The Babe with the Power: “Labyrinth” (1986)

David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King

And I haven’t even really gotten to David Bowie yet, who is simply…epic in this film. The huge hair, the remarkable makeup and eyebrows, the insanely tight pants, the obvious (and infamous) bulge in the crotch, and the deeply bizarre yet wonderful songs that at first listen might not seem to quite suit the film until you realize just how much they actually do, if only due to the sheer mad, off-kilter juxtaposition of it all. ”You remind me of the babe.” “What babe?” “The babe with the power?” “What power?” “The power of voodoo.” “Who do?” “You do.” “Do what?” “Remind me of the babe.” There is undeniable genius to the sequence–the little boy surrounded by a roomful of grotesque, dancing goblin puppets, squawking chickens, and a prancing David Bowie, and looking like he has no clue what the hell is going on around him–as there is throughout this film of things that shouldn’t fit together and yet somehow perfectly do, each new, random, sometimes clashing element adding to the surreal dreamworld of the piece.

Of course, there is a great deal more to love about Labyrinth, particularly from a writing perspective. Despite sometimes seeming to be a glorious mess, there is structure to the madness. The film very cleverly opens on the bookish dreamer, Sarah–beautifully played by a young and green Jennifer Connelly–acting the part and saying the very lines that will set her brother free at the end of the film.  And yet she stumbles on one line, which she can never remember–”You have no power over me.” At the beginning, it doesn’t seem as if there is any specific reason that Sarah always forgets this line, but only later do we realize that it is because up until that point, she was not ready to understand and voice its true meaning.  Sarah is a girl who has always let her love of fairy tales and melodramatic fantasies subsume her life. Although she is a young teenager who should, by this age, start turning her focus to boys (her “wicked stepmother” encourages her to go on dates), she remains in the insular world of her storybooks, in a room surrounded by her childhood possessions and books (echoes of many of them will appear in the Goblin Kingdom). The journey that Sarah takes is ultimately one of self-discovery and growth.

What I might love most about Labyrinth, however, is that unlike a vast majority of similar children’s stories, it doesn’t encourage its heroine to eventually shun or evolve past the fairy tales and fantasies of her youth, even though that’s what it seems to be doing for a short while, when she gives her beloved teddy bear, Lancelot, to her brother, Toby, and starts to put some of her toys away in a drawer. This proves to be a deliberate misdirect, however, when Sarah stops, sees her friends, Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Didymus, and his steed/shaggy dog, Ambrosius, in the mirror, and then calls them into her world for a celebration. The main point of the film is to empower this young girl to recognize that, as she gets older, she must learn to control these stories, not the other way around. She can no longer allow them to dictate her life, but she can draw upon their inspiration and revisit the land of her childhood whenever she needs it. And Sarah’s major epiphany in the end proves to be something even more complex: she has had control over these stories all along. She just didn’t realize it at the time.

Sarah at the start of the Labyrinth

Before Sarah completes the fateful words, “You have no power over me,” Jareth says something most telling:

JARETH: Sarah, beware.  I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.

SARAH: Generous! What have you done that’s generous?

JARETH: Everything!  Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me. I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside-down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous?…Stop! Wait! Look, Sarah. Look what I’m offering you–your dreams…I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want…Just fear me, love me. Do as I say, and I will be your slave.

The key to the film lies in this dialogue. In most child-travels-to-a-magical-land stories, events seem to happen to the heroine or hero, and it is through undergoing these adventures that have been thrust upon her that she grows. This facade, however, obscures the interesting subtext that most of these stories are framed as dreams, and therefore whatever happens to the child is actually from the imagination or subconscious of the child, not an outside source. Labyrinth takes this subtext and makes it text. Jareth kidnaps Toby because Sarah wished him to do so. He forces her to travel through the labyrinth in order to save her brother, because that is what she expects from the stories she’s read. He is playing a role that she has set out for him, without consciously realizing it. She has created this whole world, in a way, from the pieces of her room/childhood (which is why it’s so ironic and meta when she discovers an imaginary version of her room inside her dream). This also explains why finding herself in the Goblin Kingdom doesn’t actually seem to faze Sarah that much. She lives her life inside stories such as these, and so she is remarkably equipped to handle these situations (much more so than Alice or Dorothy, because she knows their stories already), and knows many of the right things to say and actions to take, or at least knows how to follow the (il)logic of each situation to a fitting conclusion.

Sarah and Jareth at the Ball

Author: Robert Berg

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