Thursday, June 20, 2024

First Contact: Labyrinth

A puppet-filled, dream fantasy journey

Despite its enduring popularity, I had never seen the classic 1986 film Labyrinth until this week. I should have identified with a bookish, dreamy, fantasy-obsessed, teen girl protagonist. I have enjoyed, or at least consumed, many similar fantasy films from that time period. But the truth is, missing Labyrinth was not an accident. I deliberately skipped the film over the years because something about the vibe seemed a bit too juvenile. This is likely because of the large volume of bouncy, grotesque puppets in the trailers for the film. Now, before you send letters, please know that I live in Atlanta, home to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I loved The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Star Wars: A New Hope—all of which had varying degrees of puppet-based fantasy. I was raised watching Sesame Street, which I loved, and watching The Muppet Show, which I tolerated just fine. But the film that broke me was The Dark Crystal, which, I admit, I did not enjoy. For me, The Dark Crystal amounted to too many creepy-style puppets and not enough plot. So I always feared Labyrinth would be too close to that vibe despite the plucky YA heroine and the presence of superstar David Bowie in a leading role.

I watched Labyrinth on a nighttime flight from LAX to Atlanta. The sleepy, small screen environment with dim lighting and the hum of cold air was a perfect setting for the dreamy, psychological journey of a self-absorbed teen feeling disquieted and generally irritated with the discomforts of her life. The film does a great job of efficiently delivering a lot of backstory for the protagonist Sarah in a few seconds, then it dives right into the plot. The story goes as follows: [minimum spoilers] Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a bored suburban teen, living with her dad, his new-ish wife, and Sarah’s toddler half-brother, Toby. It’s initially unclear whether Sarah’s mother is divorced/absent or deceased, but by the ending scene, it seems to be the latter. Sarah enjoys acting out a scene from a fairy tale about a princess who confronts a goblin king who has stolen a child. She is a sixteen-year-old cosplaying before cosplaying was cool. Her make-believe moment is interrupted when she remembers she is scheduled to babysit her baby brother while her parents go out on a date. Stuck with the crying toddler, she holds the child to comfort him, then, in frustration, verbally wishes him to be taken away by the goblin king from her storybook. The child disappears, and a frantic Sarah is told by the goblin king, Jareth (David Bowie), that the child is now his. To get Toby back, she has to navigate a massive labyrinth to reach the goblin king’s castle and rescue her brother. In the labyrinth she encounters various creatures who are variably grotesque or adorable, kind or dangerous, annoying or wise, and who are mostly in the form of puppet creatures. In particular, she meets grumpy goblin frenemy Hoggle, idealistic dog-like Didymus, and loveable fuzzy giant Ludo. On her journey, she learns the value of friendship (of course), the dangers of assumptions, and a new understanding that life isn’t fair as she is forced to stop whining and grow up.

First impressions: Jennifer Connelly is intensely, perfectly, young and dreamlike in the role of Sarah. She looks like a 1980s Snow White, and her dialogue and voice inflection are artificially fairy tale-like. It’s almost borderline annoying. But Sarah is actually the archetype of the unhappy teen searching for something more. In contrast to her sweet appearance, she hates her brother enough to wish him dead, straight out of the gate. The initial scene of her holding her crying brother was stressful for me to watch. There is no child abuse, but the intensity of her anger hovers over the moment in a way that worried me. Ironically, she is bitterly angry because she has to babysit for one night, although she concedes that she literally had nothing else to do. She’s not missing prom, her senior art show, or even a date with friends. Sarah is angry because babysitting Toby has interrupted her fantasy playacting. It’s clear that there are larger issues of grief and discomfort, as well as impatience with the mundaneness of ordinary life compared with the allure of fairy tales.

As she journeys through the labyrinth, Sarah periodically meets Jareth, who repeatedly encourages her to forget the search for the child and just enjoy her fantasy life. Sarah shows her growing maturity by refusing to give up. Sarah also encounters lots of the aforementioned goblins and other fantastical creatures who both help and hinder her in her classic journey story. The story overtly references The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are (Sarah has copies of the books in her bedroom), but it also contains clear references to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

As a classic journey story, I felt I knew where the plot was heading, and I was mostly right. However, there were a few story elements which surprised me. Sarah’s frenemy Hoggle sprays poison to individually kill fairies (sentient, humanoid). Sarah initially finds this horrifying, but then rolls with the fairy killing after one of them bites her finger. She ignores the rest of his poisoning and enlists Hoggle’s help to find the entrance to the labyrinth. Sarah’s pivot from sentimental to pragmatic was a little startling. Labyrinth is a dreamscape, so I guess philosophical concepts of life and death are primarily symbolic. Secondly, David Bowie is perfectly cast as the goblin king Jareth. He is naturally quirky, chaotically elegant, but creepily enamored with Sarah. Additionally, there is a dreamlike scene of a masked ball with elegantly dressed humans dancing together, including Sarah and Jareth. Despite my fears about creepy puppet creatures, the attractive humans at the masked ball felt even more creepy and disturbing. That emotional irony was an artistic high point for me in the film. Another visual highlight was the room of dimension-defying steps where Jareth, Sarah, and Toby all navigate multi-directional, freeform stairs in an Escher-inspired, Inception-style scene.

In Labyrinth, Sarah is repeatedly accused of taking things for granted. I initially assumed this meant she did not appreciate the things she had (her comfortable lifestyle and relative freedom). But she is actually being reminded of the dangers of making assumptions about people and about life. During setbacks, she repeatedly complains “that’s not fair,” and eventually Jareth sarcastically tells her, “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis of comparison is.” It’s a great line. He is effectively telling her to grow up and face reality, a still timely lesson about the unfairness of life even while acknowledging the validity of the search for justice. In the same way, in a final scene, Sarah’s labyrinth friends remind her that they will still be there when she needs an escape. Labyrinth confirms the importance of living in the real world while also acknowledging the value of play, fantasy, and imagination. Hopefully, that is a life lesson that we can all agree on.


  • Classic journey coming of age film
  • So many puppets
  • Timeless dreamscape

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.