Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)

Although it bombed at the box office in 1986, Labyrinth -- director Jim Henson’s elaborate follow-up to The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is one of those films that, across the span of decades, has attained cult classic status. More than that, the film has found meaning and relevance for generation after generation of enthusiastic, imaginative children.

Although the film’s final act degenerates into unnecessary and ultimately uninteresting violence, Labyrinth finally deserves its longevity because it symbolically and effectively makes its case for female agency, for the explicit right of its fifteen-year old protagonist, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) to chart her own path as she reckons with maturity and the world surrounding her.

As is plain from any close analysis of the film, Labyrinth acutely concerns a young woman who is trapped between two worlds both literally and metaphorically. At fifteen, Sarah is no longer a child, nor precisely an adult. Instead, she is somewhere in between, and not certain where, precisely, she belongs.

Importantly, Sarah also resides at the half-way point between childhood fantasy or imagination, and real world responsibilities, as befitting her age. 

The film’s opening scene reflects Sarah's uncertain status of “in-between.” Labyrinth’s inaugural shot reveals Sarah dressed in a flowing white princess gown. 

She runs through a fairy-tale glade, an ivory owl perched in the composition's foreground. After a moment, however, the audience realizes that Sarah is not some damsel dwelling in Never-Never Land, but rather a modern teenager in 20th century America, acting out a scene from a book (titled, not coincidentally, The Labyrinth).

Throughout its running time, Labyrinth sees Sarah go from world to world, from childhood fantasy to reality and back, making choices as she goes and reckoning that whether life is fair or not, “that’s the way it is.” 

Armed with this fact, Sarah must make decisions based on that knowledge, and that are true to her heart.

Many, many films of the 1980s (E.T. [1982], Invaders from Mars [1986] to name two) involve the trope that I call “This Boy’s Bedroom:” a peek into an adolescent boy’s world of interest. It is his sanctuary and lair, and a place of model kits, monsters, and action figures. Delightfully, Labyrinth provides us a peek at “This Girl’s Bedroom” for insight into Sarah’s psyche. There’s a case to be made that every fantastic event in the film is based, at least in part, on the inspirations we see in this domain, whether it be Maurice Sendak or M.C. Escher.

Furthermore, another item in Sarah’s bedroom -- a scrapbook -- helps audiences understand Sarah’s existential quandary. 

Delightfully, no dialogue points us towards this understanding, and the film allows us to draw conclusions about this hero’s journey based primarily on well-placed images.

Things are not always what they seem in this place.”

Tired of babysitting her baby brother, Toby, the imaginative Sarah (Connelly) calls upon the Goblin King to take the child away to his kingdom.

Unfortunately, Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie) has been listening, and complies with Sarah’s demand.  

Now Sarah has just thirteen hours to navigate the king’s labyrinth, reach his palace, and rescue her brother. If she fails, Toby will be a goblin forever more.

On her journey through the labyrinth, Sarah encounters a variety of strange creatures, both helpful and treacherous, including Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus.  

She also navigates dangerous terrain, encountering the cavern of helping hands and the Bog of Eternal Stench

Finally, Sarah must confront the Goblin King, and her own fantasies about adulthood as well…

“The way forward is sometimes the way back.”

Gaze closely at the scenes in Labyrinth set inside Sarah’s suburban bedroom, and you’ll detect posters, scrapbooks, and photographs of her (absent) mother.  

Her mother, an actress named Linda Williams, has apparently left the family behind for a love affair with an actor -- played by David Bowie. In the scrapbook, we read headlines of Linda’s on-again/off-again relationship with this actor, and see photographs of the couple together. 

In the same scrapbook, we see that Sarah has drawn hearts by the photos of her mother, and written the word “Mom” in red marker.  

Sarah now lives with her father, stepmother and baby brother, and has fantasized that normal existence as a sort of put-upon Cinderella-styled one. 

Her new “mom” reports that she doesn’t appreciate being cast in the role of “wicked stepmother," but Sarah persists in doing just that. She idolizes her own mother, who -- despite leaving the family -- lives in the glamorous world of romance and acting.

