Into the Labyrinth

Okay- I’ve just found this on my hard drive, and wanted to share it. This is an essay that I wrote a while ago, and originally posted on my website. The main reason that I wrote it is that I came up with an idea about the 1986 puppet fantasy LABYRINTH that I found very difficult to get out of my head, and I had to get it down on paper to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it.

So, here, for your viewing pleasure, is a guide to the ‘secret’ (or at least, not blindingly obvious to the twelve-year old version of me who first saw it in 1986) subtext of LABYRINTH…


So, I’m watching 1986 puppet fantasy LABYRINTH for the first time in years, thanks to the wonders of DVD. I’m reveling in the design, I’m giggling at Bowie’s eccentric wig, and I’m thinking to myself it’s an absolute tragedy they don’t make films like this anymore… when suddenly an idea leaps into my brain. In fact, it arrives with such force it nearly leaps out the other side, and I just goggle for a moment in system error, trying to process it, making certain that I haven’t utterly confused things in my mind.

No. I haven’t. I think it over for a few more minutes, but at the end of it I still can’t disprove it.

Broken down into a simple sentence, the idea that hit me is this:

LABYRINTH is all about sex.

Now, I already know what you’re thinking. This is LABYRINTH, right? Puppets and adventure? David Bowie just before he joined Tin Machine and completely lost it? George Lucas on Executive Producer duties? It’s a kid’s film, for heaven’s sake! Nobody loads that kind of thing full of worrying subtexts about sexual awakening and adolescence… at least, nobody except Jim Henson. The towering genius behind the Muppets, he was a man who believed in entertaining kids without patronizing them, and you only have to look at THE DARK CRYSTAL to realise how much he was prepared to push the envelope of “family entertainment”.

He was also prepared to load his darker projects with a surprising amount of subtext- for the best examples look at the wonderful STORYTELLER series- and LABYRINTH was a major step along the road. So, what fairly obviously started out as an ALICE IN WONDERLAND tale of a young girl learning responsibility and growing up, a working example of “be careful what you wish for” scripted by ex-Python Terry Jones, rapidly evolved into something a little stranger- a change probably initiated by uncredited screenwriter Elaine May (wife to acclaimed director Mike Nichols).

If you’re still trying to get your head around the idea, or suspecting I’ve gotten completely the wrong end of the stick- here’s the proof that can actually be found within the film. From beginning to end, here’s the guide to unlocking the “secret subtext” of LABYRINTH…

First up, after the gloriously dated CGI of the title sequence and Bowie’s hilarious pronounciation of “forever” (Coming out as “FAAH RAAH VUGGHH”), we start with Sarah prancing around in a parkland dressed as a fairy princess. From the first moment, it’s pretty obvious that she’s a girl running from adolescence as fast as she can, taking comfort in a fantasy world and complaining like hell when anything disrupts it. We find out later on that her surname is Williams, that her father is remarried- and from the way she’s plastered pictures of her mother around her room, it’s fairly likely that her mother is dead.

She’s obsessed with THE LABYRINTH- one of the books likely to have been given to her by the deceased mother, a fantasy fairy tale about a kidnapped child and the King of the Goblins. She’s also decidedly spoiled, with a wimp of a father and a Stepmother who she’s determined to not get on with (casting herself in the Cinderella role, even though she’s hardly being downtrodden).

It’s a difficult thing to set up your central character as a spoiled brat- and LABYRINTH doesn’t deal with the problem well. It’s also not helped by the fact that Jennifer Connely is probably the most womanly fourteen-year-old ever seen on a cinema screen- she seems far too mature and confidant (possibly a result of already having survived films with Dario Argento and Sergio Leone), and instead of simply seeming spoiled and brattish ends up looking virtually psychotic. Sympathy quickly flies out the window- a brave thing for a kids movie, but one that potentially alienates the entire audience.

(- As a brief sidenote- what exactly has happened to Jennifer Connely’s breasts? Never a big star, she’s always had a certain something- screenwriter Lem Dobbs notes on the DARK CITY R1 DVD commentary, “men always know who she is, despite her not being in that many big movies”- and most of it was down to a gloriously Old Hollywood figure- curvaceous, with a frankly impressive cleavage. She spends years “bubbling under”- finally makes a resurgence with the hilariously disturbing REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (the subtle message- take drugs, and you’ll soon either be doing creative things with a double dildo or getting your arm sawn off…)- and suddenly, she’s turned into a stick-thin shadow of herself- with tiny breasts! For the love of God, WHY??!? We need to be told…-)

Anyhow, we soon get the teeth-grindingly awful sequence where Sarah wishes her brother would get taken away by the Goblins- where she’s jealous of Toby, feeling like she’s being replaced, resenting him for getting the attention, and wishing life would turn back to the way it was when it was just her, her dad, and her mother. Of course, life doesn’t work like that- and after a burst of psychotic behaviour that’d be enough for any practicising psychologist to advise immediate treatment- she makes the wish. Firmly, absolutely, with no going back.

The interesting thing is that the minute she makes the wish, the film suddenly starts to work. Henson’s direction, which previously seemed awkward, kicks into gear, and conjures up some eerie scares- the shot approaching Toby’s cot, where something suddenly shuffles around inside, giggling- is beautifully unnerving. And soon the puppets are in full force, and the main villain of the piece makes his entrance.

Oh Yes. Mr Bowie. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t one of Bowie’s worst performances- the trouble is, you’d need to be an actor of Olivier’s stature to do anything with that insane wig. Looking like a particularly camp eighties beauty queen after a night on the tiles, it’s a stunningly awful explosion that Bowie’s fey performance wilts under.

One of the odd things about the film, however, is that Jareth and Sarah only have five scenes together- and two of those are music sequences with no dialogue- despite the fact that their relationship is central. When it starts, Jareth is the representative of the dark side of the adult world, holding all the power, laying down the rules and telling Sarah to forget it. He even tries to buy her off with “a crystal”, but it doesn’t work- the moment Sarah realizes what she’s done, she’s desperate to undo it.

At this point, the film looks like it’s going to proceed along a traditional “coming of age” arc. The Labyrinth itself represents the Adult World, where “things aren’t always what they seem”, the rules constantly shift, and you have to stop taking things for granted. Sarah has to navigate her way through before she can earn the right to get her brother back, and proceed as a more mature and centered person. She encounters different characters, learns not to trust appearances, and gradually works her way closer to her goal.

The first sign that the film is going in a slightly stranger direction is the sequence just after Hoggle has released Sarah from the Oubliette, and Jareth turns up dressed in what can only be politely described as Adam Ant’s cast-offs (the grey tights were most definitely a bad idea). After shouting at Hoggle, and unwisely displaying his groin in one particular shot- Jareth then turns his attention to Sarah, and the relationship is suddenly very different from their first scene. Instead of being the dramatic panto villain, Jareth is suddenly swaggering over in his leather jacket, leaning in and asking “How are you enjoying my labyrinth?” And when he doesn’t get a suitably impressed answer, he petulantly responds by wiping several hours off Sarah’s countdown clock, and then summoning up the rotating knives of the Cleaners to finish them off.

In short- he’s suddenly acting more like a spurned boyfriend than a villain. Bowie plays the scene flirtatiously, and you have to blink to remember that this is a 14 year old girl he’s acting against. In the “making of” documentary, he says that he played Jareth like he’d far rather be lurking on the streets of Soho than ruling the Goblins, and it definitely comes across in this scene.

