Brian Henson Feels His Dad Would Be Thrilled Over Labyrinth's Cult Status

Jim Henson was proud of Labyrinth, and disappointed by its reception. Decades later, his son says he would be thrilled by the movie's status as a cult classic.

Labyrinth wasn't what you would call a huge box office success in its time, and that failure bothered filmmaker Jim Henson. Fast forward almost 40 years, and the movie is still being talked about, still being watched and rewatched, and has become a bona fide cult classic. Henson's son Brian, the chairman of the Jim Henson Company, says he thinks his father would have been thrilled with this outcome for the movie, which was a passion project for the Muppets' creator following the middling success of his similarly-ambitious The Dark Crystal.

Jim Henson was an artist who loved to push the boundaries of his craft. It led him to create the most popular puppet characters of the modern era, reshaping the art of puppetry in both film and onstage as a result, but by the time he reached his 40s, he wanted to do even crazier and more ambitious things, which is why he created a pair of incredibly expensive fantasy films. While The Dark Crystal was a modest success, Labyrinth was seen as a commercial failure at the time.

"He would be thrilled," Henson said. "Becuase the way things went was, Dark Crystal was a big departure for him, an evolution, however you would describe it. He was just trying something all-new. It was fantasy, it was a higher level of character development, so you can believe [the puppets] are real as opposed to the Muppets, where you were never meant to believe they were alive. Dark Crystal was well-received, but then critics inevitably said, 'But we kind of miss the whimsy of Jim Henson.' Dark Crystal is so sincere -- and it is, it's proper, deep, weighty fantasy, and a drama -- and so when he went to make Labyrinth, he thought, 'well...' So he brought in music, and they were like, 'Well, where's the guest star? There's no humans?' So he did what he thought was being asked of him, which was bring in some whimsy, bring in some comedy, and the movie actually released not successfully....Critics didn't like it, so the studio kind of pulled it pretty quick, so it didn't actually perform very well in the theaters. But then, because critics are wrong and studios are wrong, it started doing gangbusters business as a video rental title, and it only got bigger and bigger and bigger. But my dad died not long after -- three and a half years, four years after the release of Labyrinth, my dad died, and he never got to see how successful Labyrinth became."

During the heyday of physical media -- and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when video rental stores were ubiquitous -- it wasn't especially uncommon for a movie to have a disappointing run at the box office, only to turn around and build a huge following on home video. Tremors, in one extreme example, was a box office dud before going on to become the biggest rental of the year, and ultimately spawning numerous sequels and a TV show.

"Labyrinth will have many more viewers this year than it did in its first year of release, and that has been consistent every year since we made the movie," Brian Henson continued., "So he would be thrilled because at the time, while we were making it, he was very proud of it. He thought, 'Okay, this is really fun. I brought David Bowie in, I love working with him, he's a musical genius, and he's also funny. I brought in comedy but it's still a dramatic story...' He really felt like he had pulled the elements together in a very elegant and fun way, and brought back some of his irreverence into Labyrinth that really isn't there in Dark Crystal. So I think he felt he had done a really nice piece and brought all of his strengths together, only to have it then not perform in the theaters was tough for him. And I blame the critics because the audience would have loved it, and they just didn't go. I think he would be thrilled. I think in his last days, that was, in his mind, his one, unsuccessful big venture that he had done in his life. And now, it is the most valuable and high performing piece that he ever did."

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal are available to purchase or rent digitally now.