Beyond the Bulge: 8 Other Reasons to Watch Labyrinth

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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And of the Escher inspired castle:

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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…

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…there is much to behold.

The goblins, like the dwarfs, have protruding crotches, noses and horns. And there’s this:

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When crotches, horns and noses aren’t enough, there’s always having a phallus grow out of a head:

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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:

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Let me touch your, er nose?

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Watch out, or I will poke you with my – oh, never mind:

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In this bit, Sarah is startled when a snake pops out of a box. Talk about subtext becoming text:

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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.

29 responses

  1. And for Bowie’s leggings. The man looks mighty fine in them. Can you believe he was 40 years old then?

    I was so hoping for a sequel. Sarah would have been legal and it wouldn’t be as disturbing for Jareth to romance her. Also the Labyrinth fan fiction out there is really great.

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  2. I love this movie! I bought it on Blu-Ray too. The phallic stuff went right over my head when I watched it as a young adult many, many years ago. Sigh. Don’t laugh but I’ve always thought Bowie was kind of sexy from a far away distance…

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  3. I remember seeing this when it came out. That phallic stuff went right over my head. But I did love that Sarah seemed like me. She was a cranky adolescent. She fought with her parents. I loved the Cinderella feel to the ball sequence. The whole thing had a fairy tale feel to it. And Sarah was the heroine of the story, not the prize to be won.

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  4. It was — and, as far as I know, still is — fashionable in the SFF circles to ridicule this film. However, I have always liked it. Then again, I was a huge Bowie fan when I was a teenager, so the other eight reasons only serve to make me feel better for wanting to share it with my kids, too. Thanks! 🙂

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  5. I never saw this, but my eyes are popping out of my head, and I will let you guess why! My goodness. Also:

    Cue the arrival of Jareth, the Goblin King, played by David Bowie, who promptly does just what she asked, after demonstrating his skillz with the Fushigi magic gravity balls.

    LOL. Actually, this is so interesting. Hensen made this? I missed this entire bandwagon.

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  6. Really great post! I used to love this film as a kid and bought it on dvd a few months ago because I really had to urge to watch it again. Although it’s a little weird watching it again now noticing some of the things you did that you never saw as a child it was really weird and sort of ruins it a little in some ways. But makes it interesting in others!

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  7. Huh. And here I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for Sarah’s leaving selfish girlhood and entering less-selfish womanhood, and that Jareth was the safe fiend her subconscious constructed to allow her to do that…

    Silly me.

    (No, I didn’t miss the phallic references; I just figured they were part of the construct of awakening sexuality.)

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  8. @Moriah Jovan:

    And here I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for Sarah’s leaving selfish girlhood and entering less-selfish womanhood, and that Jareth was the safe fiend her subconscious constructed to allow her to do that…

    Silly me.

    Moriah, I am even less of a film critic than a literary critic, which is to say, I know absolutely nothing about film. so your reading is probably way better. I didn’t really see much growth in Sarah, but then again, I liked her selfish!

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  9. I think I’ve seen this movie about ten times, but I think it has also been about ten years since I last watched it. Must re-view. Obviously I’m a fan 🙂 I adore David Bowie in it and I love most of the more creepy Muppets (Animal has always been one of my favorite Muppets even when I was a girl.) I think the most terrifying part of this movie for me was the old crone living in the trash dump. That part REALLY freaked me out although to analyze the subtext of why I think I’ll need to re-watch the film (as I said: 10 years since last viewing.) I like Mariah Jovan’s take on it, but at the same time I really think developing sexuality is an important part of any 15 year old girl’s experience and the “subliminal” symbolism is appropriate (kind of like in one of my other favorite fantasy films from the ’80s “The Company of Wolves” directed by Neil Jordan based on Angela Carter’s short story.)

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  10. There are copious writings floating on the metaphor of Sarah’s burgeoning sexuality in the film and I’m kind of scratching my head that you didn’t run into any of these. She did, in fact, grow through her travails; quite a bit, in fact.

