In an age where thousands of films are produced per year, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the many that barely scratch the surface of popular culture. Plenty of others have their moment in the spotlight and then disappear. Only the rare few can truly stand the test of time. David Bowie’s Labyrinth is one of those special few. But what makes the 1986 cult classic so well-loved that not only one generation, but now three, call it a favorite? Why is this film so different from the Hollywood standard? It’s not just nostalgia for a time before CGI, and it’s not just because a legend passed and so many want to remember him. It’s so much more than that.
Labyrinth, a Jim Henson film packed with his tradmark puppets, opens with an old school roll of credits on a black screen with an owl flying in and out. One of the songs Davie Bowie wrote especially for the film are playing in the background, and his trademark voice makes it seem today as if he were singing from beyond the grave, which thanks to the magic of film he basically is. After the credits finish, we meet Sarah, an obnoxious, petulant, selfish sixteen year old who is played almost to the point of overacting by Jennifer Connelly. Sarah is peeved that her dad and stepmom are having a date night and leaving her with her baby brother. So as any teenager would do in her situation, she wishes the Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) would come and take her brother away. Wish granted. Instant regret. When the Goblin King himself shows up in all his flowy garmeted splendor, she immediately takes her wish back. However, the king won’t renege his gift quite so easily. He tells her she can have her baby brother back if she can complete his labyrinth in 13 hours. Otherwise, baby brother will be turned into a goblin and live with Jareth and his goblins forever.
Into the labyrinth Sarah goes, where she meets a number of friends and foes of the puppet variety. For a film that would be considered low tech by today’s standards, it holds up surprisingly well. In fact, it is rather refreshing not to be bombarded by CGI at every turn. Instead, one is greeted by the painstakenly sculpted faces of Henson’s puppets. Each one is different, and all are beautiful in their own right. They are creepy and weird and unlike anything one has seen before, but they stop just short of being scary. This is a children’s movie, after all. The most memorable of the puppets met are Sarah’s new friends Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus. Hoggle is a creature who looks astoundingly like Billy Crystal’s character in The Princess Bride struggles with the decision whether to be loyal to his fierce and fearful King, or to his kind and trusting new friend Sarah. Ludo, on the other hand, has no such dilemma. Sarah saves him from some bullying knights, and he is instantly her lifelong bestie. That’s how it works. Didymus is very much a Monty Python and the Holy Grail type of knight. Together, the group bands together Wizard of Oz style and helps Sarah get through the labyrinth to rescue her baby brother. Of course, it’s not easy and they run into a few obstacles. The most interesting are the Bog of Eternal Stench, a bog that farts and smells so awfully you can’t forget it, the gorgeous Goblin Ball with Jareth, and an epic cluster of a final fight sequence.
Enough cannot be said about the Goblin Ball. It is such a stunningly beautiful sequence that an entire film could be made about it and no one would be upset. In theory, it is horrifically creepy, since Jareth essentially drugs Sarah and kidnaps her into this magical bubble where all of his cronies harass and scare her and he creepily leers at her from across the room. However, it comes off as the part of the movie most likely to be in a fairytale. Everyone is dressed in these marvelous costumes, and it’s the 80s so poofy sleeves, big hair, and glitter abounds. David Bowie looks his most androgynous and he is beautiful. He manages to steal the show from Jennifer Connelly, and that’s no easy feat because her dress and hair are big enough to fit a circus in them.
In the end, of course, Sarah makes it to the Goblin King’s castle, which is in the center of the labyrith and site at which her brother is being held. That’s not the end of her journey, though, for Jareth will not give up his prize so easily. And it is not her brother that is his prize, but Sarah. Everything the King has done has been to capture her and keep her with him forever. It’s unclear if he’s fallen in love with her, or if he just wants to subjugate her, but either way he wants her. Her brother is hidden within an equally difficult labyrinth of stairs, but Sarah has long since learned that things are not as they seem in this world, so she says screw it and jumps, overriding the system. Jareth makes one last attempt to keep her, but she tells him he has no power of her and whoosh she and her brother are back home safe and sound, just in time for the adults to come back home (isn’t that always the way?).
So what is it about this film that so well stands the test of time? It’s hard to really pin it down to just one or two things. David Bowie is certainly an important reason. His confidence and charisma probably ushered in a whole new generation of girls destined to fall for the bad boys and pretty boys of the world. But there is also an earnestness to his character, and a vulnerability that endears him to the audience. You can’t hate him, though you know you should. He’s probably just lonely and sad and filled with some Dance Magic Dance. But aside from Bowie, there is also the creativity of the film. It is inventive and a visionary masterpiece that offers an endless splendor for the eyes and ears. Also, the movie offers a message lodged within its dark and twisty labyrinth. It’s about forgiveness and second chances, even those you have to offer yourself.
Who are we kidding? It’s about how great Bowie looks in tights.