The Nostalgia Effect: Jim Henson's "Labyrinth"

The Nostalgia Effect: Jim Henson's "Labyrinth"

Though critics bank on the assumption that at least some aspects of cinema are objective in quality, movie-watching is still largely a personal, deeply subjective experience. We love the movies we love for reasons that are entirely specific to us as individuals and there are a lot of ways that our lives can cross paths with a given film that simply can't be predicted. If a movie happens to be on in the background during an important event in one's life, chances are it'll be associated with that event from then on. We anchor our memories of our lives, especially our early years, to the media we consumed at the time. That's why we end up going back to films of questionable quality long after we should have developed a more refined palate. This is the Nostalgia Effect.

Take, for instance, just about any movie made with little kids in mind. Children are the reason for more bad movies than practically any other demographic, so the genuinely good kid's pictures really stand out. No one with a heart would argue against the endearing likes of Toy Story even if it might share a video library with the dire CGI remakes of Wonder Dog or Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's also doubtful that the kids who grew up watching such artistically bankrupt material will still enjoy it later in life.

But then there are those kid-flicks that seem to be teetering on the border of good and bad that end up getting tipped in one direction or the other by one's nostalgia, or lack thereof. Take, for instance, Jim Henson's bizarre 1986 film Labyrinth. If this movie crosses my path, it's highly likely that I'll finish it and love every minute of it. But I was born in the 80's and Labyrinth was one of the most memorable films of my early years. Taking off those rose-tinted 3D glasses for a minute, I have to question the inherent quality of the movie.

Even taken as a film intended for kids, Labyrinth has a lot of iffy material. The presence of David Bowie may still have plenty of hipster cred in today's world, but in 1986 Bowie was far from cool. In fact, he was at his professional nadir in the mid 80's and the music he produced for the film is barely listenable on its own. The cheesy synth, giant hair and tangential-at-best relation to the actual plot of the music sequences is admittedly a bit embarrassing. Add to that the considerable creepiness of seeing the once and future king of sex-and-drug culture in a playful Muppet-fest and you have a recipe for a wildly ill-conceived kid's movie.

Compared to Jim Henson's other offerings in the era, Labyrinth may not be the imaginative masterpiece an entire generation takes it for. The Dark Crystal, while no less strange, balances the nightmare and the whimsy a lot better and Henson's TV shows were significantly more kid-friendly in general. There's a notably dubious quality to Labyrinth's world that relies on such elements as a farting swamp and a friendly monster named after an illicit drug. That the final confrontation happens in nothing less than an Escher painting is just the cherry on top of this decidedly screwy sundae.

Despite all of the above problems and more, I still adore Labyrinth. It's unique, full of stunning sets and has an enduring message that likely registers better with older audiences than its ostensible target demographic. As an honest critic, I'm not ready to call Labyrinth a good movie, but for an entire generation it's still a beloved work of art.