Do you remember Jim Henson's Labyrinth? It was that odd little early 90s fantasy written by George Lucas and staring David Bowie and the girl from The Rocketer (Jennifer Connely). Computer animation had come in about ten years earlier with Tron, but we were still at the point when no one had quite figured out its potential to revolutionize movie making. Muppets could still be muppets, no matter how complex they got, and the things achieved with them were wonderful.
So maybe I'm just getting old and nostalgic (my crow's feet are just starting to come in), but I like this movie. My wife and I watched it again recently and with her help I spotted a few things I had never noticed before:
1.) Did you notice that Sara's parents are divorced? The evidence is shown to us, rather than explained in dialogue. We see it in the initial pan of her room where we catch a glimpse of her scrapbook. The pan of the room also reveals to us all the key images that will appear in the other-world of the Labyrinth. In fact, the Labyrinth is, with its brain-like twists and turns, is a symbol of Sara's mind. The creatures that people it are reflections of her room which has been kept in stasis since the divorce as the one thing Sara can control in her life. Like Tennyson's Elaine, Sara "lives in fantasy." This is why she gets so mad at her half-brother Tobby when she finds that he's taken one of her teddy bears -here refuge has been violated by the world she's trying to keep at bay. Another clue comes in the opening of the film where Sara attempts to imitate her actress mother by running lines in the park. It establishes her connection with her mother, but it also alerts us that Sara has cast herself as the wronged heroine in her own drama. Her step mother isn't being hyperbolic when she says "no matter what I do, I'm always the wicked step-mother" -that's the part Sara has assigned her. Jareth's part in this drama is that of the tempter: with his spinning crystal balls, he offers Sara a chance to live forever in her own little bubble. The price is something she thinks she wants to be rid of any-way, the symbol of her father's remarriage, Tobby. It's significant that Jareth's crystals appear as bubbles twice in the movie: once when Sara eats the peach, and once again when she denies his power at the end. In both instances, it is Sara who must pop her own bubble and choose to love her very real step-brother. The interesting twist is that when Sara has finally dethroned her own fantasies in favor of loving her new family, they come back to comfort her -only Jareth is left out in the cold. There seems to be a valuable lesson here in the role of the imagination. It wasn't a bad one for many of us growing up at the time.
2.) Jareth combines two unlikely idols: the pop rockstar and the fantasy anti-hero. For some people, this is where the movie breaks down (David Bowie doing music videos with muppets, really?!?). On a first viewing, my wife was completely thrown out of the movie every time Captain-Tight-Purple-Pants-Ziggy Stardust showed up. This time, however, she said that she got it. Think about growing up before fantasy and geek-dom became mainstream. You had the "normal" girls who were supposed to dream of pop-idols and the "geek" girls who were supposed to fantasize about renaissance dresses and mysterious, magical strangers at balls, and both were supposed to find the other contemptible and stupid. And now everybody's mad at me.... Good, get mad, because the stereotypes were ridiculous. In combining both, the character of Jareth reminds us that our fantasies aren't really as dissimilar as we'd like to pretend. We all flirt with unreality in our lives and get very good at defending our own pet day dreams while heaping scorn on those of others. The problem is that no matter what the day dream, if it masters us we become its slaves and end up hurting the people around us. The final confrontation between Jareth and Sara is saturated with echoes of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness: a created being proposes to satisfy the needs of its creator and distract him from serving others. Jareth promises Sara her dreams if she will continue to make him her idol. But what does he have to offer? Ultimately, the Goblin King's power lies in smoke and mirrors -that's why he can never really stop Sara in her journey through the Labyrinth. When Sara realizes the hollowness of his offer, she states the obvious, "you have no power over me," and Jareth is defeated. Fantasy is just that: fantasy. It's a wonderful servant, but a cruel and empty master since it has no existence but what we give it. It's a timely message for all of us in a culture that manufactures cheep idols by the dozen.
So that's what I saw in my latest viewing of Labyrinth. Not great art, but wonderful and homely in the way that good fairy tales are -with a little twist for the modern era.