Labyrinth (1986)

Dir. Jim Henson. Starring Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, Brian Henson

I suppose that there are worse things than being an ’80s cult classic, but I also don’t think that description does Labyrinth justice. This is, full stop, a really good movie and a thoughtful one too. It is a movie which understands teenagers about as well as one can. Sarah (Connelly) is fifteen and certainly on the edge of womanhood, but hesitant to cross over that line. Without ever saying so, it’s clear that she is far more comfortable being a child than she is growing into an adult. Her stepmother says that she would like to see Sarah go on dates, and from this we divine that she’s yet to find a boyfriend. One of the first words spoken to her by the film’s antagonist is a dismissal of the childish girl he sees: “Play with your toys and your costumes.” Her room is filled with literature that one usually saves for younger children; The Wizard of Oz, a book canted about ninety degrees away from Labyrinth, appears on Sarah’s shelves along with many other fairy tales. (Some of her toys will show up in this trip through the labyrinth, another clear callback to the older classic.) Most of a wall is devoted to stuffed animals, and the thought of sharing them with her baby stepbrother Toby is hateful to her. One also is given to understand that Sarah is a loner; on a Saturday afternoon, she’s alone in a dress of her own making, playacting some scene between a beautiful maiden (ahem) and a Goblin King.

That the Goblin King should be David Bowie, and that David Bowie becomes the primary teaching tool in her psychosexual development, is equal parts brilliant and surprisingly fitting. In one of the movie’s loveliest scenes, and certainly its most unusual, Sarah is reimagined as girl in adventurous makeup, with her hair in full ’80s hairspray, wearing a puffy white dress, wandering in a masquerade of Jareth’s own imagining. The two of them dance. It’s not a sexy scene, thank heavens, but it is dripping with subtext. After having eaten a rather Prufrockian peach, she imagines a prom, a grown-up party, a wedding. The peach has made her lose track of her memories, but perhaps this is because she is seeing a future that can hardly be reminisced. In this future, the world all around her is masked, sometimes in costumes nearly as grotesque as the look of the goblins, but instead of repulsion there is mystery, romance. Any one of the people dancing around her might hold enormous promise for her just as the labyrinth has hidden its great threats. What surrounds Sarah and Jareth is nothing less than the crystal that he juggled so smoothly (and hilariously) when first they met: it is the promise of the dream itself, perpetually hidden while intoxicatingly near to interpretation; this is fantasy itself. At the end of the film, after she has come to her senses and rescued her brother, the many characters from the labyrinth appear in her room and join into a much less stately dance party. Sarah has grown up quite a bit, but, the movie says, there’s no harm in indulging in a little fantasy every now and then.

The primary rule of the adult world, as proclaimed by Labyrinth, is that the world is not governed fairly. It’s one of the weaker bits of the film, I think, although it’s hard to disagree with the idea entirely. As Sarah begins to recognize that not everything she encounters is literally true, or is meant to be taken at face value, she begins to take advantage of the labyrinth to her own ends. When she was at home, it was difficult to believe that she could hear herself speak. One can see the lines of dialogue on the page as she speaks them in the early going, but I didn’t mind. In my experience that’s even true of most teenagers who have been raised on a diet of some media; her lines simply come from her fantasy novels rather than the CW or Instagram. Once she gets into the labyrinth, she begins to realize the intense consequences that even small actions can have. Kissing Hoggle appreciatively sends the two of them to the Bog of Eternal Stench. Boasting to Jareth that she is getting the hang of the labyrinth leads to him taking time off her clock. Ultimately she learns to keep more of herself inside, and learns too how to manipulate events in her favor by extruding others.

With apologies to other Henson creations like The Dark Crystal, there is no other movie that looks like Labyrinth. Nor, I imagine, will there ever be. Putting Connelly and Bowie into this world is the equivalent of putting Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke into two hours’ worth of animation, but what Henson and his team have made is far more original. They stand out among the remarkable figures which populate the labyrinth, but after a while one even gets used to the idea of Jennifer Connelly making common cause with Once again one returns to The Wizard of Oz, which has the same kind of far-reaching imagination that Labyrinth displays. The world inside and around the labyrinth is bleak, but its individuals are uncanny and even a little frightening. As a little kid, I was thoroughly unprepared for the jump cut which showed what seemed to me an army of monsters hiding inside a closet. As an adult, something about the uncompromising insistence of the Fireys as they chased Sarah around made me uneasy. Yet for every one of those, there is a wise old man who is contradicted by his disbelieving bird hat; a pair of literally and figuratively two-faced guards; a tiny little worm thing who says, “‘Allo,” to strangers; door knockers with inopportunely placed rings. How strange each of them are, bearing a somewhat molten appearance, as if burnished or burned away by the heat of the dusty khaki of the labyrinth’s bricks. It is, interestingly, in the Bog of Eternal Stench where we find arguably the two cuddliest entries. Sir Didymus and his steed, Ambrosius, are fuzzy and cute, and they appear guarding a bridge leading out of the Bog. (Ludo, the steroidal and monosyllabic faux-rangutan Sarah rescues from some goblins, has the last word on the Bog: “Smell…bad!” The more he says it the funnier it gets.) Something about the labyrinth proper takes away any propensity to be furry and cute, and that is a significant part of the magic of the film.

Sui generis in this film, as he was in life, is David Bowie. The Goblin King, Jareth, has enormous blonde hair stringing in front of his face. His eyes are made up with contrasting shadows, giving the impression of eyebrows that arch somewhere into the lower stratosphere. Sometimes decked out in leather, in vests, in sequins, he dominates every scene he’s in with a combination of size—the man is working in heels with puppets and a teenager, after all—and unabashed funkiness.

“Magic Dance” is delirious with its catchy tune and throaty performance, It’s hard not to watch it and, depending on one’s point of view, revel in or rebel against the film’s campiest moment. For everything else it is, this is a scene which characterizes Jareth. He kicks, he wheels, he tosses; he carelessly strikes against lesser beings but never does anyone real harm. This is a person for whom the performance, the ability to silence a room or blow its roof off, is far more important than the end result. And so when he takes a few hours from Sarah for her arrogance, it never feels like a serious threat to her or to Toby; this was always a game to the capering Goblin King. So too does the performance matter in the last moment. With the magic he possesses and the hordes he commands, surely he could stop a girl from taking her baby stepbrother back if he really wanted to. But something about the challenge speaks to him, entices him so much that he does with his hands tied behind his back. Real villainy is for a different kind of king; for Jareth, sheer charisma is plenty.

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