In the quarter of a century that has passed between Labyrinth first appearing in cinemas in 1986 to now being digitally remastered, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to suggest it is on its way to becoming a children’s fantasy classic. Similar to the books loved by the film’s young hero, which include Peter Pan, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are, Labyrinth is a wildly inventive and imaginative adventure story combined with a parable about maturity. While not a success upon release at the time, Labyrinth now has cult status to the extent that it does feel like part of the collective folklore that includes all the fairy tales, fantasy stories and mythology that it references.
Unlike director Jim Henson’s equally magnificent previous feature film The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz in 1982), Labyrinth is more traditionally a family film. Its young star Jennifer Connolly is Sarah Williams, who has to solve a perplexing labyrinth in order to save her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), after she impulsively wished that Jareth would take Toby away. The presence of Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the films only credited screenplay writer (there were others) ensured that the film was filled with plenty of humour and absurdist touches. Much of the humour in the film is memorable, such as the farting and belching Bog of Eternal Stench, while other comic flairs are so subtle that they are only discovered after several viewings, such as the two milk bottles waiting to be collected outside the doors to the Goblin Palace.
Watching Labyrinth again in the cinema for the first time since its original release, the most striking aspect of the film are its visuals. Combining the puppetry magic of director and legendary creator of The Muppets Jim Henson with the concept design of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud (who previously worked with Henson on The Dark Crystal), Labyrinth is a gorgeous demonstration of ‘old school’ special effects that rely on matte paintings, puppetry and other in-camera visual effects with restrained use of post production computer generated effects. There is a tangibility to the film that makes its dream logic inspired sequences and playful manipulation of perception even more impressive.
Bowie’s presence in the film is both a complete oddity and also perfect. In terms of his music career, Labyrinth came out at a low point between the recording of his two weakest studio albums and yet the songs he performs in Labyrinth are terrific. There’s the fun ‘Magic Dance’, the darkly romantic ‘As the World Falls Down’, the celebratory ‘Underground’ and the strange and menacing ‘Within You’, which is performed during a striking scene inspired by MC Escher’s lithograph print ‘Relativity’. Bowie is marvellous as Jareth and gives the seductive yet cruel character the same otherworldly intensity that he had used for the various personae he had adopted during his music career. The only unanswered question about his role in the film is what were the filmmakers thinking when they fitted him out with those grey tights? Was the intention to provoke delighted snickering all these years on?
It is within some of the film’s more surreal moments that the underpinning themes of maturity and responsibility are best expressed. The heroic journey that Sarah must take to rescue her half-brother is a parable for the emotional journey she must take to let go of childish things and become less selfish, without completely losing her ability to imagine and dream. She has to navigate a tricky path between freeing herself from childish impulses without succumbing to adulthood cynicism and dangerous suitors. The labyrinth and its inhabitants are physical manifestations of her imagination, with the objects in her bedroom seen at the start of the film appearing throughout the labyrinth as living creatures. Sarah moves between her bedroom, the labyrinth and a sort of dreamscape world often without logic explanation. In one key scene she falls from her hallucination, into her bedroom and then the labyrinth’s rubbish tip pours in making her realise that all the material objects she has hoarded are meaningless junk.
While Sarah’s experiences in the labyrinth teach her the importance of taking responsibility, caring for family and the harsh life lessons that nothing is fair and things will always change, the film is also careful to not suggest that she should completely ‘grow up’. In fact, the greatest threat Sarah faces is forgetting about her childhood during the scene where she hallucinates herself attending a masquerade ball, which represents the world of adulthood. The other guests wear false faces and even Sarah appears distorted when she sees herself in the mirror. Despite all the tricks and traps of the labyrinth, this adult space is where people are most not what they seem. Sarah anxiously searches for Jareth, who delights in her confusion and distress, like a manipulative lover. As both tormentor and much older seducer, the truly sinister intentions behind Jareth’s behaviour is spoken at the end of the film when he confesses that all he wants is for her to ‘Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.’ It’s a classic plea/demand of a controlling, self-pitying and dangerous obsessive. Fortunately Sarah has become a much stronger character and remembers the crucial lines required for such a person – ‘You have no power over me.’
Labyrinth has stood the test of time astonishingly well, and it’s extraordinary looking back at the personnel involved; not only Henson, Jones, Froud, Bowie, Connolly and Henson’s team from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but also George Lucas as one of the film’s producers and as people who saw Being Elmo will know, it was also the first major production that Kevin Clash worked with Henson on. The resulting film is truly a testament to the creative energies of all involved, but most of all Henson who did so much in making high quality entertainment for people of all ages that was fun, imaginative, not afraid to be subversive in content or form, but most of all humane. It was Henson’s final feature film and a wonderful gift from a person who really did make you believe that even as you got older, everything magical that you treasured from your childhood and all your imaginary friends were never too far away. Should you ever need them, for any reason at all.