Quickly after this Sarah and Hoggle are separated, and then we have the sequence where Jareth forces Hoggle into handing over a “present” to Sarah- a small, juicy looking peach. Could they have made the symbolism any less subtle? (And could Bowie’s method of handing it over been any less sleazy?) Well, they could have made it an apple, but let’s be thankful for small mercies (and draw a veil over the weird punishment meted out to Hoggle that seems to equate being kissed by a girl with the smelliest, most repulsive place in the entire universe…)

The story continues happily along its “coming of age” trajectory- until Hoggle finally betrays Sarah by handing the peach over and letting her eat it. Within moments of her eating the fruit, things are starting to get severely hallucinatory, and Sarah gets spirited away into the dream version of the Magical Ball. Ignoring the frightening campery of the masquerade and the hilarious sight of Bowie attempting to look seductive by popping up behind various guests and raising his eyebrows, what this scene stands for is Sarah’s ultimate Cinderella fantasy, a dream of getting to be a fairy princess and falling in love with a handsome prince- but it’s also a kid’s version of what falling in love is all about, rather than the real thing.

The fact that it’s Jareth who’s assumed the role of the Prince, and the way that the sequence is cut together (making it plain that he’s falling in love with her at the same time) along with the accompanying song throws their relationship in a completely different direction. Suddenly, it’s not about Jareth playing the villain and doing his best to stop her from rescuing her brother- it’s about him trying to seduce her into the adult world that he represents, giving her the chance to be the person she thought she wanted to be (The ideal of the fairy princess, represented by the figure on the music box that Sarah ends up “becoming” in this scene)..

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Like many sequences in the film, it spins on a dime from embarresing camp into menace- as the masked faces start crowding in around her, losing their fairy tale sheen, and Sarah is suddenly brought back to reality by the reminder of the chiming clock. She might be swayed by the dream, but by this point she’s experienced enough that she’s a different person than the vaguely psychotic brat at the beginning of the film. Saving Toby is what matters, and that’s what leads her into smashing her way out of the dream, and also into the most unsettling and peculiar scene of the whole film.

After the escape from the dream, Sarah touches down in a landscape of garbage just outside the Goblin City with no memory of who she is, or where she’s been. She’s confused for a moment, and then finds that the peach in her hand is now rotten with worms crawling out of it (Once again- hurrah for unsubtle symbolism!) and throws it away in disgust. Following this, there’s the encounter with a squat Garbage Lady who leads her to what appears to be an exact replica of her bedroom, with no explanation as to exactly what it’s doing there. It’s this scene, where Sarah is offered the comfort of her old life back, which is the centre of the “coming of age” subplot.

All the things that Sarah cared about at the beginning of the film (at the expense of her brother) are now around her- to the extent that the Garbage Lady ends up virtually smothering her in toys, burying Sarah under a ridiculous pile of cuddly animals and board games. And yet, it’s not enough. Even despite the fact that her memory is gone, she’s a different person and she now knows that she can’t hide in her bedroom forever- she’s got responsibilities that need to be carried out. Having been offered a doorway back to comfort, back to the safety of her childhood- Sarah chooses the difficult path, almost without knowing why, ending up looking at her stuff and saying “It’s all junk!” Of course, the Garbage Lady tries to refute this by brandishing the music box that set off the dream sequence… and Sarah knocks it violently away from her. The minute that she’s definitively denied her childhood, the room around her symbolically starts to disintegrate, and she gets pulled out of the room by Ludo and Sir Diddymus, ready to begin the quest to get Toby back with renewed energy and determination.

If LABYRINTH really was just a coming of age fable, this scene (or it’s equivalent) would be at the end of the film. It’s the climax of that particular storyline- Sarah has proved that she’s grown up enough to realise what’s important in life, and seductive dreams or the comforts of home simply aren’t going to work. The fact that it isn’t the end, instead coming at the end of the second act- the traditional “darkest hour of the protagonist” before events start looking up- is a major pointer to the fact that LABYRINTH isn’t just about the ordinary business of growing up and accepting responsibility.

Next up, there’s the big action sequence of the Goblin battle, with the puppetry in full force, the last major barrier between Sarah and the Castle. Finally, she and her friends get to the entrance, and head inwards to the final confrontation. Hoggle and the others are all up for going up against Jareth, but Sarah knows by this point that it’s her responsibility- she made the wish that started this off, now she has to finish it.

