There are many of us out there who lovingly watched Labyrinth so many times that the image of David’s Bowie’s bulging (and probably stuffed) crotch, as he pranced about in skin-tight leggings -throwing babies in the air and singing ˜dance magic, dance,’- is now permanently ingrained into the collective consciousness. Bowie’s Goblin King is an iconic image for many children of the eighties, but Jim Henson’s first puppet-meets-live-actors film is an enduring classic for many other reasons.
Sarah (a stunningly beautiful, fifteen-year old Jennifer Connelly) is a modern teenager who has a thing for fairytales and folk lore and often wishes herself out of her terrible home life, which is in fact not so terrible. One night she calls out for the Goblin King to take Toby, her baby stepbrother, ˜far, far away from me.’ Jareth the Goblin King obliges and Sarah instantly regrets her actions. Jareth tells Sarah that if she really wants to get her brother back, she must journey to the castle at the center of his labyrinth where Toby is being held. Thus Sarah embarks on a mission to complete the labyrinth and along the way she is hindered and helped by a host of weird and wonderful creatures.
Labyrinth is a typical eighties melting pot of clanging pop tunes (sung by the Goblin King himself), fantasy landscapes and screw-ball humour which should not really work but somehow does. And the reason for this is that there is enough loopiness to give the whole premise a fitting sense of suspended reality and enough cleverly executed nods to surrealist heavyweights like Salvador Dali and M. C Escher to give it an unexpected level of sophistication.
It does what fantasy does best. It takes basic human emotions and strengthens those emotions through the use of metaphor; dramatizing them in a way that brings new life and fresh perspective. The mind-bending staircases of Jareth’s castle and the confusion of the labyrinth perfectly dramatize the confusion of the adult world whilst the lovable friends Sarah meets along the way convey the sense of security that can be found in childhood dreams and flights of fancy.
Like Alice in Wonderland, Sarah, who is on the verge of womanhood, must navigate her way through the limbo of adolescence and reach the castle which, much like the Dark Tower in Stephen King’s series of the same name is as much a metaphorical place of ˜arrival’ and realization as it is a physical place. Sarah eventually stops claiming “childishly- that ˜it’s not fair’ when Jareth moves time forward, thus cutting down her twelve hour time limit to complete the labyrinth and learns to accept and find her place in the seemingly twisted logic of the adult/goblin world.
Although you could watch this film a thousand times and not pick up on any these themes, the beauty of Labyrinth is that they are constantly and deftly hidden just below the surface. There are moments of true out-and-out magic, such as the dream-sequence of a masquerade ball where Jareth tries to distract and seduce Sarah at the same time.
Labyrinth is also a marvel for its production design. The film sees the king of puppetry, Muppet creator Jim Henson team up with the king of faerie illustration Brian Froud to create some truly special concepts and characters. The galumphing giant Ludo towers over Sarah but is somehow wonderfully sympathetic and expressive whilst a trap inhabited by creatures made entirely out of the puppeteer’s hands is somehow still one of the most unnerving things in children’s cinema.
Labyrinth comes from a pre-CGI time when limited technology (by today’s standards at least,) meant filmmakers had to dig far deeper into their imaginations. And what they found there was a cave full of wonders.