Looking Back at Labyrinth (1986)

As this cult movie turns 30 years old, we make a return journey through the Labyrinth…

 

It’s a testament to the popularity of David Bowie’s performance in beloved fantasy film Labyrinth that, when the terrible news struck that the great man had passed away earlier this year, countless fans took to the internet to write about their fond memories of his part as Jareth the Goblin King. Though Bowie had a long and illustrious musical career, this seemed to be what many people of a certain age remembered him for. Let’s take a look why.

Firstly, even without mentioning Bowie there is an incredible combination of talent behind the film including – but not limited to – director Jim Henson, scriptwriter Terry Jones and producer George Lucas (back when he was still in people’s good books). As such, there is flair in the script, visuals and music. The film is hugely of its time, particularly in the effects and Bowie-written soundtrack, but its fairy tale qualities keep it fresh.

Labyrinth is also rich in subtext, which is something you may have missed if you’ve only seen it as a child. For instance, the tale is clearly happening inside protagonist Sarah’s head, as nearly everything from the land of the Labyrinth can be seen around her bedroom at the beginning of the film. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, though, it does not address this and leaves it for the audience to pick up on.

In fact, it’s almost an allegorical tale of Sarah coming to terms with growing up, and taking on board the responsibilities of adulthood. Here the film takes inspiration from Little Red Riding Hood; just as the wolf tries to make her stray from the path, Bowie’s Goblin King tempts Sarah with promises of everything she could ever want – if she would just forget about her baby brother. Make no mistake, Labyrinth is a fairy tale, but in the Grimm sense rather than Disney.

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Having said that, of course the film is stuffed to the rafters with brilliant puppetry that will delight children of all ages. The imagination of Henson’s Workshop never runs dry here, from impressive feats of puppetry like the large Ludo to the deceptively simple like the Helping Hands who form faces with their digits. To give a believable performance opposite them is a difficult task but I think Jennifer Connolly pulls it off. However, the film will always belong to someone else…

Despite being the film’s villain – stealing a baby, wearing a terrifying wig and, let’s face it, attempting to romance a 14 year-old girl – it is impossible to dislike the Goblin King, even in the ‘we-love-to-hate-him’ way of other villains. It is a shame Bowie never got a chance to play the Devil (just as Neil Gaiman ‘cast’ him as in his Sandman comics), as Jareth is so deceptively smooth and charming. He even gets us to sing along with him when saying lines like ‘slap that baby, make him free.’

Speaking of which, I mentioned above that the soundtrack was very much of its time but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Popular consensus has it that the lively ‘Dance Magic Dance’ is the only good song here but that’s because it’s the only one that properly fits a family fantasy film. The foreboding ‘Within You’ and romantic ballad ‘As The World Falls Down’ are both solid Bowie songs (which means they’re stupendous by anyone else’s standards) but not very Muppet-friendly. Only ‘Chilly Down’ disappoints, and that’s probably because it isn’t sung by Bowie.

So why is the film so fondly remembered? Perhaps because – and not to ignore all the hard work from everyone else behind the scenes – Labyrinth acts as a fantastic entry point, especially for younger viewers, to David Bowie. It sort of symbolises the approach to all of his work – intelligent yet accessible and delivering something special by going beyond the norm (certainly the norm of today’s family films – I wouldn’t expect this much subtext in, say, Penguins of Madagascar). They really don’t make them like this any more.

RIP David Bowie. You shall always remind us of the babe.

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