Labyrinth: coming-of-age fantasy film let down by music and the passage of time

Jim Henson, “Labyrinth” (1986)

A film very much of its time, “Labyrinth” has not aged too well and the 1980s-era disco music oozes cheese from every pore – but it does have charm, energy and slapstick humour. The plot is basic enough for a coming-of-age fantasy film: young teenage girl Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), rather bratty and selfish, and feeling put-upon by her father and stepmother, wishes for her baby brother Toby to be snatched up by the Goblin King of the fairy stories she has grown up with and still hankers for. Before she realises what she’s done, the toddler is snatched up by the faerie aristocrat (David Bowie) himself who whisks the child off to his castle in the middle of the Goblin kingdom. The King gives Sarah thirteen hours to recover Toby before turning him into a goblin. Sarah then enters the fantasy world to try to find the route to the castle. Along the way she finds helpful allies Hoggle, the monster Ludo and the fox terrier knight Sir Didymus among others who aid her in her quest. She reaches the castle and is confronted by an Escher-like arrangement of stairs that she must surmount to reach Toby. Meanwhile the clock is ticking close to midnight, at which time Toby will no longer be a baby.

Reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz”, except that Sarah’s helpers are rather less memorable than the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion with their perceived lack of compassion, intelligence and courage, the quest turns out fairly arduous (though not without a fair bit of bawdy and subversive humour – the script was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python and the Flying Circus fame) and forces Sarah to confront her fears and treasure her memories as she leaves childhood behind and becomes an adult. The Goblin King may represent sexual awakening and what Sarah may or may not desire in a man – he is at once evil and menacing, yet he’s not without charm and he may actually want Sarah more than Toby, who will just become another goblin in a place already over-run with goblins. Sarah’s adventures run fairly smoothly though, and the only real obstacles in her path turn out to be the weak and forgettable songs which bog down the action.

At least the young Jennifer Connelly acquits herself well in this fantasy world and her character learns a few lessons about life, looking and caring for others, and is no longer afraid to admit that she needs help and she needs friends. And she very sensibly rejects the Goblin King and his ridiculous hairstyle and outrageous interpretation of early 19th-century Beau Brummell fashion.

This being a Jim Henson film, the puppets dominate the scenery though after nearly 40 years they don’t look quite as impressive as they did when the film was first released. The sets likewise look less magical and colourful (especially when compared to “The Wizard of Oz” of nearly 50 years vintage at the time) and more workman-like and drab.