Labyrinth

November 23, 2011

Let me tell you about Labyrinth, one of the fantasy creations of Jim Henson.  This movie is, I admit, a target of convenience; I just happened to watch this recently with my daughter, and she loved it.  (It’s available for instant viewing on Netflix, so it’s very easy to watch if you have a subscription.)

The plot follows a girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, in a crucial early role), a lonely LARPer who gets tired of babysitting and wishes that a goblin king would come and steal her baby half-brother Toby.  What she’s hardly expecting is that a goblin king who’s infatuated with her really does show up and snatch the boy.  When she justifiably protests that she didn’t really mean her request (after all, she’s used to living in the real world), she’s dropped into a vast maze, the Labyrinth of the title, with thirteen hours to make it through before her brother becomes the property of the goblins forever.

Along the way, she meets muppets:  animal and vegetable (and in somwhere between); beautiful and ugly (and in between); friendly and hostile (and in between).  She explores underground shafts and caves, as well as sections of prim garden and infernally reeking swamp.  She’s also subjected to a number of songs, performed by the various inhabitants of the strange warren, including the rock star who rules it all.

Unlike some other fantasy films from my childhood, I thought this one stood up fairly well.  Or, at least, I considered it to be just as good now as I did when it came out.  Specifically, I think the first half is absolutely entrancing.  The second half is substantially less impressive.  (Near the end, however, there is a remarkable scene set in an impossible M. C. Escher world of backwards stairways and impossible arches, which I think is really quite excellent.)

The main difference between the two halves of this film is that the first part is primarily about the labyrinth itself.  I love mazes, in art and literature.  As a child, I had at least a dozen books of mazes to solve.  (I always wanted to explore a hedge maze, which would have been incredibly exciting when I was about seven, but I never did get to explore one until I was about eleven.)  My favorite episode of Doctor Who is Death to the Daleks, primarily because of the labyrinthine lost city of the Exxilons.  One of my favorite science fiction novels is Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze.

I spent hours pouring over Maze:  Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle.  I never did find the route to the room at the center, although I mapped out all the connections between the rooms; I figured out which room had to contain the secret door, but I could never locate it in the picture.  (The linked version of the book is actually really good.  It avoids giving away the location of the secret passage about as well as is possible using hyperlinks.)

I had an Apple IIGS game called simply:  “Maze.”  I played it and played it, but I could never finish it.  It was pretty difficult; as far as I got, I still had no idea what the goal was, nor in which order one needed to complete the branching paths.  At one point, you had to out-race two razor-edged, whirling, red-and-yellow stars—a feat only possible if you waited until they were as far away as they could possibly wander, then raced at maximum clip straight to the other side of their room, which required moving the mouse smoothly and at precisely the correct speed for the entire trip.  After walkthroughs became readily available on the World-Wide Web, I went back and finished a few of my old video games that I’d never quite solved as a teenager.  This one was not among them, because there does not seem to be any evidence that it ever existed to be found on the Internet.

I have digressed, but to make a point.  I really, really, really like mazes, and this is what I really enjoyed about this film.  Watching Sarah’s journey through the Labyrinth was just astonishing.  Visually, it is a work of art.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  There are varied visual styles; as the characters progress, passing through doors or sliding down into pits, they move between walls of brick, stone, and hedge, through mossy marshes, and through portals with strange guards and talking knockers.  This is a place of puzzles and mystery, changing constantly and filled with dire dangers.

Foremost among the dangers is master of the Labyrinth himself, Jareth—king of the goblins.  He’s played by David Bowie, in the most over-the-top fashion possible.  Of course, that fits the character, but he makes for a very jarring lord over a bunch of minor muppet monsters.  A natural topic of debate surrounding this character is whether he’s supposed to be just another goblin himself (as his bizarre makeup and unnatural hair suggest), or was he once a human child, who the goblins abducted?  The abduction of one infant is obviously key to the plot of this movie, and stealing babies is pretty standard behavior for many strains of mythological goblins.  But of course, maybe there isn’t any difference between a goblin and a (former) human babe.

The other goblins are a motley bunch.  They’re all different, varying from downright cute to just a little bit scary.  The goblins and other creatures don’t have the same deep detail that Jim Henson and Brian Froud had created for The Dark Crystal, which is a movie I can enjoy without reservation all the way through.  They are amusing, however, especially the anthropomorphic dog knight who charges into battle atop another canine steed.  It’s also interesting to compare the stuffed toys and other items found around Sarah’s crowded bedroom to the larger, moving forms that such things take within the Labyrinth.

For such repeated images form this work’s primary motif.  The image of Sarah as a princess in a sparkling gown recurs many times.  The first time is completely real, as she acts out a dramatic monologue in a suburban park near her house.  The character she’s playing shows up again, in dreams, and in dreams within dreams.  For, in the end, it seems all Sarah’s adventures were a dream.  Or perhaps not.  The movie plays once with with the notion that the whole adventure is a dream before swiftly dispelling that illusion.  But this isn’t the, No, it’s not actually a dream, message from the finale of Time Bandits, and in the end, it does seem that it was probably all a fiction.  Really, the message is that it doesn’t matter whether the Labyrinth and its weird inhabitants are real or not.  Labyrinth wants us to believe that if we can hold onto an appropriate portion of the wonder and fantasy of childhood, we may live happy adult lives.

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One Response to “Labyrinth”


  1. Submitted for your approval and commentary, Labyrinth’s equivalent from twenty years later: Mirrormask
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0366780/
    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mirrormask/


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