The scene that follows is the one musical sequence in the movie that works without a hitch (despite some overdone delivery from Bowie), all delivered inside a masterpiece of production design- a three-dimensional replica of a reality-bending Escher maze. Again, you’ve got Bowie acting less like the major league bad guy and more like a betrayed lover- with lines from the song like “Your eyes can be so cruel!” and “I can’t live within you…”, along with Sarah fighting her way through the maze to try and get to Toby in time. Finally, her only chance of getting to Toby is by making a fatal leap to reach her brother- and she goes ahead and does it. (Interesting to note that this is one of the obvious influences of Executive Producer George Lucas- mainly because he then cribbed the whole “leap of faith” idea for INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE three years later).

So, at the point where Sarah should have technically won- Jareth cheats. The whole castle disintegrates around her, and then we get the one scene that it’s impossible not to interpret as about sex- or more precisely, about not having sex. Bowie makes his final appearance, this time taking his fashion tips from seagulls, and here the situation in the first scene between Jareth and Sarah is completely reversed. She’s the one in control, and he ends up pleading with her. Again, he’s representing the adult world- and this time, he’s desperate not to be rejected, offering her everything she ever wanted, and all she has to do to get it is love him, give up control to him, give into temptation.

What was previously about staying a child is now about growing up too fast- looking at the real consequences of Sarah wanting to be treated as an equal, but not prepared to take the responsibility. What Jareth is offering is an easy life of pleasure, without responsibility, a world that deep down she knows she’s not ready for;- so she says possibly the most loaded line in the entire film. “You have no power over me.” She rejects him, and everything that he represents, and goes back to growing up at her own pace. Everything he’s offering will be there for her eventually- but she’ll find them at her own speed, and not before.

The countdown is complete, the bad guy is defeated. Back in the house, Sarah checks that Toby is back in his cot, and then gives him the teddy bear Lancelot- the catalyst which set the whole story off, showing that she’s taking the first real steps towards growing up- instead of clinging onto her childhood, she’s passing on what she’s gained. We next see her in her room, taking down all the pictures of her mother- a wound that’s finally beginning to heal- and finally there’s one of the warmest scenes of the film, the dream-like “reunion” scene that soon turns into an epic knees-up, and a sequence that sums up Henson’s generous view of the world. We all have to grow up, but we don’t have to “put away childish things”- our childhoods are part of who we are, and we shouldn’t forget them too easily.

And this is all there, in the film, waiting to be unearthed. The fact that virtually everything in the Labyrinth (from Hoggle, to the Fire Gang, Sir Diddymus and even the Escher maze) can be found in Sarah’s bedroom is also a fairly major pointer to the fact that it’s one big psychodrama happening entirely inside the heroine’s head- following her as she makes choices on her road towards being an adult.

It’s also interesting to note that two years previously, there was another fantasy film that takes place almost entirely inside the main character’s head, with fantastic sets, complicated creature effects, a look at adolescent sexuality and an unsettling relationship between the young heroine and an older man. Okay, that’s where the similarities between LABYRINTH and THE COMPANY OF WOLVES end, but it’s still incredible that a kid-aimed fantasy film was reaching for that level of sophistication- even if it didn’t quite make it.

Anyhow- that’s all I have to say on the subject. if anyone’s made it through to the bottom of this, I welcome any comments, questions or arguments. Next time- we’ll be taking in the political subtext of THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

2 thoughts on “Into the Labyrinth

  1. I love Labyrinth. 🙂 I always thought of it as a romantic film, and thought David Bowie’s character was very attractive. (I’m 32, and I’m guessing I was around 12 when I first saw it). I’m quite shocked in that it never occurred to me that Sarah was underage; I saw her as more like 18, certainly old enough for there not to be any problem, in that way, anyway, with any relationship they had.
    I also loved the songs – “Underground” in particular, and there was another, although it’s slipped my mind now. I’m going to dig out my VHS copy – you’ve made me want to watch it. 🙂


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