Even though it is 30 years old at this point, Labyrinth feels very timeless. Thematically, it touches on something that anyone can relate to. We were all teenagers at some point, embedded in a hormonal whirlwind of angst and aspirations. Regardless of who you were during that time, there were opportunities for change and probably a desire to escape from the tribulations of everyday life. At her core, the main character of Sarah clearly wants to get away from her life. Like any great story, it is a fable with a message behind it. In the case of Labyrinth, it is a combination of learning how much we miss something once it is gone as well as the transition from teenager to adulthood.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Labyrinth, a young girl named Sarah wishes that her annoying stepbrother would disappear, only to find out that he has actually been taken by a group of goblins. Enter the Goblin King, played with great malice by the late David Bowie. He arranges a deal with Sarah in which she will get her brother back if she can solve his trap ridden titular maze. Along the way, she meets a collection of memorable characters brought to life by the wizardry of Jim Henson and George Lucas. As with any fairy tale, Henson’s creations taught the valuable lesson that characters aren’t all that they seem to be on the surface.
Although Labyrinth is a nostalgic favorite of mine, it holds up surprisingly well. The biggest reason, in my estimation, is the use of practical effects. The world of Labyrinth feels so vibrant and so alive because what you see is physically in front of the camera. When special effects are used (namely an infamous blue screen effect), they blatantly stick out. As we saw with the Star Wars prequels, it can be difficult for actors to convey emotion if they’re acting off of very little. I can criticize Jennifer Connolly’s acting at times but for the most part she feels very natural.
For a children’s film, Sarah’s character arc is surprisingly very complex. Her journey is one of growing up. Throughout the film, she is punished for arrogance and naïvety. I lost track of how many times she retorts “That’s not fair” during the movie. It becomes monotonous, until she realizes that life is not always fair. The Goblin King manipulates her throughout the film, using traps, but there’s also a sexual connotation to their dynamic. His appearance can be read as how she visualizes what the character from her book looks like. In essence, it is her idea of what she finds attractive in a man.
When they finally face off in the third act, he tempts her with a declaration of submissiveness. It’s in that moment where Sarah finally, fully becomes an adult. She takes responsibility for herself and her actions. By rejecting his advances, Sarah throws away her immaturity and child-like selfishness to save her brother. When she finally returns home and sees her bedroom laced with toys, she understands that she has outgrown them. Her friends from the labyrinth do show up at the end but it’s not because she is still a child. It is because sometimes we just need a little help to stay young at heart.
As the villain, David Bowie is wonderfully campy but charismatic. His natural humor shines through, although his character does a pretty good job of being both spiteful and menacing. All of the musical numbers performed by him are complimented by some clever set design and camerawork. The stair room toward the end is still as impressive to me now as it was when I first saw it. Like I said earlier though, the one song that feels out-of-place is mixed with a jarring blue screen effect.
When it was initially released, Labyrinth was met with a mixed critical reception. Since then, it has gone on to become a cult classic. Looking at it now, it is still an imaginative piece of storytelling. It can be argued that it is a relic of the ’80s but so are films like The Neverending Story. Like film in general, it is all about perception and taste. As one of the characters eloquently states, “If you turn it this way and look into it, it will show you your dreams.”