Labyrinth: 35th Anniversary Edition

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Sony Pictures;
Fantasy;
$40.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Brian Henson, Ron Mueck.

Master puppeteer Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy Labyrinth is a bit of an odd duck — a bizarre adventure with a chilly reception upon its release that has since become a cult classic. Labyrinth sits alongside similar films such as 1984’s The NeverEnding Story and 1985’s Return to Oz in providing fantastical escapism with slightly darker overtones for a kids movie.

The reason the film’s reputation has grown such as it has is undoubtedly due to David Bowie in the key role of Jareth the goblin king, whose look has become iconic. Casting Bowie afforded Henson the luxury of injecting more songs into the narrative, giving it the feeling of a musical that doesn’t always mesh with the darker elements of the story.

The film was also one of the first roles for Jennifer Connelly, who stars as Sarah, the teenage girl who, annoyed with the constant crying of her baby brother, wishes Jareth would take him away to the land of the goblins — an action she immediately regrets when he indeed shows up to do so. He gives her 13 hours to traverse the maze surrounding his castle and defeat his minions so that she may rescue the baby.

Much of the publicity promoting nostalgia for the film over the years has been to prominently feature Connelly in an elaborate ball gown, playing up the otherworldly high fantasy elements of the story. In fact, this comprises just one short sequence in the film, with Connelly, who was 14 during filming, spending most of the movie in blue jeans like a typical ’80s kid.

The film’s contemporary setting — Sarah is rehearsing for a play based on the goblin lore, hence her familiarity with it — on its own begs the question of how much of Sarah’s adventures are just a dream, though the movie doesn’t offer many clues to suggest it’s anything other than really happening to her. However, like The Wizard of Oz, Sarah’s “real world” offers a number of clues that would seem to influence the goblin world, and it’s fun on subsequent viewings to spot these details in her bedroom.

One of them pointed out by Henson’s son Brian on the new 4K disc is that Sarah has a newspaper clipping of a photo of her mother with Bowie (a photo of Connelly’s actual mother with Bowie) — the implication being that her mother left the family and ran off with Bowie, causing Sarah to subconsciously cast him as the villain in her adventure.

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The story bears more than a passing resemblance to Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, which led to some legal controversy before an acknowledgement to Sendak’s work was added to the credits. (Outside Over There, along with The Wizard of Oz and other similar works, are among the books in Sarah’s room).

In addition to Henson and his usual team, Labyrinth also boasts some impressive filmmaking pedigree, with “Monty Python” star Terry Jones getting screenplay credit, and George Lucas assisting with both the script and the editing.

Labyrinth ended up being the final film directed by Henson, who was dismayed by its negative reception. After returning to his forte of children’s television, Henson died in 1990, four years after Labyrinth’s release.

The new 35th anniversary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition comes in a digibook designed to resemble Sarah’s “Labyrinth” book in the movie. The two-disc set includes the movie on both a 4K disc and a standard Blu-ray Disc.

The regular Blu-ray is the same disc that was released as the 30th anniversary edition in 2016, and includes a commentary track, a picture-in-picture mode and several retrospective featurettes.

The 4K disc includes the film with Dolby Vision, and it looks great despite some dodgy composite shots. The puppetry is expectedly top notch, the key contributor to the film’s sense of fun.

The previously unreleased extras on this set both come on the 4K disc, and include 25 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, plus 55 minutes of footage from the original auditions for the role of Sarah.

The deleted scenes are presented in rough video form, and mostly expand on ideas already in the movie. The scenes are offered with optional commentary by Brian Henson (one of which being a longer scene focused more on the previously mentioned picture of Sarah’s mother).

The audition tapes include actresses such as Molly Ringwald, Tracey Gold of “Growing Pains,” and Back to the Future’s Claudia Wells, among others.

Both the deleted scenes and auditions have an oversight common to such extras on many discs, in that they have a “play all” option but no title cards for each segment, so the only way to identify the segment is to go back to the original menu.

The Happytime Murders

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 12/4/18;
Universal;
Comedy;
Box Office $20.71 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material.
Stars Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Michael McDonald.
Voices of Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Drew Massey.

The Happytime Murders continues the glorious tradition of using the tropes of children’s programming as the basis for subversive adult entertainment.

