Labyrinth (1986)

Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in Labyrinth (1986)

It goes without saying that Labyrinth is a thoroughly strange kids’ film. For better or worse, they don’t make them like this anymore. It’s hard to imagine any decade but the cocaine-addled ‘80s producing an apparently commercial children’s movie populated by grotesque puppets about which a sinisterly sexual David Bowie cavorts, with only the barest semblance of a story to tell. And the crux of that story? I’d argue the film is really all about teenage sex or, more specifically, how we all want to fuck David Bowie.

We’ll get to that. On the surface, Labyrinth primarily exists as a showcase for Jim Henson’s unique aesthetic (see also: The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal). The story – where pubescent Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) ventures into a fantastical labyrinth to rescue her baby brother from the Goblin King, Jareth (Bowie) – a thin excuse to present a parade of misshapen puppetry. Goblins, beasts; creepy crawlies and contorted creatures. It’s easy to over-romanticise Henson’s creations – they’re often glaringly fake, especially when a puppet is substituted for a real dog – but it’s hard to deny the personality that shines from his work. This is the work of an artist: idiosyncratic and evocative.

That’s more than enough for Labyrinth to be a memorable work. Experiencing it for the first time, I was astounded by the film’s craft. It’s campy and cheesy, yes, and perhaps the soundtrack has not dated well. This hardly seems relevant when talking about a film that connects ike a surreal bolt from some long-forgotten subconsciousness, a rabbit hole into infancy where pixies are real and there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. Fitting, since there’s a resonant metaphor at the centre of this labyrinth concerning the conflict between childhood and adulthood.

From a child’s perspective, the story is presumably straightforward (as one of the few people of my generation to have never seen it as a child, I am forced into presumption). Sarah, in a bout of understandable frustration at her baby step-brother’s wailing, offers him up to the Goblin King. He eagerly obliges, whisking young Toby away to a castle straight out of an aged picture book, at the centre of the titular labyrinth. She’s given thirteen hours to rescue Toby, but there’s more to the film than the particulars of her progress through the maze. At the cusp of maturation, Sarah is, like so many teenagers, torn between the combination of comforting safety and infuriating boredom of her family and the seductive darkness of something indefinably adult (and implicitly sexual), captured memorably in Bowie’s outrageously oversized performance.

This is all subtext, of course, but it’s a vibrant subtext that grants the film a murky complexity beyond the twisted splendour of Henson’s designs. Ebert’s 1986 review of Labyrinth chided nightmare logic for robbing the narrative of purpose and, implicitly, any danger or suspense. I don’t disagree with his assertion – there’s never any real sense that Sarah will fail in her quest to reach her brother – but I do disagree with his critical evaluation. There is a thick cloud of danger engulfing Labyrinth, but it stems not from the possibility that Sarah will be trapped in an oubliette or eviscerated by macabre constructs; rather, this malevolence emanates from Jareth himself.

David Bowie’s presence in Labyrinth invites mockery; his wild glam haircut, his over-enunciated line readings and his revealingly-tight pants are emblematic of ‘80s excess. One could argue that Bowie is just playing Bowie, the glam-rock star, rather than Jareth, the Goblin King (though that begs the question – who even is David Bowie? Should we be talking about Ziggy Stardust instead? I digress). There’s much more to the performance than camp. Bowie’s performance is vital in every sense of the word. Even before the dream-dance, it becomes clear that the film centres not on a confrontation between Jareth and Sarah, but a flirtation. There’s a palpable wrongness to this flirtation – whether you view it as a flirtation between a child-stealing goblin and a fifteen year-old girl or between a late-thirties rock star and a fifteen year-old girl, it doesn’t sit right – yet this is totally apropos. It conjures the abstract, illicit allure of sex at that age, something simultaneously terrifying and thrilling.

The real conflict of Labyrinth, then, is not external, but internal. Not between Sarah and the machinations of the maze, nor Sarah and Jareth, but the tug-of-war between her desire for the safety of family and her nascent sexuality.

Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth (1986)

The scene where an amnesiac Sarah stumbles into a devastated junkyard containing a facsimile of her bedroom serves as a potent synecdoche of the film’s themes. It’s full of little details that illustrate and accentuate elements of Labyrinth: the Escher poster on the wall, a clever nod from a film indebted to Escherian architecture, or Sarah’s misplaced revelation that it was all a dream neatly synchronising with the film’s oneiric atmosphere. The scene sees a crone ply Sarah with her possessions – teddy bears and so forth – before she declares these artefacts to be “junk,” abandoning her bedroom as it crumbles into literal rubbish.

The straightforward interpretation of this scene is that it represents a rejection of materialism: she rejects these “things” because her home is defined by her family – her father, her step-brother, her step-mother – rather than the apparent safety of a bedroom filled with stuffed toys. But it’s also a rejection of childhood, a vivid encapsulation of maturation. All the items that the crone brings to Sarah are childish toys, bar one: a tube of lipstick. She seems to pay little mind to her playthings, but the lipstick – an emblem of feminine adulthood – transfixes her. The desire to become a “woman” is more compelling than the warm embrace of her bedroom.

Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth (1986)Labyrinth poster

Sarah rejects the lipstick with the rest of the junk, just as she rejects Jareth in their final confrontation. He offers her dreams, if only she would just let him “rule” her. But with the assertion that – “You have no power over me!” – she is free of his seduction. This is to be expected – this may be a twisted children’s film, but it’s still a children’s film, and it’s hardly going to end with the equivalent of Sarah jumping on the back of Jareth’s motorbike and gunning it into the sunset. Her character arc is more palatable for general audiences than that: Sarah accepts the responsibilities of being a teenager – being a custodian to her sibling – without totally dismissing the playfulness of youth, ending the film with a harmless party in her now welcoming bedroom.

What lingers after watching Labyrinth is not a joyous Sarah celebrating with her puppet friends, though. The poster for the film – Bowie smirking slyly, Connelly trapped helplessly in a crystal ball nestled in his palm – is a more honest insight into Labyrinth’s darker tendencies than the feel-good ending; an insight into the inescapable desires lurking at the centre of every teenager’s personal labyrinth.

4.5 stars

10 thoughts on “Labyrinth (1986)

  1. This is a great review. Like you say, they don’t make them like this anymore (something I’ve always found a bit of a shame) – there’s a look and style to Labyrinth which kind of vanished into the 90s. I love the atmosphere of this one, its trippy and dreamlike and there’s some fun visual tricks – I love the wall/doorway perspective bit – and Bowie is all kinds of iconic, and like you say, is meant to over-sexualised and appealing, in a forbidden/unsettling way. Nice write up on the themes!

    • Thanks Carl! I wasn’t expecting much depth to the film going in: most people talk about it like it’s a trifling, if weird, children’s film as though that ignores the possibilty of deeper themes. I love that wall/doorway bit, too! Simple, but effective (though it becomes painfully clear that she’s running towards a painting right before that shot).

  2. What a GREAT film. Of course, there’s so much emotional attachment to it– the fantasy setting, the story line, the cinematography, David the Man, in all his glory–even whiny “It’s not fair!” Jennifer Connelly doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of it all. I’ve seen this film probably forty times wishing I had a crystal ball that David twirls on his fingers and presents to the princess her as well as the playground where the world shifts in Escher-like perfection. Okay, you get it. Love your review 🙂

    • I didn’t expect to like it this much without an emotional attachment to it; often it seems like childhood films maintain a positive reputation based entirely on nostalgia, and Labyrinth has a mixed critical opinion. Was very impressed.

  3. Perhaps some of the meaning is lost now, as 1980s David Bowie isn’t exactly the image of sexuality now that he probably was then. These are some great thoughts, really interesting review. I never thought about it that way, and it adds a new measure of meaning to the film.

    • I dunno, 1980s Bowie is the one on screen here and he’s sure exuding a lot of sexuality! Maybe not so much 2014 Bowie, though. Thanks 🙂

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