Like all the best fairy tales, Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth is a much more grown-up effort than its fantasy trappings let on. Sure, it’s directed by the man who introduced both The Muppets and Sesame Street to the world, but don’t be fooled by all of the puppets and cute creatures and catchy songs: this is a film geared at children but actually about the end of childhood. Bittersweet, that.
On its face, Labyrinth offers a traditional take on the hero’s journey codified by Joseph Campbell: Jennifer Connelly’s sixteen-year-old Sarah wishes her baby brother would be taken away by Goblin King Jareth (the late, great David Bowie) and, when he is, must travel to a fantasy realm to rescue him. On a deeper and darker level, however, the screenplay by Monty Python’s own Terry Jones is the story of a young woman maturing into an adult, forced to let go of the dreams of childhood and accept her own budding sexuality. Her journey in the film is one of difficult choices, no longer the binary world of “yes” and “no” and “good” and “bad” in which children often live. When she is challenged, she responds with thoughtfulness and measured calm. When she is betrayed, she learns to forgive. Sarah grows up inside the labyrinth.
When we first meet Sarah, she’s a protagonist, unlike the usual precocious stars of most kids’ movies of the 1980s. She’s a flawed, believable teenage girl who escapes to the park to act out elaborate daydreams, loses track of time, shirks her responsibilities, and fights with her parents about having to babysit. She is not, in traditional Hollywood terms, "likable," but she is identifiable to young people, who know what it's like to feel a storm of emotions at once and lash out at those around you simply because you don't know how else to express what you're feeling.
Labyrinth then goes even further and has Sarah wish her baby brother would be taken away by goblins, which seems extreme even by teenage girl standards. She doesn't just want to run away to somewhere she can be understood. She is selfish. She wants not just to create a new universe for herself, but also to be the center of the real one she currently inhabits. Again, this is something kids can connect with (hell, adults, too). She makes a cruel, childish wish, and even though she doesn't really mean it, she can't take it back. Her bluff is called. Toby is stolen, and Sarah must enter the labyrinth and rescue him from the castle of Jareth, the Goblin King.
Because it boasts not only direction by Jim Henson, but is also produced by George Lucas (who reportedly helped rewrite the script) and features designs by Brian Froud (who previously collaborated with Henson on the 1982 fantasy epic, The Dark Crystal), the fantasy world of Labyrinth has imagination to spare. The blending of puppetry and live action is perhaps the best ever put to screen, and, as in The Dark Crystal, Henson and his team excel at world building. There is an endless series of creature designs and set pieces in the movie, carrying the narrative through any bumpy patches and ensuring there's always something neat to look at. The nature of the movie's plot dictates that it be episodic: whenever Sarah and her companions (including big-headed Hoggle, big-hearted Didymus, and just plain big Ludo—puppet creations of various sizes and effectiveness) meet a new creature or face a new obstacle, a resolution is reached and the group continues forward.
While some of these elements have the feeling of Jim Henson's sketchbook loosely transcribed into screenplay form, others really work and burn right into your brain, like the pit Sarah falls into that's made of disembodied hands that grab and pass her along, making "faces" with their fingers when they want to speak. It's creepy in that good way kids' movies were capable of being in the '80s, but which they now shy away from in favor of computer animation and talking animals. A chase around some Escher-esque staircases is the stuff of nightmares. Another sequence, in which Sarah encounters the Fire Gang, a collection of bird-like muppets who detach their own heads and throw them around, seems like an excuse for the film to stop cold for one of several musical numbers, until the Fire Gang begin chasing Sarah in hopes of detaching her head, and that old Labyrinth creepiness sneaks back in.
It is that unfettered creativity, along with the mixing of the dark and light, the whimsical with the sinister, that distinguishes Labyrinth from other films of the 1980s. Henson, Jones, and Lucas have the courage to invert Sarah’s dreams of magic and royalty into something sinister in a manner that’s much more than the simple trope of “be careful what you wish for.” As the film opens, Sarah is living out a fantasy by rehearsing lines in which she is the queen of a mystical realm. It is the dream world into which she escapes—the same escapism interrupted by the real-world responsibility of looking after her baby brother. When Sarah’s dreams come true late in the film, however, and she is invited to become the real queen of a real mystical realm, it is revealed to be something darker. The terrible truth of realizing that fantasy means becoming bride to Jareth and possibly having to do the Magic Dance.
But Labyrinth is never overtly sexual, nor does the relationship between Sarah and Jareth ever become explicitly erotic. A long scene in which Jareth tempts Sarah with the possibility of becoming his queen consists primarily of him appealing to the wannabe princess in her—a young girl’s fantasy of the fancy dress and the beautiful castle. And, yet, it is still a scene in which an adult man (embodied no less by Bowie, an icon of androgynous pansexuality) attempts to seduce what would be a child bride. Implicit in his offer is the acceptance of womanhood, in which Sarah would cross over from playing dress-up to embracing the role of queen for real. So while it may seem that Sarah refuses to accept Jareth’s bargain because she is not ready to accept the responsibilities of being a wife, it’s actually because she sees in Jareth a kind of impotence. Rather than acquiesce and accept his dominance over her, Sarah reclaims her own power over the Goblin King. She is the one in charge of her own sexuality.
This moment is undercut somewhat by the following scene, in which Sarah dismantles her room and lets go of the fantasies to which she's been clinging. She says goodbye to childhood flights of fancy and takes responsibility—both for Toby and for herself. Then Ludo, Didymus, and Hoggle show up in her room and say that they'll be there for her if she should ever need them in life. This feels like a concession from Jim Henson, a man who never fully relinquished his inner child (and in fact tapped into that part of himself to bring us some of the most lasting characters of the past 50 years). In that regard, it makes sense that, like Henson himself, just because Sarah may have to grow up doesn't mean that she must permanently lose touch with her own inner child. It's a sad, sweet sentiment, but one that the movie pretty much immediately tosses off so that it can end with a big fun puppet dance party. Saying goodbye to the puppet characters would have made the ending bittersweet. Ending on the dance party suggests that Sarah hasn't grown or changed at all.
But change she has, and just because Labyrinth wants to send us out of the theater singing and dancing doesn’t alter the fact that it is ultimately a story about the death of innocence. In the end, Sarah escapes and gets her brother back simply by realizing that Jareth has no power over her. That’s all well and good, but this isn't a movie about Sarah breaking free from authority; if anything, it's about her learning to take responsibility and, in some way, respect the authority of her parents. It is the child’s impulse to rebel; the adult understands his or her place in the pecking order of the world. Depressing? Maybe, but so is growing up. Therein lies the magic of Jim Henson and Labyrinth: it’s a movie that respects adults enough to make them feel young again and respects young people enough to treat them like adults.
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1986 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films released thirty years ago. In case you missed them, we have links to our other Class of 1986 pieces, and to read more exclusive interviews and articles about flicks from ’86, click on the DEADLY Magazine cover image below: