Fans of Jim Henson are always waiting for the next pebble of gold about the beloved creator of the Muppets and other fantastical creations on the big and small screen. Whether via a retrospective image or a story from someone who worked with him, it’s as if we need to make up for the time stolen from us by his untimely death by seeking out every snippet of his life we can find. The latest treasure chest of Henson memorabilia is Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann’s beautiful hardcover, 30th anniversary celebration Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History, published by Insight Editions. Labyrinth, the 1986 fantasy classic that starred rock star David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly decades before she’d be awarded an Oscar, is in a small class of cult classic fantasies that came out of the 1980s that included The Princess Bride, Willow, and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal.
Like so many of those “vault” books published for big genre franchises, Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History is not simply a book of high quality photographs of behind-the-scenes views of the cast, creatures, and crew and images of concept art, it’s all that plus more. Like more than 20 inserts reproducing treasures from the Henson Archives, including a pull-out of the full-color, theatrical one-sheet movie poster created for the film by Ted CoConis. You’ll find classic style tipped-in concept art, draft script pages, and memos from Henson, with many items showing his hand-written notes.
I streamed the digital edition of Labyrinth (available here) to re-familiarize myself with the film before reading this new work, and was pleased to see every human character, every creature (all those goblins!), every scene, and every magical effect discussed in detail in this volume. Three key images came to mind from viewing the film years ago: Bowie walking the M.C. Escher room in the show’s climax with a crazy upward, almost Michael Jackson-inspired move (turns out a stuntman worked the scene), Bowie’s flawless contact juggling of crystal balls (we learnit was a professional juggler’s arm actually doing the trick), and the masked ball (a pre-Star Trek Gates McFadden helped coordinate the scene). Each of the scenes and production steps are described through contemporary or recent interviews with Jim Henson, Brian Henson and his siblings, Brian Froud (whose incredible concept art is sprinkled through the book and incorporated into its layout design), Toby (the striped baby) Froud, creature makers and players Kevin Clash and Dave Goelz, executive producer George Lucas, and actors Connelly and Bowie, among many others.
The story creation progress recounted is both fascinating and disconcerting. Contributors to the several script drafts included all of Dennis Lee, Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Laura Phillips, George Lucas, and Elaine May–the final story is very different from the first draft. Ultimately the resulting story mirrors some of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale with parts of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Bowie’s contributions include his role as co-lead and the composer of five songs. It’s hard to imagine others were considered, including Freddie Mercury, Prince, and Michael Jackson. One year later Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride would take on some of the storybook quality of the film, as would Ron Howard and George Lucas’s Willow the year after that. Henson’s vision of a coming of age story for Connelly’s character Sarah and Brian Froud’s visual designs kept steady throughout filming. And everyone on cast had nothing but the very best to say about working under Jim Henson, just as his fans would expect.
Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History will fit well on your bookshelf next to another great behind-the-scenes account of this era, The Princess Bride–A Celebration, reviewed here at borg.com. Now if only we could get a similar account of The Dark Crystal to round out the set!*
Fans of the fantasy, Muppets, Henson, Bowie, filmmaking, and creature making will find plenty to absorb in this 190 page volume and its hundreds of photos. Pick up your copy of Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History now here at Amazon.com.
*Editor’s Update: We hear a book chronicling The Dark Crystal is in the works for calendar year 2017.