Labyrinth (1986)

Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful MindHulk) is cast in one of her first starring roles as Sarah, a teenage girl who has grown tired of her stepmother and father leaving her home alone to babysit her infant brother, Toby.  In a bout of exasperation, she wishes him away, and inadvertently summons the vain and moody Goblin King of myth, Jareth (Bowie, The Hunger), who kidnaps the baby and steals him away into his fantasy realm.  There, the baby boy remains hidden in a dangerous castle in the middle of an ornate labyrinth. If Sarah wants a chance at getting the brother she really didn’t want to go back, she must traverse the enigmatic trail before midnight, or the Goblin King gets to keep Toby forever.

Although considered a box office failure at the time of its release, Labyrinth has become something of an older children’s classic over the years.  Produced by George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomReturn of the Jedi), directed by Muppet maven Jim Henson (The Dark Crystal, The Great Muppet Caper), Labyrinth is a classic fantasy tale, in the mold of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, of one young girl’s perilous quest through strange environs, although featuring songs by David Bowie and Henson’s Muppet crew.  

Though tinkered with by many, the screenplay is solely credited to Monty Python alum Terry Jones (And Now for Something Completely Different, The Life of Brian), who infuses the dialogue with camp and mirth, while an underlying sense of longing and sadness permeates much of this story, left mostly understated through the protagonist’s absence of her beloved natural mother and her clinging to the happier times of her childhood.  Somewhat dated by its pop-synth soundtrack, the film nevertheless delights on many other levels, including good casting of the leads, fantastic sets and costumes, great puppetry and pre-CGI special effects, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that future films like Shrek and the Harry Potter series would recreate decades later.

While Connelly is as appealing as a young actress could be in such a role, David Bowie is the one that commands the attention on the human side with his wild hair, androgynous costumes, and ridiculously tight, revealing tights.  His songs aren’t ranked among his finest works, but they are catchy in their own fashion, and perfectly in keeping with the ambiguous nature that what we’re witnessing may very well be one young mid-80s girl’s vivid daydream, inspired from the book of the same name that she so enjoys playacting out of, come to life.  Not to mention they provide a bit of levity to the “evil” side of things that makes his cajoling of the young Sarah into staying with him an appealing proposition.

Although most people remember Labyrinth as a fun fantasy flick, it’s really more about a girl’s emergence into womanhood, having to put away the childish things and dreams that gave her the sustenance she needed to cope with whatever ailed her.  The creatures of the world of the labyrinth are evidenced throughout her bedroom, and pictures of her natural mother, who ostensibly worked as an actress in the theater that Sarah is a huge fan of, adorn her mirror.  Some claim that Sarah’s mother is pictured in one frame in Sarah’s bedroom with David Bowie, which raises all sorts of connotations about Sarah’s emerging sexuality and the confusion it causes her in trying to maintain her childlike innocence and naive outlook on life.

Jareth, despite being her nemesis, seems to strongly desire Sarah for her innocence and purity, using Toby as the bait to get her to love and desire him in return, even if he has to trap her to force the issue as part of an elaborate power play (‘power’ is a central theme of the story, where a young woman learns that she has all of the power all along to control her destiny).  The allure of a life filled with danger and possibilities is there for many, including young girls, though the film’s very premise suggests that life is likely all a fantasy we concoct in our minds out of our initial loneliness and naivety of that someone can take away all of our current troubles.

The metaphor for finding one’s path is certainly there, compounded with the notion that others along that path are not going to be particularly helpful, perhaps even adversarial, toward your goals, but you must diligently persevere.  One’s teenage years are a time when it becomes confusing and difficult to know which way is up, perfectly depicted by the famous M.C. Escher-inspired finale full of staircases in a pocket realm that defy gravity.

While surpassed in this era of finely articulated CG, the effects work from the Jim Henson crew is phenomenal, especially in the fully fleshed out characters like Hoggle and Ludo, which feature actors to control the bodies, while several crew members controlling radio-controlled devices articulate their facial expressions and mouth patterns.  They really do come to life in a very big way, to the point where you stop noticing just how astonishing these creations are technically and just accept them as living characters within the realm of the film’s narrative.

A disappointment critically and commercially at the time of its release, perhaps due to the unexpectedly dark material in a film that features Muppet-master Jim Henson’s name above the title, Labyrinth has become something of a cult classic over time, and a perennial favorite for those who enjoy 1980s’s fantasy films in particular.  It’s a highly imaginative fantasy adventure filled with delightful performances and wildly conceived characters. Bowie and Connelly are excellent in their respective roles, and the film as a whole is championed by outstanding sets and designs.  It’s a wonderful adventure that seems to get better with age, and highly recommended for children of all ages.  Every now and again in your life – for no reason at all – you’ll find you need a return to Jim Henson’s marvelous world of Labyrinth.

Qwipster’s rating: A

MPAA Rated: PG for some scary images
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson
Jim Henson
Screenplay: Terry Jones