100 Film Favorites – #26: Labyrinth
(Jim Henson, 1986)
Over the span of a few years in the mid 1980s, the American mass media suddenly became aware of the growing popularity of the fantasy genre, spurred by the debut of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game in the late 70s. While some conservative groups responded to this trend with alarm and hostility (as in the 1982 TV movie Mazes and Monsters or the notorious Christian fundamentalist pamphlet “Dark Dungeons“), the realization that nerds have money led many film and television producers to attempt to feed off the D&D frenzy. A Dungeons & Dragons animated series began airing in 1983, and major movie studios also turned to fantasy fare. Even Disney got into the act, releasing The Black Cauldron, an ultimately costly departure from their typical “family-friendly” subject matter, in 1985.
Amidst this sudden influx of fantasy, Muppet man Jim Henson stepped up to the plate to create two of his own feature-length forays into the genre. Working with renowned fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, Henson directed and puppeteered a pair of lavish productions: The Dark Crystal in 1982, and today’s selection, Labyrinth, in 1986. (A note on telling the two films apart – The Dark Crystal is all puppets, all the time; Labyrinth features prominent human characters in amongst the puppet-palooza, and is marginally less weird.)
Labyrinth follows Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), an adolescent girl who is miffed when she must watch over her baby brother, Toby, while their parents are out for the evening. An avid fantasy fan, Sarah sarcastically wishes for the “Goblin King” and his subjects to take the crying Toby far away…which they promptly do. Before Sarah can un-make her foolish wish, Jareth, king of the goblins (played by glam rocker David Bowie at the height of his career) appears and magics baby Toby away to the Labyrinth, a colossal maze filled with precarious pitfalls and populated by bizarre creatures, where “things are not always what they seem.” Sarah must reach the center of the Labyrinth within 13 hours, or her brother will be trapped in the goblin realm forever.
As Sarah makes her way through the maze, she encounters one fantastic obstacle after another, all brought to life by the truly magical effects work of Henson and his crew. In one scene, Sarah falls down a pit filled with “helping hands” (faces composed of multiple human hands, arranged shadow-puppet-style). In another, she is ambushed by a singing troupe of “fireys,” wild-eyed creatures with interchangeable body parts. And in perhaps the most referenced moment in the film, a pair of door guardians present Sarah with a classic logic puzzle commonly known as “knights and knaves”: one of them always tells the truth, and one of them always lies, and Sarah must deduce which is which.
Along the way, the magnificent Jareth employs various schemes to inhibit Sarah’s progress. One such plan involves recruiting a dwarf-like creature named Hoggle (voiced by Jim’s son Brian Henson) to “helpfully” steer her away from the Labyrinth’s center. Though Hoggle admits to being a coward, he befriends Sarah and begins actually assisting her efforts to thwart the domineering Jareth. Sarah is eventually joined on her journey by two more companions: Ludo, a massive (but kindly) monster able to summon boulders with a mighty howl, and Sir Didymus, a diminutive, Don Quixote-esque knight resembling a fox.
Together, the odd quartet make their way to the goblin city at the maze’s middle, where Sarah has a trippy showdown with Jareth in a chamber inspired by M.C. Escher’s famous “Relativity” sketch (the one with all the “crazy stairs”). Jareth claims he has only ever done what Sarah wanted, and Sarah realizes she must now take responsibility for her own life and her formerly selfish actions. She declares “you have no power over me,” and Jareth poofs away, the fantastic world of the Labyrinth crumbling around him.
Sarah awakes in her house, where she finds her baby brother now safe and sound. She walks to her room and regards her many fantasy-themed trinkets (many of which resemble the creatures and features of the Labyrinth world). She accepts that she is growing up, and puts aside some of her toys to hand down to Toby. Then, looking in the mirror, Sarah spots spectral images of Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus. Even though she is becoming an adult, Sarah acknowledges that from time to time, she will still need her companions. In response, the Labyrinth creatures happily manifest in the room for an impromptu victory party, while a barn owl (a favored form of the shape-shifting Jareth) watches from the window, before flying away into the night.
In many ways, Labyrinth seems to borrow from earlier fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz: An adolescent female protagonist travels through a fantastic world to recover something she has lost. In her quest, the heroine acquires three male companions. Ultimately, she must confront a scheming magician figure who holds a position of authority over the world (though Bowie’s “wizard” exhibits significantly more prancing and crotch-bulge than his 1939 counterpart). In the end, the protagonist “wakes up” at home, surrounded by faces reminiscent of those she encountered in the fantasy realm, raising the possibility that her journey may have been a dream. Regardless, through her experiences she has learned a valuable lesson which she will long carry with her.
So what puts Labyrinth some 20 slots ahead of “Wizard“? For one, I feel that Sarah’s learning to take responsibility for her actions trumps Dorothy’s dubious lesson to never look beyond the walls of her own home for the solution to her problems.
For another, I love the film’s slightly grimy fantasy aesthetic, as though the world of the Labyrinth is very old, and being gradually reclaimed by moss and muck. The sense of encroaching nature makes the winding hallways seem all the more enchanted, and the perfect abode for the hordes of eye-popping creature creations brought to vibrant life by Henson’s puppeteer team. The film is jam-packed with unforgettable visuals, and captures the feel of a living story-book in a way few other live-action films have ever accomplished. You come to suspect that here, anything truly can happen. And throughout the serpentine corridors of Labyrinth, it often does.
-In a scene toward the end of the movie, Sarah is waylaid by a “junk lady,” an elderly woman who lives in a dump and carries around a massive heap of assorted objects on her back. The junk lady begins handing Sarah items from Sarah’s childhood, encouraging her to succumb to nostalgia and abandon her journey. As Sarah’s own pile of objects grows, it is implied that she runs the risk of becoming a “junk lady” in her own right, trapped in perpetual recollection of the past. In the end, Sarah successfully rebuffs the heavily-laden hag and continues on her way.
Why do I bring this scene up here? Because the junk lady from Labyrinth bears an uncanny resemblance to William & Mary’s own Wawa Pam. The first time I encountered Pam, that inimitable maven of the cash register, I honestly did a double-take. When I indicated their similarity to a room full of (admittedly stoned) classmates, the students shared my shock. Take a look if you don’t believe me: