June 9, 2011 by abbyo
There are some movies that don’t change no matter how many times you watch them. There’s just no possible way your interpretation of them will ever change. For the purposes of this feature, I tend to shy away from movies I know too well, simply because I think they make for pretty dull writing (and, consequently, dull reading). This is why, although it’s probably the biggest nostalgia candidate of all time, I haven’t written about “Labyrinth” until now. This is a movie I watched dozens of times as a kid. I put off writing about it because I thought it wouldn’t be possible for me to discover anything new this time around. I thought I knew every inch of this movie. I was wrong. Much to my surprise, “Labyrinth” turned out to be the perfect movie for a feature about nostalgia, because at its core, that’s what the movie is all about.
For the uninitiated, or those of you who’ve just forgotten what the movie’s about, “Labyrinth” is the story of teenage dreamer Sarah (Jennifer Connelly). She’s got a baby stepbrother who she’s “forced” to babysit. One night, Sarah decides she’s had enough, and inadvertently wishes her screaming stepbrother away to the Goblin King (David Bowie). After Bowie comes to relieve her of her wailing, pooping burden, Sarah tries to take back her wish. But in order to retrieve her stepbrother, she must first solve a complicated labyrinth that leads to Bowie’s castle.
“Labyrinth” is another Jim Henson movie, made after “The Dark Crystal,” again with Brian Froud as artistic director. Visually speaking, “Labyrinth,” like “Dark Crystal,” is fully and beautifully realized, yet another testament to these two men and their borderline obsessive attention to detail. Froud lays the visual groundwork, and Henson makes it come alive. As with “Dark Crystal,” It’s the little things in “Labyrinth” that make it special—tiny talking worms, patches of moss with moving eyeballs, even hilariously accurate farting noises in the Bog of Eternal Stench. As a result, “Labyrinth” is a movie that’s held up really well despite the advances of special effects over the years.
Of course, this movie also benefits from having a famous performance in it: David Bowie as the duplicitous singing and dancing Goblin King, Jareth. A word about Bowie in this movie: weird. First of all, you’d think a Goblin King would look like, you know, a goblin, rather than a five-foot-ten man in Ziggy Stardust makeup and a giant wig. However, despite a certain lack of continuity, Bowie’s odd enough to be a good fit for this role. But there’s another element of his performance I can’t go without mentioning. You probably already know what it is.
Yeah, the pants. They’re so distracting they almost make you question whether “Labyrinth” ought to be marketed as a family film. And from the amount of prancing Bowie does in this movie (no other way to describe it), it seems like he’s enjoying that costume a tad too much. Needless to say, it’s a decision the wardrobe department probably regrets, but it definitely makes the experience of re-watching “Labyrinth” that much more strange and funny.
But all of this stuff is fairly superficial compared to what else “Labyrinth” has going for it in terms of story. There’s much more going on here than I’d ever realized before. My first notably different reaction to the film really speaks to where I was when I first saw this movie (at roughly age seven), versus where I am now. Here it is: I never noticed how flawed a heroine Sarah is. As a child, I never questioned here point of view. It was mean of her stepmother to make her babysit on a Saturday night. Her stepbrother did cry a lot. But my first thought upon re-watching the movie this week was exactly the opposite. Sarah’s petulant, immature and unwilling to take on the responsibility that comes with her age. It’s an important distinction to make, because once made, it changed my whole interpretation of the rest of the movie.
Sarah’s journey through the labyrinth represents her journey into adulthood. From the moment she starts her quest, she’s learning to put childish attitudesbehind her. The most telling example is a scene in which Sarah meets a
bag lady goblin who tries to make her forget her mission by presenting Sarah with her childhood toys. After realizing what’s up, Sarah dismisses her previously treasured possessions as “junk” and escapes.
Sarah also makes some friends on her journey: a dwarf named Hoggle, a furry monster named Ludo and a yappy foxlike character named Sir Didimus (all are “living” versions of toys in Sarah’s room). When Sarah finally confronts Jareth, she goes by herself, leaving her companions behind. They let her know that they will be there if they need her. This comes up again in the final scene, after Sarah is back at home. She’s in her room, and Hoggle, Ludo and Didimus show up. Here’s what she tells them:
“Every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you.”
And then they have a party together as the credits roll. Sarah’s moving on with her life, but knows that every once in a while, she’ll want to revisit her past. It’s both hopeful and a little sad. That, friends, is the very definition of nostalgia: allowing yourself to evolve emotionally, but cutting loose every once in a while to boogie down with your childhood memories.
I came to “Labyrinth” this time around expecting to see nothing new, just to have a good time with a movie I loved. I thought I’d find it unchanged, perfectly preserved the way I remembered it. It was, but it also turns out that it’s a more mature piece of entertainment than I’d thought; a poignant coming-of-age story wrapped up in a fantastic adventure. It was a revelatory experience. My love for “Labyrinth” hasn’t changed a bit, but my respect for it as a film has certainly deepened.
- “Labyrinth” owes a huge debt to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” in terms of structure and characters. It’s obvious that Henson realizes this too; one of the items the bag lady goblin gives Sarah to distract her is a copy of L. Frank Baum’s book.
- Another weird thing I noticed: while I still am a fan of the songs in this movie, the actual performed numbers didn’t work as well as I’d remembered. For instance, the song everyone remembers, “Dance Magic Dance,” doesn’t feel like a scene in the film so much as an extended music video (it doesn’t help that Bowie often directly addresses the camera as he sings). Another, “Chilly Down” (the song with the anatomically creative Fire Dancer puppets) doesn’t connect to the plot at all, and could even stand to be removed.
- The screenwriting credit on this movie goes to Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame. I read once in an interview with Jones that his original draft of the screenplay was very different from what actually got made. Supposedly his script made Bowie a more complex character. I’d really like to see what that draft looked like, considering that of all the characters in the film, Bowie’s is the one that could use the most work.