The Supporting Creatures of ‘Labyrinth’

GeekMom TV and Movies
Image: Lisa Kay Tate

Editor’s note: We’re re-running this in honor of David Bowie.

Earlier this month, a report in Variety magazine made a very brief mention of a possible sequel in development for the 1986 Jim Henson fantasy, Labyrinth. This was quickly followed up by an addendum a few days later saying that this was not actually something on the Jim Henson Co.’s primary agenda—at least not for now.

This news, of course, set the movie’s fandom, including myself, on a quick high of anticipation, followed by a sudden pit of disappointment. I was a 16-year-old dreamer of dreams, not ready to grow up, when David Bowie’s Goblin King Jareth first led us down that fantasy-filled maze of beasties with his horrible, oh-so-horrible, 80s hair-band mullet and no-imagination-needed tight pants. Some of the green screen (or blue screen) effects were obvious, the dialogue cheesy at times, and some of the music recording quality was a little off, but I thought Labyrinth—and Jareth—were beautiful creations nonetheless.

The critical response was, at best, mixed and the box office profit was pretty dismal. However, the movie has since become a cult classic, with a multi-generational fan base.

The original trailer for the film boasted the creative triumvirate of director Jim Henson, for which Labyrinth would be his final feature film as director, Executive Producer George Lucas, and star David Bowie, along with a 14-year-old pre-Rocketeer and A Beautiful Mind Jennifer Connelly, and “numerous goblins and creatures.”

Actually, it was those numerous creatures, both on- and off-screen, that helped make the movie visually appealing and fun to watch. Let’s take a look back at some of the individuals who may not have gotten top billing for their work on Labyrinth, but still hold their own geek and fantasy-world cred:

Brian Froud (top) and Terry Jones have teamed up on several book projects, including a companion guide to the goblins in Labyrinth. Images: Wikicommons and Lisa Kay Tate.

Terry Jones. This Monty Python member wrote much of the script, based on a storyline by Henson and Dennis Lee. Much of Jones’ Python-style can be recognized in the script, particularly in the scene with the very British rock wall harbingers of doom. Jones has worked as an actor, writer, producer, and director in several films, including as voice talent for a number of animated and CGI characters. He also served as host for the history documentary series Ancient Inventions, Barbarians, Medieval Lives and Terry Jones’ Great Mystery Map.

Warwick Davis and Kenny Baker. Both of these Star Wars alums worked as members of the Goblin Corps.

Davis, who portrayed the title roles in the fantasy film Willow and the B-horror Leprechaun series, has a pretty heavy sci-fi fantasy resume. He was Wicket the Ewok in Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (and several other roles in the Star Wars saga) and Professor Flitwick and a goblin banker in the Harry Potter film series. He has also appeared in the BBC’s Doctor Who and Merlin.

Baker, who is best known as the man in the R2-D2 can, will be returning alongside Davis for Star Wars: Episode VII in 2015.

Kevin Clash and Danny John-Jules. These two are the best-known voice talents behind the detachable-limbed Fireys in Labyrinth’s reggae-influenced “Chilly Down” dance and mischief sequence in the film.

Clash, who also did puppetry and back-up work in other areas of the film, has become a household name for many parents, for his little red and furry alter-ego, Elmo. He was also the voice and puppeteer for one of my favorite Muppets, the hipster host of the short-lived Muppets Tonight, Clifford. Clash’s signature voice is a standout in the Fireys’ song; listen for a sassy Elmo voice saying, “Where you goin’ with a head like that?”

John-Jules gained comic con-style fame as part of The Cat in the kitschy-yet-popular BBC sci-fi, Red Dwarf, and is currently in the BBC crime drama series Death in Paradise. He also worked with Henson in an uncredited part of a street dancer in The Great Muppet Caper, and with Frank Oz as a doo-wop singer in the “Total Eclipse of the Sun” sequence in the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Kevin Clash, Warwick Davis, and Gates McFadden are part of Labyrinth‘s long list of geeky alumni. Images: Wikicommons.

The Froud Family. Brian Froud and Wendy Midener worked as a husband-and-wife team in many of Henson’s works, including The Dark Crystal and Jim Henson’s Storyteller.

Froud, along with Terry Jones, is also the creator of weirdly funny fantasy art books, including the best-seller Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book.

Midener was a Muppet designer for several episodes of the original Muppet Show and the first Muppet Movie. She also worked as a fabricator for Yoda in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

The part of Toby in the film was actually Froud’s son, Toby, who has since gone on to be a multi-talented puppeteer, special effects designer, and stop-motion sculptor for films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and ParaNorman. As a long-time puppeteer, he wrote and directed his first short film this year, Lessons Learned, which he funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

Cheryl McFadden. McFadden was a puppeteer with Jim Henson in the 1980s and worked as the choreographer for Labyrinth on scenes like Sarah’s ballroom dream and the Goblin City battle. She is better known in the sci-fi world as Gates McFadden, the portrayer of Dr. Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fact that she worked with Muppets before joining the crew of the Enterprise is something I find exceptionally cool.

Henson’s go-to colleague, Frank Oz, did his bit with the film by serving as puppeteer for the iconic bird-headed Wiseman (voiced by another actor) and heir to the Muppet empire, Brian Henson, not only worked as puppeteer coordinator, but lent his voice to Sarah’s troll-like guide, Hoggle.

What about the dog? Well I’ve never found the real name of the dog who portrayed Sarah’s dog, Merlin, but fans of the movie realize the same dog who plays her real-life pet also plays the non-puppet version of Sir Didymus’s faithful mount, Ambrosius. This is only right, as literary-minded viewers will pick up on the fact that Merlin is known as “Merlin Ambrosius” in The History of Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Others who were nearly involved in the film included Michael Jackson and Sting, who were both considered for the role of Jareth. Several young actresses auditioned for the role of Sarah, as well, including Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Jessica Parker, Laura Dern, Marisa Tomei, and Laura San Giacomo. Two who were highly considered were Jane Krakowski and Ally Sheedy. Changes in either of these roles may have made the movie an entirely different experience.

A little something to think about before heading into that wonderful and weird maze…

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