So, through visuals, Labyrinth establishes that Sarah loves her biological mother and misses her desperately.  But, at the same time, this imagery suggest her mother has abandoned that which is important: family.

The fantasy narrative of Labyrinth, in which Sarah must choose whether or not to abandon her baby brother, Toby, deliberately mirrors the choice her mother has made. And David Bowie doubles as both the actor who took away Sarah's mother (seen only in photograph form), and the Goblin King, Jareth, who entices Sarah to a life in which abandoning a child is okay...at least if fantasy and romance are involved.

The bedroom setting is vital to the film, not only for establishing the context of Sarah’s story (her first steps into adulthood) but also for revealing the direction of the eventual fantasy sequences. Virtually all of Sarah’s travails in the Goblin King’s world emerge right from the items we see decorating Sarah's bedroom.

In a long, slow pan, Henson’s camera falls across a strange, pink plush animal that later finds life in the Goblin world as the dancing fire gang creature (the one with the detachable limbs).

Similarly, Sarah encounters the gentle Ludo, who looks like he came right out of Where the Wild Things Are.  Accordingly, a Sendak book also seen in the same pan.

The same pan also reveals a music box in which a beautiful princess stands inside a golden pavilion or frame work.  Later in the film, Sarah becomes that princess, at least for a time, after eating the poison peach given her by Jareth. She is then depicted wearing the same dress that we saw on the music box figurine.  he is also viewed inside a bubble, and the world -- like the music box -- is most definitely a gilded cage.  

Inside that gilded cage, Sarah can live a life with Jareth as her romantic lover, but the price for such romance and lust is that she loses her brother, her family, forever.  

In real life, of course, this is the “illusion” that her mother has already selected.  Linda went off and romanced an actor, a figure who might be correctly described as being deceitful in a sense, since he appears to be one thing, but is actually another.  

In the fantasy world, standing in for that kind of "two faced" figure is not just Jareth, but several masked individuals. They cloak their real identities behind those masks, but it’s a lovely, romantic world on the surface.

The film's central setting, the labyrinth, is also foreshadowed in that early, detailed pan across the bedroom.

Even the film’s final confrontation, in which Sarah must make a choice between Jareth or her brother, Toby, we see a visual reference to Sarah’s bedroom.  

There, on the wall, in the film’s early scenes, we see a painting of an impossible labyrinth created by Escher.  In the climactic scene, Sarah actually inhabits that labyrinth, and attempts to rescue Toby.  It takes some time to reach him, because the world -- like adulthood itself -- is so confusingly rendered.

In The Wizard of Oz, every character that Dorothy knew in Kansas had a double in Oz, and in Labyrinth, virtually every item, book, or figure (including a Goblin King custom figure!) in Sarah’s bedroom also comes to life in the fantasy world.  

One thing that remains so delightful and affirming about the film and this symbolic approach is that Sarah is ultimately able to make a good choice regarding her future (and her brother’s) without surrendering her right to imagination. These things in her bedroom (books, posters, etc.) are part of her gestalt.  

After the Goblin King is defeated, Sarah begins to say goodbye to those who helped her on her quest, including Ludo and Hoggle. But Sarah realizes that they are part of who she is now, and that since she is the one with the power, she can continue to have them as guides, going forward, as long as she wishes.

To grow up means to think differently, but it doesn’t mean you forget who you are. That was the mistake Sarah's mother made. When Linda left Sarah behind, she sacrificed too much for a “fantasy” image of perfect romance.

One of the most successful and symbolically-wrought scenes in Labyrinth comes soon after Sarah has rejected temptation and a life inside Jareth’s bubble or music box, symbolically rejecting the adult choice her mother made.

Next, Sarah ends up in a junkyard, and a junkyard representation of her bedroom.  A weird junk lady begins accosting Sarah with all of her old plush animals, all the toys she has outgrown. Sarah rejects the goblin's entreaties because she is no longer an innocent child. Those particular toys belong in her past, but the junk lady -- not unlike Jareth -- keeps trying to define her, keeps trying to tell her the things she “needs.”  In other words, if Jareth represents a negative "face" of adulthood that Sarah must avoid, the junkyard lady interlude represents a face of childhood that Sarah has outgrown.

