Our "Now and Then" series continues with the classic David Bowie vehicle versus Tim Burton's latest blockbuster.
In our week-long series, Now and Then, GOOD writers each choose a beloved piece of pop culture from back in the day and pit it against its modern-day equivalent, with a fresh pair of adult eyes. May the best zeitgeist win.
As a kid, I was a sucker for anything with compelling visual effects. So it made sense that Labyrinth, the Jim Henson classic from 1986, was one of my favorite movies. Its myriad muppets, optical illusions, and M.C. Escher-inspired climax really did it for me. Throw in some pop songs that struck seven-year-old me as hip, big-kid music, and Labyrinth had it all.
Even as a kid, I was intrigued by the strange sexual tension between the sinister King of the Goblins, played by a tights-clad David Bowie, and Sarah Williams, played by a young Jennifer Connelly. Sarah is a 15-year-old hoping to rescue her baby brother from the labyrinth's logic puzzles, booby traps, optical illusions, and inhabitants both helpful and otherwise. The Goblin King is considerably older (David Bowie was in his late 30s when the movie was filmed), both seductive and a little sadistic. I could tell there was something twisted about their relationship. Especially for a movie made for kids, it was complicated, dark and nuanced.
Labyrinth was written in part by Terry Jones, and it has an element of Monty Pythonesque absurdity that works for an adult audience. Twenty years later, it held up. It’s not just a movie about a girl getting her baby brother back, it’s a story about her developing a more mature relationship with fantasy itself, and in the process coming to accept adult responsibilities (and adult feelings about guys like Jareth).
So what are today’s kids watching instead of Labyrinth? Like the Henson classic, Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland is aimed at kids but meant to appeal to an adult audience as well. Both are fantasy movies that use a girl’s adventure into an unpredictable alien world to tell a story about her development into adulthood. Both employ dark humor, nagging mothers, oracular caterpillars, oppressive monarchs. I hadn’t seen it when it was released in theaters, so my girlfriend and I watched it online for the purpose of this experiment.
I was not impressed.
The Tim Burton reboot tells the story of Alice’s return to Wonderland, now called Underland, where she has to find the Vorpal Sword and slay the Jabberwocky to end the destructive reign of the Queen of Hearts. The film is sprinkled with just enough plot and Lewis Carroll lingo to hang together and pass for a relative of the 1865 book.
The special effects are obviously much better than the smoke and puppets of Labyrinth. With computer animation, Tim Burton can do whatever he wants—put an oversized head on the Queen of Hearts’ diminutive body, shrink and grow Alice to any scale, conjure up creatures and environments. A lot of critics liked this aspect of the movie. The Hollywood Reporter happily declared, “[T]echnology has finally been able to catch up with Burton's endlessly fertile imagination.”
But in the 21st century, visual spectacle is cheap. There’s nothing that remarkable about the rendered, cartoony world of Underland. Muppets feel more honest somehow, and that’s not just nostalgia talking. I like Michel Gondry’s inventive modern in-camera effects more than the artificial omnipotence of computer animation. Burton’s imagination just isn’t that crazy anymore, no matter what the marketing materials tell you.
Yes, I loved Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and the original Batman. Those were truly bizarre. But sometime around Sleepy Hollow, Burton started making vapid blockbusters passed off as creative and quirky because they feature Johnny Depp overacting in a strange wig. That may be what’s happening to kids’ fantasy movies overall: The ones that are legitimately original and edgy have been replaced with eye candy and a script that’s been focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. While we were rewatching Labyrinth, my girlfriend kept exclaiming, “This is just so weird.” The authentic weirdness of Labyrinth, with its dark undertones and clash of styles, is just better than the today’s processed version.
Maybe Hollywood learned its lesson. Labyrinth had a $25 million budget and only made about $13 million at the box office. That’s partly because it doesn’t hew to any of Hollywood’s tried-and-true formulae. It has adult themes of illicit attraction that don’t appear in most kids movies, but it also has muppets. It has brainy humor, like the two gate guards, who act out a Knights and Knaves logic puzzle and a Bog of Eternal Stench. Watching it, you get the sense that it actually reflects the quirky personalities of Jim Henson and Terry Jones, not the lowest common denominator of the 5- to 15-year-old demographic.
Even though $25 million is a tiny budget by today’s standards, I can’t imagine something comparably bizarre getting made in 2011. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, believe it or not, is the sixth highest grossing movie of all time. The cheap tricks work in the short run. But I wonder if anyone will remember it 15 years from now.