craftspeople being provided all the resources Henson could possibly provide - helped out by the money of executive producer George Lucas and his Lucasfilm Ltd, the best possible place for an effects-heavy fantasy to find itself in the mid-'80s - so that the film represents the physical manifestation of rich picture-book artwork to a massively impressive degree. From the moment Sarah leaves the grounding normalcy of her large suburban home, there's not one scene, and there's barely a single frame, that isn't a mesmerising expression of impossible fantasy landscapes given tactile form, with the best-looking puppets and suits Henson's people had ever put together at that point in time populating them. For that matter, they never really would surpass the wide range of expressions seen on some of these characters, like the morally-grey dwarf Hoggle (Shari Weiser in a suit, with the facial puppeteering and voicework by Brian Henson), or the briefly-seen but insidiously thoughtful-looking Junk Lady, operated by Karen Prell.

The visual effects do fall apart a couple of times, badly: at one point, a group of five grotesque beings that can pull their on limbs off are composited against the background in an effect that would have looked shoddy on a contemporaneous Sesame Street episode. The fact that this sequence is set to "Chilly Down", possibly the worst song Bowie ever wrote, only adds to the annoyance of the whole. But mostly, the places where the effects are clearly handmade - the obvious set making up the goblin town near the castle, or the model used to show the whole labyrinth from outside - work to the film's benefit, offering the same homey sense of Old World handicraft that The Storyteller, the Henson TV show that follows directly on the aesthetic and technique of Labyrinth, would develop to such rich effect.

Labyrinth creates an exceptional world to fall into, more confidently executed and ambitiously shot than anything in The Dark Crystal (there's an overhead shot during the "Magic Dance" musical number that's pretty much everybody's major point of reference for this movie, and it doesn't seem like much until you think of the engineering required to get every moving object in its right place), and perhaps more effective in its emotional appeal: though I am thinking less of the openly sweet moments (which I frankly think feel pasted-on) than the legitimately distressing shifts into pretty straightforward horror, such as a pit of disembodied hands that form grotesque faces. It's stuff that's hard to forget once it's been seen, and I can name no other fantasy movie from the genre-soaked '80s that matches it, for either quantity or quality of these primordially effective moments. What it can't do with clear or insightful storytelling, it enthusiastically does with stabs of dream imagery right in the heart. It is not Henson's masterpiece - heck, even among his two dark fantasies, I think The Dark Crystal is more top-to-bottom satisfying - but it's one of the undeniable triumphs of pure fantasy in live-action cinema.