Labyrinth: David Bowie in an ’80s Fantasy Classic

We look at why Labyrinth is still such an endlessly appealing movie...

Labyrinth (1986)

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under 40 to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back.

The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff.

He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Street and Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories.

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But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood.

For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain.

I’ve brought you a gift

Labyrinth - David Bowie

A good proportion of the fuss about Labyrinth is down to one man: thin, white diamond dog from Mars, David Bowie. To be fair, it’s his leggings that spark the great majority of fuss, but we’ll come to those.

Bowie wasn’t always a cert for the role of Jareth the Goblin King, but like all the best casting decisions, it’s now impossible to imagine it otherwise. Sting was apparently discussed for the part, as was Michael Jackson. One thing’s certain, had Jackson been cast in a role requiring him to kidnap a baby boy then spend the rest of the movie thrusting his pelvis at a fourteen-year-old, we’d be watching Labyrinth with expressions of wide-eyed horror, rather than teary-eyed nostalgia nowadays.

Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and the part went to Bowie. He cites his love of Henson’s The Dark Crystal as the reason he accepted the role, but I prefer to imagine that, still relatively fresh from the excesses of the seventies, his manager just dressed him in that get-up and pushed onto set without him ever noticing he was in a film. “Castle, little goblin men, kidnapped baby?” thinks Bowie, looking around, “That’ll be Tuesday, then.”

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Watch Labyrinth on Amazon

The Jareth costume he wears in Labyrinth is more or less full-on panto, from the tights to the pointy collar and pointier eyebrows. Bowie’s dressed in a wig that looks as if someone put T’Pau through the tumble dryer and a Regency cut jacket which proudly displays his wares like a campy ’80s Mr Darcy.

Much like the contents of Bowie’s leggings, the problematic nature of Jareth’s relationship with Jennifer Connelly’s young lead Sarah hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention. Since we’re not familiar with how social sexual mores work in the goblin kingdom, perhaps we shouldn’t judge. Except, yes, we should. Jareth’s pushing 40, Sarah’s 14 and he clearly wants to, ahem, live within her. 

You remind me of the babe

Labyrinth - The Masked Ball

When Sarah first meets Jareth, he performs some lacklustre close-up magic and fiddles with his balls a lot. Anyone will tell you that’s not a stellar beginning to a courtship. The Goblin King then gives our heroine thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth, before spending the rest of his time sabotaging her progress and distracting her from the task in hand, like the Internet in obscene tights.

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When Jareth’s not spying on Sarah in the guise of a pervy owl, slipping her Rohypnol-laced peaches or nicking her baby brother, he’s singing jaunty pop songs about his life, a bit like Glee, but surrounded by lifeless puppets instead of human beings. What’s that you say? Shame on you.

While the rational bit of my brain tells me that the songs on Labyrinth aren’t much cop, the other ninety percent tells me they’re all masterpieces (except for the one about getting down with the Firies, which has always been rubbish). I defy anyone who has a relationship with this film not to smile involuntarily when they hear the jingly synths, big drums, slap bass and Bowie croon, which signal the start of a Labyrinth song. They’re smile-making sounds.

read more: David Bowie’s Acting Career

Lyrically, however, the songs do present a few more problems. “Magic Dance,” for one, offers some very questionable parenting advice. You don’t have to be Dr. Tanya Byron to know that slapping babies to make them free will get you into all kinds of trouble. “Within You” is as good a hymn to a sadomasochistic relationship as there’s ever been, and the cheerily upbeat “Underground” reads like it’s been written from the perspective of Joseph Fritzl.

Let’s not even mention the line about the love injection. Gulp.

I think I’m getting smarter

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Labyrinth - Sarah

Songs aside, let’s move over to our heroine. I’ll insert a quick warning before we start. If you’d like the actress Jennifer Connelly to remain undefiled as innocent Sarah in your memory, then I strongly urge you not to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. Or at least turn it off about half an hour before the end. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Sarah, then. Like a lot of young ’80s fantasy movie characters, she’s a romantic soul who prefers books, stories and her imagination to the real world. Kids’ fantasy films in this era seem fiercely protective of childhood creativity, showing their young protagonists battling for the right to use their imagination.

Sarah is much like The Neverending Story‘s Bastian and Return To Oz‘s Dorothy in this respect. All three characters have lost their mothers, are isolated from their peers and retreat into invented lands built from the stuff of their own damaged psyches. They’re a little bit messed up, these kids. I blame Ronald Reagan.

In Labyrinth, Sarah is told she’s too old for her toys and games, that it’s time for her to put away childish things. During her coming-of-age journey, she’s repeatedly faced with choices to make, left or right, up or down, but is given no information to assist her. She learns that fairness rarely plays a part in how things work out and you can’t always rely on what you see. 

Sarah’s route to adulthood is a convoluted trek through a magical world where normal logic doesn’t apply and nothing is what it seems, a bit like your first Glastonbury.

The labyrinth turns out to be a surprisingly bureaucratic place, a kind of live-action videogame text adventure where you have to ask precisely the right questions before you can get any useful info. During her time there, Sarah manages to shake off not one, but two drug-induced hallucinations. She’s given a basic introduction to extrapolated logic from some Scottish jesters, and finds that her potential helpers are more likely to start arguing with their hats than give her useful directions.

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Again, quite a lot like your first Glastonbury.

Things aren’t always what they seem in this place

Labyrinth - Firies

Let’s not beat around the bush, nothing about Labyrinth‘s story is original, nor does it claim to be. Labyrinth isn’t one to hide its sources. It all but lists them in a travelling shot around Sarah’s bedroom at the start of the movie. Sarah is Wonderland’s Alice, she’s Snow White, she’s Max from Where The Wild Things Are, but most of all, she’s Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz.

Just as Labyrinth wears its influences on its sleeve, it’s hard to tally up everything the film has influenced in turn. At the end of Matt Smith’s first series as the Doctor, Doctor Who audiences saw a world created out of objects found in a young girl’s bedroom. It’s a germ of an idea that may well have grown out of Labyrinth.

Duncan Jones, son of Bowie, once admitted it was being on the set of Labyrinth as a kid that fired up his excitement about filmmaking. Logically, then, without Labyrinth, we might not have had Moon. It’s a sobering thought for sci-fi fans.

I have turned the world upside down and I have done it all for you

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Labyrinth - Escher

If the plot isn’t, what certainly is both original and deeply wonderful is Brian Froud’s concept design, Terry Jones’ screenplay, and Jim Henson’s puppet magic. I haven’t left myself nearly enough room to express everything that’s impressive about the film’s artistry (damn my indulgence for rubbish jokes about Bowie’s package). Suffice to say, the design, puppetry and script are imaginative, funny, intricate and just plain lovely.

read more: Exploring David Bowie’s Sci-Fi Fascination

Also, for anyone tempted to laugh at the CGI owl swooping around in the opening credits, we should all remember that this was 1986. We were practically still primordial soup in 1986, yet Lucasfilm and the Jim Henson Company were already making a decent fist at CGI owls in flight. Impressive doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you

Labyrinth - Ludo, Sarah, and Sir Didymus

Though I know it must be true, I find it difficult to accept that children of the nineties or noughties could feel for their childhood movies anything like the passion our lot feels for Labyrinth. My fanboy arrogance just won’t admit that Home AloneJumanji, or The Princess Diaries could ever be to them what Labyrinth is to us. When they protest, I want to butcher a line from another 1986 classic, “That’s not a treasured childhood movie,” I’d say, pulling a VHS tape of Jim Henson’s goblin-fest out of my fringed leather jacket, “That’s a treasured childhood movie.”

It bloody is, too.

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This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.