In The Labyrinth, we only get a few minutes on Sarah’s life before things take a turn for the Bowied. We see her play acting in the park, run through the city, and get all up in Toby’s business. But aside from that, we also have a brief scene with Sarah’s parents – or at least her father and step-mother.
The step-mother we see first, looking fierce in a very 80s outfit with a linebacker’s shoulder pads. The dad we see next, boring and every bit the prototypical suburban father. They exchange a few words:
“She treats me like a wicked stepmother in a fairy story no matter what I say”
“I’ll talk to her.”
The dubbing of the lines is truly atrocious. I’d be curious to know if they actually ever spoke their lines, or just mouthed them and had them filled in later. Their acting (“acting”) is pretty weak, with no real emotions coming through. The timing is strangely forced also, as if the scene had been compressed during the editing process.
There are a couple ways to take this. The more obvious interpretation would be that the actors just phoned it in, the dubbing guy was half asleep, and no one really cared about this scene since it doesn’t do much. Henson didn’t worry about it, or didn’t notice the flaws.
I prefer an alternate interpretation, which maintains an internal consistency within the movie, and doesn’t require the director to be temporarily deaf and blind:
The parent scenes are flawed and dull because they are the only part of the film that is not fantasy.
The parent scene is the only one with the strained acting, off dubbing, off timing, and peculiar characterization. It is also the only scene that is not in some way fantasy. Even the earlier scenes in the part, Sarah is acting and playing. In her room, everything around her is a fantasy. In Toby’s room, she imagines that a Goblin King will take him away (and starts the events of the movie.)
The parents’ day-to-day lives, when compared to the richness of Sarah’s fantasy, are completely mundane, mis-timed, and flawed. The movie, as an extension of Sarah’s mind, perceives the characters in relation and comparison to her play-world. As a result, they appear drab and malformed.
Much like the artificial bird at the close of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the apparent cinematic errors here draw our attention to the falsity of the scene. Unlike Blue Velvet, it is not because the scene is a fantasy, but because it is not a fantasy. Since Sarah’s fantasy is the focus of the movie, it becomes the reality, subverting “real life.” The true reality thereby becomes unreal – the parents are broken, reduced to actors playing poorly dubbed parts. Meanwhile, puppets provide real emotional substance.
Not only does this effect weaken our hold on reality, but it helps to better create the vibrant fantasy reality of the movie.