Finally, Sarah defeats the Goblin King when she remembers a line from her book: The Labyrinth.  

That line asserts “You have no power over me.”  

This is Sarah’s ultimate recognition of her own agency, her own power and capacity to chart her path.  She is not bound by the actions of the junk goblin, who tries to infantilize her, nor seduced by the Goblin King, who wants her to believe that adulthood is, simply, an offering "of dreams come true.”

On the contrary, with adulthood comes Sarah’s reckoning that life isn’t fair...but that’s the way it is.  

The trick is to understand that fact (that life isnt fair) and plan accordingly, knowing the truth. Labyrinth is a delightful and valuable film because it suggests that adulthood is not about getting your dreams to come true, usually, or finding a fantasy love with an appealing, bad-boy figure (Jareth, and the actor who romance Linda).  

Instead, life is about holding onto who you are and your influences and beliefs even in the face of a world that is not always as you would wish it to be.

Even the film’s central idea of a labyrinth seems to reinforce this idea of Sarah’s heroic journey. She does not go through a maze, notably, but rather a labyrinth, which is a single path to a central location.  That’s what life is: finding the identity that is “central” to your personality.  Some might even call it your heart.

When I first watched Labyrinth many (many…) moons ago, I must confess I was disappointed with the film.  I felt it was a sort of creative pull-back from the uncompromising genius of The Dark Crystal: a film lighter in mood, with identifiable human performers at its center.  I felt that few of the creations here could rival the ingenuity or imagination The Dark Crystal put on screen in the form of the Skeksis, the Garthim, or Aughra.

I see now, as an adult, that I missed the point. By a mile. As much as The Dark Crystal charts a completely alien world, Labyrinth asks audiences to understand its “in between” worlds premise about Sarah, and make her journey to adulthood one we can relate to and understand.

And without making invidious comparisons to other films, the creation of Sarah’s fantasy world here is quite remarkable. The “helping hands” cavern is unforgettable, and Ludo seems to be Chewbacca by way of Where the Wild Things Are.

Yes, the final battle between Sarah’s allies and the Goblin King’s minions is largely unnecessary (especially the machine gun sequence…), but otherwise that the film ingeniously visualizes Sarah’s imagination, drawing “life” from the fantastic inspirations we see decorating This Girl's Bedroom.

I am also quite certain that, as a teenager, I entirely missed the idea that the Goblin King had a surrogate in reality, as the man who took Sarah’s mother away from the family. 

With full knowledge of this today, the metaphor underlying Labyrinth is all that much clearer.  Jareth is the bad boy and romantic promise of adulthood (sex, romance, dreams, adventure come true…) that allows the idea of sacrificing family even exist as a possibility.  What’s truly intriguing, too is the idea of Toby’s fate if left un-rescued. He will grow up to be a Goblin, to be a “family thief,” essentially, if raised by Jareth.  In other words, the cycle of raising "goblins" continues.

Labyrinth is by no means a perfect film. Some of the musical sequences seem badly-dated, and the pacing is a bit off in spots too. But nonetheless, this is a fantasy film with heart, and it features the relatively rare occurrence of a female hero driving and motivating the action. 

Labyrinth is also an implicit rejection of princess-ism, a true blight in our modern culture because it suggests that a woman has worth only by virtue of marrying a prince, or being born to a King. In other words, basically for a woman to be successful and special she must be connected to a powerful man in some way. In short...no agency of her own.

Sarah’s story, by contrast, is very much about her own agency. Labyrinth is about Sarah choosing her own path, and maintaining her own identity while she does so.

To quote the film: “that’s the way it’s done...”

1 comment:

  1. I just watched this film with my girlfriend. She had never seen it, I hadn't seen it in years. We both loved it. I have to admit that even during my recent viewing on DVD that I didn't catch the scrapbook with her missing mother and Bowie in it! The climax and ending have to be the most Jim Henson-y thing I've ever seen with Sarah growing up but not having to say goodbye to her imagination as represented by her muppet friends.

    One thing we noticed at the beginning of the film was the way you first see Sarah in the flowing gown reciting the lines from the fantasy. When the real world intrudes as she realizes she is late she turns to run home and you see she is wearing jeans underneath.