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The Owl in the Labyrinth

This post is classified under my personal "The Owl" subsection, and may or may not have to do with board games.

Last night I watched Jim Henson's Labyrinth for the first time. Most of you must be familiar with it, so please bear with me as I express my novice enthusiasm. I was enchanted. By the rich imagination of the creators that manifests itself in every detail, by the charming personality of the characters, by the artfully rendered scenery, by Bowie's effortless magnetism... and didn't mind the bad CGI, the impossible-not-to-focus-on-Jareth's-crotch moments, or even the uncomfortable thought of a 40 year old man seducing a 16 year old girl.

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In case you haven't seen the film, this is a fantasy adventure from 1986 featuring a small cast of human actors (with David Bowie and Jennifer Connely as the protagonists) and a large number of puppets (that represent goblins, dwarfs, and other creatures). The film begins with young Sarah lost in a reverie of inhabiting an imaginary world which she is forced to abandon in order to tend to her babysitting duties. Her baby brother is as annoying as a crying baby can be, which makes her call upon the Goblin King in frustration, and wish the goblins take the baby away.

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Her wish becomes immediately true, and King Jareth (who can also transform himself into an owl) appears before her and promises to grant her all her desires if she lets him keep the child. Sarah regrets her impulsiveness and rejects the offer. She decides to go find her brother who is held captive in the Goblin King castle. Jareth gives her a 13-hour time limit, and she sets out to cross the labyrinth and reach the castle.

Besides the key characters that consist of Sarah's entourage - Hoggle the dwarf, Ludo the giant, and Didymus the fox-terrier - creatures that make a quick appearance leave their mark as well: the worm ('ello'), the biting fairies, the sleepy sage, the talking doorknobs, everything is weird and wonderful, like the paradoxical stairs in the castle's Escher room in the penultimate scene.

I was sad to read that it was a commercial failure (ending up behind Karate Kid II, Top Gun and Ferris Bueller's Day Off in the US box office) and can imagine Jim Henson's disappointment in the public's lukewarm reception. It is blatantly obvious that this was a labour of love, with hundreds of hours of work behind it. It eventually received the cult following it deserved, and it seems that plans were made in 2016 for a sequel. I wonder how good a sequel without the King can be, but I still hope it gets made.

Out of curiosity, I searched BGG for Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Board Game, a 2016 cooperative game from River Horse, but reviews say that it's a terrible flop. A Labyrinth tarot deck is coincidentally coming out this summer but, as is often the case with popular culture tarots, the connection between the characters and the archetypes of the cards is quite loose (Hoggle as The Hierophant? Meh).

Image source: BGG user Steven Strayer

I wonder if the goblins in Dungeon Degenerates were inspired by Henson's puppets. One quarter of the board (the Badlands) is goblin land with a fortress in the middle. There is a maze tile among the components that may be used in some scenarios, and I think it wouldn't be a a stretch to say the goblins on the cards were based off of those in the film but I can't be sure.

For me, what Labyrinth does best, besides flood the viewer with strange images and memorable scenes, is highlight the fact that life is full of grey areas. Sarah is at the same time a spoiled brat and a girl with high moral standards. Hoggle is her friend but also a traitor. Jareth is an evil tempter and yet also loving and protective. The Labyrinth itself is in one place lush with greenery and in another a filthy stinking bog.

If you haven't seen Labyrinth yet, I encourage you to do so, if only for the amusing spectacle of Bowie's tight outfit in what is essentially a children's movie.

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