    But it bothers me that Sarah (a very complex person) was boiled down to “selfish brat” (whether anybody liked that part or not) and the rest of the film boiled down to the Prize Peen and Its Prodigious Progeny.

    Sarah is at the cusp of womanhood, grieving her mother and longing to stay in her fantasyworld to keep hold of her, but really unable to because she’s growing up. She’s stuck in this limboland of having to be a caretaker for an infant without having the opportunity to experience anything remotely related to making one.

    Then comes along the Perfect Seductive Fiend: “I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me.” Of course he is. She doesn’t know what she wants, so how can her construct know what she wants?

    The growth can’t be immense, because she’s still 15, but she finally gets it: “No, it ISN’T fair,” and she awakens from her poisoned-peach dream, which shatters her fantasy bedroom (her id playing tricks on her ego), and in fact, if she were that selfish to begin with, she wouldn’t have attempted the quest to find her brother. “Oh, you took him? Awesome. I’m outtie.”

    So I guess I’m saying that this isn’t about a film critique. I guess I’m saying I’m disappointed that the male gaze was explored/exploited as if it were the only reason the film exists.

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  11. @Moriah Jovan:

    There are copious writings floating on the metaphor of Sarah’s burgeoning sexuality in the film and I’m kind of scratching my head that you didn’t run into any of these.

    I didn’t look for those, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I did, and here is one: http://www.katiescarlett.co.uk/sexuality.php

    So I guess I’m saying that this isn’t about a film critique. I guess I’m saying I’m disappointed that the male gaze was explored/exploited as if it were the only reason the film exists.

    We disagree – that is, I don’t think there’s really more to it — but you’ve motivated me to do some more thinking about it, looking for more pieces like the one linked to above, so thank you.

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  12. I have to say, amusing as the review is, (and honestly how could you not snark at the 80’s costuming hilarity and the incredibly unsubtle imagery?) I’ve always seen this film from a similar perspective as Mariah Jovan – that it’s a story of female coming of age / sexual awareness, and processing grief. You’re correct that it’s solipsistic, but I think that it’s an awesome film for teenage girls precisely because of that. I can’t actually think of many films that deal with the theme of awakening female sexuality from a non male perspective to be honest, much less ones that end so positively.

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  13. @FD:

    from a non male perspective

    I have a hard time seeing her character this way. That said, I did like Sarah, in large part because she was so selfish and aggressive.

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  14. I agree with Moriah. This was my fave film as a kid and I always saw it as a girl who was shedding her girlish self and stepping into being an adult.

    In regard to her self-centredness, I saw that as the product of being shoved aside because her stepmother had a child. For me the quest was inside her own head. What you may see as selfishness, I viewed as holding onto who she was and what she was afraid of losing.

    And other than the co-star of David Bowie’s package, I did not really see the phallic symbols everywhere, but the script was written by a member of the Monty Python troupe, so who knows.

    I interpreted the Masquerade Ball as a different type of shedding of her innocence (white, her wedding dress, the white candles, white pearls–all iconography for innocence). Some of the masks also resemble plague masks and imply contagion. Does she or doesn’t she succumb to temptation or does she move forward and embrace who she will become?

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  15. Fascinating discussion and because I haven’t seen the movie since it first came out I can’t really comment. Except to say that when twenty five year old film still has a seriously dedicated and creative fan following, it is a film that has a meaning and through which people are making meaning and that is powerful stuff.

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  16. I’m with Merrian. Haven’t seen the movie since it came out and can’t add to the discussion since I don’t remember it well enough to divide my opinion of the movie from the reviews I’ve read about. I do doubt that the phallic emphasis was an accident though. Looking back the stuff I remember as a kid had a lot more sexual references than I was aware of as a kid. The original batman and robin show comes immediately to mind.

    I do remember liking the movie but not loving it when I originally saw it. I also remember enjoying the special effects of Dark Crystal but not liking that movie as much.

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  17. I saw this film when it came out and I still re-watch it periodically because I love the artistry of it. They did some serious puppetry in that film.