The film is set in a world best described as “Muppets-adjacent,” where felt-skinned puppets are alive and second-class citizens of a society in which humans are pretty openly racist toward them. Some of the puppets end up as performers in movies and TV shows for kids, and when they’re off camera they have to deal with the harsh realities of life like everyone else.

The story involves a puppet named Phil (Bill Barretta), an ex-cop now working as a private investigator. He gets roped into a case involving the former members of a TV show called “The Happytime Gang” getting killed one at a time, and the police ask him to help his former partner (Melissa McCarthy) figure out who’s behind it.

The Happytime Murders could be considered something of a puppet version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit if not for a couple of factors. First, all the puppet characters are generic and created just for this film. Seeing characters from other franchises interact could have helped build the world and establish a sense of nostalgia to better connect audiences to the story. To that end, it’s not surprising that other studios would be reluctant to lend their IP to the project, which owes a lot to the second factor — the film is completely filthy.

Puppets do drugs. Puppets engage in dangerous sex acts. Puppets get ripped apart by dogs and get their heads blown apart by shotguns, leaving fluffy cotton entrails everywhere. An then there’s the excessive use of silly string. It’s pretty much everything you suspected goes on in the after hours of “Sesame Street” but were afraid to ask.

In fact, the film was the basis of an unsuccessful lawsuit from the Sesame Workshop for its tagline of “No Sesame. All Street,” which is still boldly emblazoned on the DVD and Blu-ray box art. But the fact that the puppets are basically off-brand Muppets is no coincidence.

The film’s director is Brian Henson, son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson. In a commentary on the Blu-ray, Brian helpfully points out that he made sure to include a “Henson Alternative” production banner at the beginning of The Happytime Murders to signal that this movie really isn’t for children. Not that the trailers or any of the marketing wouldn’t have given that away.

The notion of living puppets scheming to commit mayhem brings to mind the “Smile Time” episode from Joss Whedon’s vampire drama “Angel,” which featured several demonic puppets stealing the life force from children. Unsurprisingly, many of the episode’s puppets were realized with the help of a number of Jim Henson Co. puppeteers, including some who worked on this movie.

I also have a feeling that the foul-mouthed Stinky the Grump from the famous “Chappelle’s Show” “Kneehigh Park” sketch would be quite at home in the world of The Happytime Murders as well.

But this isn’t a five-minute sketch. Happytime Murders doubles down on the concept of puppets doing inappropriate things, to the point where it doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond that. Most scenes are structured on the idea of a puppet doing something crude and unexpected, allowing the movie to coast on the juxtaposition of something associated with children acting in an adult way. Which isn’t to say it isn’t entertaining. The film offers a number of clever observations about a hypothetical puppet society, and there are even moments that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the constancy of it is just a bit draining, and the pace of the puppetry must have worn out the filmmakers too given how the story evolves into a lengthy stretch focusing on a couple of the human characters trying to solve the mystery on their own.

More impressive is the film’s visual style, and the extent of the visual effects work involved may surprise some viewers. According to some of the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes material, there were a fair amount of puppeteers crouched just off camera to animate the characters. But there is also a lot of CGI involved, too. The disc offers a two-minute featurette about how the filmmakers used virtual environments to gain better control over the action.

More illuminating is a nearly three-minute video about how the visual effects team created a lot of the “puppets” from CGI to begin with. Some might see it as cheating, I suppose, but their work in this regard is amazing, as the level of detail in the texture of the fabric seems completely authentic. At first blush I just assumed many of the scenes of puppets walking around in full view of the camera were done with little people in costumes, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to see how they really did it.

A fuller overview of the visual effects work is on display in a four-minute montage video that shows several scenes at different stages of development.

In addition to the aforementioned audio commentary, in which director Henson is joined by puppeteer/voice actor Barretta, the Blu-ray also includes a three-minute gag reel and a two-and-a-half-minute “Line-O-Rama” of alternate improvisations.

Finally, the disc includes more than 14 minutes of deleted scenes, which expand on a few points and fill in some character details that are touched on in the final film.

Regarding the film’s digital copy, take note that the film is not available for redemption through Movies Anywhere, even though Universal is a signatory studio. The production company is STX Films, which does not have a distribution deal with Movies Anywhere, and as a result the digital code included with the disc is redeemable only through iTunes.