Jim Henson

UK / USA, 1986


Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 11 October 2006

Source Columbia / Tristar DVD

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Whether 5 or 15, girls are always acting so grown-up. Wendy sews shadows and mothers the Lost Boys while Peter runs off to play and never, ever grow old (hence the lack of a Wendy Darling Syndrome in our modern lexicon). Often it’s desired, as many girls seek out signifiers of maturity in make-up and high heels, but often it feels like societal convention stemmed from the obvious fact that girls physically mature faster, and should therefore shun childish habits and beliefs at an earlier age than boys.

Sarah does not want to grow up; in fact, Sarah, the heroine of Labyrinth, is a bratty, impertinent girl who not only resents her baby brother Toby, but wishes he would disappear into the Goblin Kingdom, and, well, he does. When we first meet Sarah, she is reciting lines from a play, dressed up as an Arthurian maiden and late for baby-sitting. Sarah prefers to inhabit her imagination, and reality is slowly seeping in; annoyed by her lateness, Sarah’s stepmother chides her for not being responsible, and arbitrarily asks Sarah why she isn’t dating yet. Sarah doesn’t want to grow up, and in the course of Labyrinth is faced with not only this challenge, but the task of rescuing her brother from the Goblin King, who has given Sarah 13 hours to reach his castle in the center of a massive labyrinth.

Portraying the Goblin King is glam-rock icon David Bowie, who aside from adding the musical soundtrack, exudes an enigmatic, sensual air; Bowie is undeniably foxy in his shiny black and silver spandex, but seems rather intimidating for minors, an effect that is easily read on Sarah’s confused, doubting face when the Goblin King attempts to woo her during a Venetian Ball fantasy. There is an abundance of sexual unease in Labyrinth; Sarah falls down a rabbit hole where an array of bodiless human hands holds, pushes, and mildly caresses her during the trip down, while jealousy arises from the Goblin King when Sarah kisses Hoggle. If this is Sarah’s nightmare, then her struggle against the Goblin King is easily read as her own increasing fear of sexuality; the King’s seductive approach to encroaching Sarah, rather than an overtly frightening one, ties into her simultaneous fear and attraction to him.

Much more of a fantastical film than ever becoming truly scary, Labyrinth is director Jim Henson’s first attempt at introducing Muppets into the human world. On her journey to the Goblin city, Hoggle, a crass dwarf, aids Sarah, along with a few other furry creatures, many of whom can be spotted in inanimate form at the beginning of the film in Sarah’s bedroom. These characters are sweet and affable, but lack some of the dynamism present in The Dark Crystal. The goblins stand out however, not only in their creepy look and sheer number, but also in the inventive decision by Henson to have the creatures operate the larger, more menacing monsters; when Sarah and her friends reach the Goblin city and are stopped by an enormous gatekeeper, it is easily undone after they reveal the single small goblin operating the beast.

Labyrinth is in the end a fairy tale; Sarah learns the false security of materialism, not to take so much for granted, and that very often, life simply isn’t fair. Rejecting the Goblin King in asserting her own power, Sarah returns to her bedroom with Toby safely in his crib, and seems torn between her newfound maturity and the fantasy she has left behind. However, as it is ever in the world of Jim Henson, Sarah refuses to give up all of her imagination, embracing her future while keeping her stuffed animals at hand, even if tucked away in the closet.

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