    If you’ve ever seen the British sf comedy “Red Dwarf,” the guy who plays the humanoid Cat is one of the Fireys.

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  18. I can’t believe I missed this post. I was eleven in 1987 when my brother was adopted and my sister was born the next year. I first saw Labyrinth sometime between those two events; it wasn’t really new, but one of my friends talked about it until my mother rented it for us.

    We were too young to see any maturation towards young-womanhood. Instead, we saw the movie entirely from our situations (my friend was the second oldest girl in a Mormon family with eight children including two toddlers at the time). We saw a girl in conflict with her family.

    The baby is loud and a pain and restricts her ability to be where she wants to be and do what she wants to do (I’ve always thought the rain while she runs home detracted from that aspect since she would have had to go home anyway, not just because she was supposed to be home at a particular time), but she loves him. She wants him to go away, but then she is compelled to save him. Several times in the labyrinth she wants to give up, but even when she has lost her memory in the junk-heap, she knows there is something more important.

    She is also in conflict with her parents, but at the end of the movie when she says “You have no power over me” in awe, she not only breaks the goblin spell, but she recognizes that people have as much power over her as she allows them. When her parents come home and she calls out to answer her father, she makes a choice to accept the power he (and by extension, perhaps, her step-mother) has over her.

    I was in college before anyone pointed the bulge(s) out to me.

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  19. A friend of mine stumbled across this page due to a sort of related discussion that ended up on “the package.” While reading it, you mention Sarah’s first meeting with Hoggle and of what the fountain is made, i.e. well-endowed pissing dwarfs. Neither of us at all remembered this, as far as we knew he was just urinating into a sort of pool, no fountain at all. Upon watching it again, that still seems to be true. A link to a screencap I took and dropped in my photobucket:

    Is that different from your version? Is my copy of the movie edited and I’m not aware of it? :/

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  20. @Jessica: That is really strange! I may have been thinking of a different scene? Or movie? I don’t own the film but from your screen cap it looks like I was definitely wrong, and I can only wonder where the hell I got a vision of a group of well-endowed pissing dwarfs. I’m a little scared.

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  21. I never noticed that before! Thanks for clearing it up, now I can stop searching for the unedited version. lol

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  22. After many, many years and viewings, I think one more may be in order. I really thought the movie was about being careful what you wish for! I have helped raise the children of quite a few people and hope they don’t think I had any perverted ideas in my head! I will definitely be looking at it with new eyes the next time around (alone, at home.) In the ball scene I explained that she had been drugged or spelled. I wondered about the scene but figured it was a stalling technique to make her late; and, that such movies are incomplete without a ball.

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  23. i so like love this movie. is there a word stronger than love? if yes i realy feel that way. right from the beinning it captivated my heart because am a fantasy movie person.

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  24. I loved this movie, too, and missed almost all of the phallic imagery when saw it as a youngster. What I remember loving about it was Hoggle (after peeing in the pool) exterminating the exquisite little fairies and Sarah feeling terrible for them until one bit her. Aha – I thought – things are not going to be as they seem in this world and it’s time to be suspicious of your preconceptions.

    Another favorite scene was when she asked the worm for directions, and he replies that he can’t because he’s just a worm. The worm was kind and gentle, and invited her in for a nice cuppa with the misses. But regardless of his good intentions and friendliness he just couldn’t help her much. Too bad, kid, you’re on your own for now.

    The Helping Hands were just cool, the scenery was really lovely, and I even liked the songs which are lively and appropriately nonsensical.

    I thought Sarah grew quite a bit during the action of the movie. She went from using her strength for purely selfish ends to using her strength for more altruistic reasons, as well as being selfish, which we all need some of. She realized that she’s not the only one that matters, to be careful what she wished for, solved a nice little knights and knaves puzzle, and learned that the singing pretty boy with the big AHEM probably isn’t worth the bother. And, of course, that life isn’t fair. How much do you want a 15-year-old to learn during one movie?

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  25. And I would sooo love to watch this movie with a big bucket of popcorn and Fritz Nietzsche by my side. WWNS?
    (What would Nietzsche say?)

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