I recently watched Labyrinth (1986) with my kids via Netflix download play. The screenplay for Labyrinth was written by Jim Henson of Muppets fame, Canadian children’s author Dennis Lee, and Welsh screenwriter and Monty Python troupe member Terry Jones, and the film was produced by George Lucas, among others.
It’s about a 15 year old girl, Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, in one of her first roles (she was 15 at the time herself). As the movie opens, she is off in a field, a dreamy teenager in a vaguely Renaissance costume, reciting dramatic lines from a play, Labyrinth. She suddenly realizes she’s late, and runs home, where her annoyed parents are waiting for her to take up sitting duties for her baby brother Toby.
Sarah is aggrieved that she has to take care of Toby, and when he won’t stop crying, she wishes aloud — reciting lines from the play — that the goblins take him away. Cue the arrival of Jareth, the Goblin King, played by David Bowie, who promptly does just what she asked, after demonstrating his mad skillz with the Fushigi magic gravity balls. Jareth’s castle is surrounded by a vast labyrinth, and Sarah has to make her way through it in 13 hours, or Toby will be turned into a goblin. She makes some friends along the way, there is music and dancing, and lots of near misses.
We (myself and my two sons, ages 9 and 11) enjoyed it, and when I went online to look at commentary on the film, I was stunned that the aspect of the film under most intense scrutiny — and debate — is the bulge in David Bowie’s pants. Was there a codpiece? Did his pants get tighter as the film progressed? Was he — er — excited? And, uh, apparently circumcision is not quite the thing in England. And this is not just hormone crazed 12 year olds hanging out at IMDB: even professional reviews make reference to it (in the Washington Post, for example, the pants are referred to as “over-revelatory”).
I can’t answer those vital and timeless questions, but this is a good movie, not a great one, and there are other reasons to watch it, which I shall now list:
1. Connelly’s acting in this film is not exactly Oscar material, but her character is a Grade A selfish bitch, which was refreshing after so many too good to be true heroines. I had some genuine shaken baby fear for Toby when he was under her watch, and she’s quite violent when she needs to be (pulling the heads off some creatures and nearly suffocating others). Although the film is constructed as a typical quest, in which the physical journey is mirrored by character growth, in fact, the film gets more and more solipsistic as it progresses. Just as she desired in the opening scene, this world is entirely under Sarah’s control, and the only way that is possible, is if she is the only thing that exists.
Her sidekicks, Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Didymus, have no existence or purpose beyond Sarah’s quest: “Should you need us… for any reason at all…”. In the final controntation with Jareth, he complains: “Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that child be taken; I took him. You cowered before me and I was frightening. … I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me.”
The world really does revolve around this teenager.
2. The Bog of Eternal Stench. I mean, come on! A farting, belching swamp. One drop and you stink forever. Good stuff.
3. The lack of exposition. This movie does not spell it all out for you. Or any of it, actually. This may be because it is making itself up as it goes along. To take one obvious unanswered question: Jareth is humanoid, yet he is king of the goblins. So when he threatens to turn Toby into “one of us” — which “us” does he mean? Will Toby get tight lycra pants and frosty eye shadow? Or warts and horns?
4. You can use this film to teach your kids logic.
Sarah confronts two guards, guarding two doors. One door leads to sudden death, the other to the castle. She may only ask one guard a question, but one of them always lies and one always tells the truth. This is a version of the familiar knights and knaves logic puzzle, and Sarah solves it, boosting her confidence, and bringing her closer to Toby.
5. Music and lyrics by David Bowie. The songs are pure 80s cheese (synthesizers + orchestral stuff). The lyrics make little sense: “Chilly down with the fire gang/Think small with the fire gang/Bad hep with the fire gang/when your thing gets wild/Chilly Down”, or “You remind me of the babe./What babe? /The babe with the power. /What power? /The power of voodoo. /Who do? /You do. /Do what? /Remind me of the babe…”. Still, I will take this over Mandy Moore/Disney stuff any day.
6. The balance of the whimsical and the grotesque. The shots of the Labyrinth are really lovely:
And of the Escher inspired castle:
But there are also a lot of — er — earthly nondelights, like the Bog of Eternal Stench, or Jareth’s goblin henchmen fighting over sausages and picking their noses. When Sarah first meets dwarf Hoggle, he is taking a long piss in a fountain. A closer look reveals the fountain is made up of well-endowed pissing dwarfs. Hoggle proceeds to take out a weapon of some kind and exterminate several fairies, shooting them dead midflight. The Fireys pull off their own body parts and throw them into a fire as they dance. And so on.
7. The dream/masquerade ball sequence. Video here.
Sarah gets poisoned by Hoggle, and wakes up transformed into a very adult looking beauty, dressed for the masquerade ball Jareth is hosting in the castle. It’s the closest Jareth comes to seducing Sarah, creeptastic as that is. It’s a very engaging scene, both visually, and in terms of plot, which none of the rest of the film quite matches in intensity. Some folks in LA host a Labyrinth inspired masquerade ball every year.
8. This film is a shrine to the phallus. I know, I said I wasn’t going to dwell on Jareth’s crotch. And I’m not. But even putting aside the many, many, many distracting shots of Bowie’s crotch (at least 6 different pairs of tight pants. According to one blogger, Neil Gaiman once said Bowie’s crotch should have gotten its own trailer on the set), some of them up close from a dwarf’s eye view…
…there is much to behold.
The goblins, like the dwarfs, have protruding crotches, noses and horns. And there’s this:
When crotches, horns and noses aren’t enough, there’s always having a phallus grow out of a head:
The masquerade scene is, from one point of view, just dancing phalluses (the masks) and their excretions (white pearls and dripping white candle wax hanging all about). Tell me I am making this up:
Let me touch your, er nose?
Watch out, or I will poke you with my – oh, never mind:
In this bit, Sarah is startled when a snake pops out of a box. Talk about subtext becoming text:
It is not hard to read this scene as the literal drugging and metaphorical rape of a virginal girl. I have no idea why Henson’s imagination, once he decided to make a more serious film (this was his second, after Dark Crystal), was so dominated by phallic imagery.
Fortunately, all of this will fly right over your kids’ heads. It’s a fun movie that kids – especially those with a gross sense of humor — will enjoy.