Puppetry of Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary

Brian Henson entered the stage on Saturday at 2:30PM in his favorite, multi-colored jeans (gifted by his 10-year-old daughter). The pants projected a rainbow all the way to the back of the Marriott Atrium Ballroom. It was a fitting wardrobe choice for talking about the wonderful, fantastical Labyrinth.

The film—an indelible part of childhood for anyone under the age of 45—was, in part, a response to the somber The Dark Crystal. People, according to Henson, wanted to see more of the whimsy that had made Jim Henson, Brian’s father, a household name. Over 400 puppeteers auditioned for the film; 60 were selected and trained, joining staple Muppet and Fraggle Rock performers such as Frank Oz and Karen Prell. The latter joined Henson to discuss the design, mechanics, and performances behind some of the most beloved characters and iconic scenes in the film.

While Henson voiced the dwarf Hoggle, the character was only fully realized through a complex mix of animatronics and live action, which required five people to execute. Shari Weiser, the actress who was Hoggle’s body, couldn’t see when in costume since Hoggle’s head wasn’t hollow. It was a series of 18 motors intended to create lifelike expressions. Weiser could only see out of the mouth when it opened, which led Henson to develop Hoggle’s signature idiosyncrasy: a near constant run of “blah” and “blergh” sounds at seemingly random moments. In fact, they were timed to help Weiser avoid the pitfalls, like smacking into set pieces, that come with walking blind.

The memorable “helping hands” scene, where the character of Sarah falls down a vertical burrow filled with over a hundred pairs of hands, was concocted by screenwriter Terry Jones; he thought it could be both funny and creepy. Henson and his father worked through the concept before enlisting other puppeteers to develop the complex hand puppets (each took 2-4 sets of hands to create) that talked to Sarah and pushed her further down the burrow.

Both Henson and Prell recalled the difficulty Jim Henson had in directing the scene, as all the puppeteers were concealed behind the burrow’s walls. When Jim Henson would give instructions, everyone would respond, so he had to be drawn a map with each individual’s position. Then, he could call them out instead of just asking the hand to the left of Sarah, for example, to do something.

Naturally, the moderator deduced that the audience wanted to know what it was like to work with David Bowie, the sexy, mystical music legend who died this past January.

“He and my dad got along like a house on fire,” Henson said, adding that Bowie was so gorgeous that he inspired silence when he entered a room. He was also wonderful to work with, always prepared, and unflappable as a performer. Bowie also had an incredible amount of comfort and confidence, which enabled him to not only play Jareth, The Goblin King, but to lampoon his rock god status while doing so. Bowie loved making Labyrinth. “The weirder, the better for him,” Henson said.

But The Goblin King wasn’t necessarily slated for Bowie. Michael Jackson and Sting were also contenders. Yet, today it’s hard to imagine anyone else even being considered since Bowie’s turn as Sarah’s seducer has ushered millions of girls from childhood to puberty. That reaction was by design. According to Henson, his father wanted The Goblin King to be played by a rock star that could not only add music to the film, but also inspire teenage girls’ fantasies.

Prell recalled how she developed The Worm as a hand puppet and was impressed with the final product, as editors had rearranged the dialogue with Sarah. It was smooth, perfect, and funny—ending with quintessential Terry Jones absurdism. Prell was also The Junk Lady, whose design was tricky. The puppet required Prell to stand in a costume with her hands at waist level, from where she controlled the head with one hand. When The Junk Lady was required to use both of her hands, another puppeteer had to sit on a rolling dolly between Prell’s legs. Prell also contributed to the Fireys, a group of fraggle-like creatures who dance and remove their heads. The scene was actually a composite of multiple shots layered onto one another. It didn’t work out perfectly, producing a final cut that Henson considers sub-par.

But was the full film a flop? Henson posited that it didn’t do so well in theater because it was hard to define in a short trailer. “People didn’t know what Labyrinth was,” he said. “It was definitely considered a disappointment.” But, then it grew by word of mouth and performed well on video.

The rest, as they say, is history—30 years in the making. And, what a wondrous 30 years it has been.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.