Tom Jolliffe goes deep underground in the Labyrinth to uncover a darker underbelly…
Celebrating its 33rd anniversary, the cult kids classic, Labyrinth has grown in reputation over the years. Initially an unsuccessful theatrical release, critically dismissed (as many kids films tended to be then), it has spent the best part of 32 years invading the brain stems of cinefans, through video, TV, DVD and more recently specialist screenings and re-releases. Labyrinth is now a huge cult film with a massive following. From those who grew up in the 80’s and having seen it upon it’s initial creation, to the new audiences who pick it up along the way.
It’s not just new kids it enraptures these days either. Whilst on the surface it is a kids film, it has a wickedly impish sense of humour from the dry, sarcastic delivery of David Bowie as chief villain of the piece, to a clear dose of Python-styled humour no doubt imbued by one of the screenwriters, Terry Jones. All that aside, it’s a joyous technical marvel. It’s exquisitely made. An entire Goblin Kingdom, complete with varied inhabitants was all hand crafted and placed in front of the camera. It’s the old fashioned way which now has been replaced by green screens in modern fantasy films. Yet Labyrinth feels just as the title suggests. Big, expansive and each ‘stage’ delightfully unique. All tied up and packaged with a David Bowie soundtrack. What more could you want?
How about some dark undertones? How about a film that below the surface is really a darkly tragic tale of a girl who shows sociopathic tendencies, and clear signs of paranoid schitzophrenia. Here’s the thing: Nothing that happens in Labyrinth (if you over-analyse it like I’m doing) is real. It’s all a delusional fantasy brought about from the isolation and probably mental breakdown of a 15 year old girl. She comes from a broken home. Her mother left to become a musical theatre superstar, pre-occupied with her love affair with a superstar co-star. Meanwhile she’s living with dad, step-mum and a half brother she’s regularly left to care for.
Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly) bedroom houses the entire wonderous story of the film (where she has 13 hours to get through the kingdom to the castle and rescue her baby brother) in an opening tracking shot. All seen through toys, games, books, newspaper clippings, ornaments and pictures. From a Goblin King doll, a wooden maze, to copies of Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and an Escher painting stuck to her wall. Look at Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Norman Bates in Psycho. Their inability to perceive their reality, to repress the true nature of what is happening. Sarah is similar. Every character, every element is all there in her room. It’s all wrapped within a book, called Labyrinth that Sarah obsessively reads (where even consciously allowing herself to drift into fantasy, she still loses track of time).
There appears to be abandonment issues too. Her fantasy casts her as her mother. She must find a child in her care she’s abandoned. She’s cast as leading lady in her own musical. The villain of the piece, the Goblin King (Bowie) takes on not just the figure of villainy from the book, and her doll version but the image of her mothers musical theatre lover. He is the man who keeps Sarah from her mother, but at the same time there is a blossoming yearning from a girl growing into womanhood. Beneath the conscious dislike and resentment toward her potential stepfather, she feels attraction. Perhaps her first crush. The Goblin King is an object of hissing, repulsive villainy but also desire which comes to the fore in a dream within a dream sequence which sees Sarah in a nightmarish scenario at a masked ball, where she’s inextricably drawn to Bowie. Fearful of adults and what they represent, but still drawn to being one, or being with one in particular.
Even as Sarah goes through her quest her consciousness occasionally intervenes. She almost disregards herself at moments with throwaway acknowledgement that’s she’s been through all this before. Maybe the whole thing is a kind of sub-conscious self therapy, a mind trying to cleanse itself and move on with some clarity. It just never does. It all repeats. ‘I could never do this before’ when she solves one of the Labyrinth’s puzzles. She acknowledges at the end of the film, back in the safety of her room, when she comes to terms with her quest. She addresses her ‘friends.’ ‘I don’t know why but every now and again in my life, I need you…all of you.’ This certainly isn’t this cowgirls first rodeo. Her chosen villain in this fantasy even acts as conduit for her unconscious. On one hand, as per Sarah’s wants in his role, he wants her to give in to him, to be her villain for eternity. On the other hand her unconscious mind hijacks him to tell her that he’s not there. ‘I can’t live Within You.’ A line and title of one of the songs. Who knows too, but the drugged peach might be an admission that she’s also had some pharmaceutical aid in living out this delusional fantasy.
There appears too, to be a battle between childhood and adulthood. She’s reached a point where she must put away the fantasy of childhood and look to the responsibility of adulthood. Fantasy, creativity slowly seeps away, replaced with reality and hardship (Oh man…can I visit the Labyrinth please??). She’s telling herself that her material objects mean nothing. Her family is important, friends are important and it’s time to stop living vicariously through her toys, books and games. Her step-mother (who interestingly doesn’t appear to have a sub-conscious alter-ego in Sarah’s tale) even says ‘I wish you would have a date, you should have dates at your age.’
By the end of the film, Sarah comes close to accepting this and moving on, but as her room is overcome with creatures from her delusion, re-appearing and descending into a full blown party, it seems evident that she’s gone back to a repressive introversion and pushed reality back into a dark corner. The film is all fun, games and outro music but there’s something bittersweet and tragic about the final shots.
So there we have it. This is what happens when you’ve seen Labyrinth a hundred times. You start reading deeply into it, and whilst I’ve gone well beyond what Jones and Henson probably had in mind with my cursed film studies brain, Labyrinth is certainly an intriguing film beyond it’s fluffy child friendly package, which came out in an era when kids films could go dark (Think Return To Oz or Legend). Henson’s uniquely brilliant film is more visionary than given credit for, and an example of a film, should the pitch ever become reality, that just cannot be remade.