Written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones and directed by Jim Henson, Labyrinth tells of fairy tale-obsessed Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a young woman who must venture through the ‘dangers untold and hardships unnumbered’ of a nightmarish other-realm to rescue her baby stepbrother from Jareth (David Bowie), a cruel Goblin King. Along the way she befriends an array of misunderstood, misfit creatures who inhabit the labyrinth, and overcome attempts to thwart her journey by Jareth’s many meddling minions.
The eighties produced a plethora of spectacular and oddly edgy fantasy films which, while aimed at younger audiences, possessed certain adult sensibilities and a curious darkness which would feed into their later cult status. Titles such as The Dark Crystal (1982), The Never-Ending Story (1984), Dragonslayer (1981), The Princess Bride (1987), Return to Oz (1985), Willow (1988) and Legend (1985), invited audiences to join valiant underdog protagonists on perilous quests to defeat evil adversaries. Like Labyrinth, these titles dazzled viewers, young and old, with their ground-breaking special effects and puppetry. After working on The Dark Crystal, which featured a cast comprised exclusively of puppets, Jim Henson wanted to produce another fantasy film in which real actors would interact with his trademark puppets. The idea for Labyrinth began to materialise when he conceived the image of a human baby surrounded by goblins. As well as old European fairy tales about goblins stealing babies, Henson cited Maurice Sendak’s children’s books Outside Over There (1981) and Where the Wild Things Are (1963) as major influences. Outside Over There is the story of a girl who sets off on a dangerous quest to rescue her baby sister, who has been kidnapped by wicked goblins. Sendak’s story in turn echoes Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market (1862), a richly textured narrative poem, which also tells of a young girl's abduction by goblins and the courageous efforts of her sister to save her. Other literary influences include the work of the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
In the film’s production notes, Henson described Labyrinth as the story of a person at the point of changing from a child to an adult and noted that, for him, ‘times of transition are always magic. Twilight is a magic time and dawn is magic - the times during which it’s not day and it’s not night, but something in between. That is what the film is about.’ When Sarah strays completely off the path and into the depths of the labyrinth, her experiences there, and the choices she makes, are reflective of her transition from childhood to adulthood. With a teenaged girl as its questing central hero, Labyrinth belongs to a group of female-centric coming-of-age films, which unravel as dark parables in which adolescent girls on the threshold of adulthood find themselves in menacing, perhaps even psychological landscapes, pursued by monsters literal and figurative. The Company of Wolves (1984), Valerie & Her Week of Wonders (1970), Lemora – A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Return to Oz (1985), Paperhouse (1988) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are other such titles. Their narratives all unfold within the dreams and fantasies of young women who must use their resourcefulness and wit to overcome dangers untold and emerge into adulthood, victorious and transformed. While the young protagonists of these films escape real-life hardships and tensions in worlds of their own creation, none waits passively to be saved; they are all active, defiant and fight to attain the kind of agency and autonomy denied them in their waking worlds. The initiations they undergo echo those of ancient folk and fairy tales in which the girl must outsmart the monster to obtain wisdom, experience and self-awareness.
As Sarah traverses the labyrinth, which is subtly - and at times not so subtly - informed and populated by objects and preoccupations from her waking world, her odyssey can be interpreted as her internal struggle to accept her burgeoning adulthood and address her feelings of helplessness and abandonment. At the beginning of the film Sarah sulks in her room because she must babysit her infant stepbrother, and she decries the unfairness and injustice she believes her father and ‘wicked’ stepmother subject her to daily. She is surrounded by toys and dolls she has outgrown but still clings to for comfort as she refuses to grow up and accept her responsibilities. Photographs of her absent biological mother are glimpsed on her dresser mirror and in various scrapbooks, along with newspaper clippings and headlines about her scandalous affair with a famous actor. We see her mother pictured with the actor (Bowie again) she evidently abandoned her family for. According to author John Kenneth Muir ‘The fantasy narrative of Labyrinth, in which Sarah must choose whether or not to abandon her baby brother […] deliberately mirrors the choice her mother has made […] in which abandoning a child is okay... at least if fantasy and romance are involved.’ The narrative of Labyrinth essentially depicts Sarah’s cathartic attempts to address her anger and feelings of abandonment towards her mother and her mother’s lover for his part in breaking up her family. Sarah casts the man who stole away her mother as a monster to be confronted. When she finally defeats Jareth in the labyrinth, rejects his amorous advances and rescues her stepbrother, she actively purges herself of the feelings of resentment she was embittered by.
Michael Jackson and Sting were amongst those Henson had initially envisioned as Sarah’s nemesis Jareth, but he eventually decided David Bowie, with his strange sex appeal and penchant for creating eccentric, memorable characters, would make a more fitting Goblin King. Bowie was seduced by Henson’s The Dark Crystal, particularly fantasy illustrator Brian Froud’s creature designs, and had wanted to embark on a project to write songs and music for children. He liked the screenplay, describing it as ‘amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and with more heart than many other special-effects movies.’ Much like the werewolves in The Company of Wolves, Darkness in Legend and The Dark Crystal’s shuffling Skeksis, Bowie’s Jareth has the ability to elicit sympathy as well as fear. The character was described by film critic Bruce Bailey as ‘a creature who’s the object of both loathing and secret desire’, and Bowie himself described Jareth as a true romantic but also ‘a spoilt child, vain and temperamental - kind of like a rock star’. Seemingly inspired by the myriad ‘héros maléfique’ (malignant heroes) brought to life on screen by Sir Christopher Lee throughout his career, Bowie humanises Jareth with a performance that brings the character's more tortured elements to the fore, imbuing him with ‘the loneliness of evil’ Lee often spoke of.
Labyrinth features a dramatic instrumental score by Trevor Jones and songs written and performed by David Bowie, which perfectly capture the film’s magic, fantasy, forbidden romance and danger, and most of all, its sense of fun and adventure. As Sarah wanders deeper into the labyrinth and faces difficult decisions at every turn, Jareth frequently manifests to undermine her choices, make her doubt herself, weaken her will and tempt her into joining him. His inner processes are given life through Bowie’s songs, which are typical of the musician’s more pop-orientated music of the 80s, range from the playfully infectious ‘Magic Dance’ to the bewitching ballad ‘As the World Falls Down’, which reveals Jareth’s romantic and tragic nature as he attempts to seduce Sarah at a sinister masquerade ball.
I grew up watching Labyrinth - I was 6 when it was released, and around 7 or 8 when my parents gave me a copy on VHS. It not only instigated a life-long love of David Bowie and his music, but also informed my love of fantasy films populated by daring heroines, otherworldly beasts and antagonists who exude the power of the seductive, frequently tragic charm of evil. For those of us who may have felt a little like outsiders growing up, films like Labyrinth – with its message of friendship, trust, resilience, self-belief and the importance of seeing the good in people - assured us that we could find friendship and acceptance. Indeed, it’s not only a film about the importance of friendship and self-discovery, but a reassurance that just because adulthood beckons (or has already come to pass), there’s no need to completely abandon things we once cherished, and by escaping into books or films or comics while still keeping perspective, we can nourish our imagination and still feel a sense of wonderment as we navigate the tribulations of adulthood. While some beloved childhood films can lose their magic as we grow older, or our perception of them is increasingly clouded by rose-tinted nostalgia, with its bawdy humour, ageless themes of good overcoming evil, fabulous soundtrack, colourful cast of loveable monsters and its heroine’s cathartic journey, watching Labyrinth will always be a magical experience, regardless of one’s age.