Monday, 25 January 2016

The Mental Labyrinth

On the surface, it is not hard to see why a film like Labyrinth has developed such a huge following. At first glance, it appears to simply be nothing more than a surreal (if very campy) fantasy adventure with a variety of bizarre and humorous characters designed by Jim Henson. As ridiculous as the film's story might be, one cannot deny the imagination that has gone into its narrative both in terms of the world depicted and those who inhabit it. This creativity is more or less the main draw of the film. The actual story is very simplistic, and is more or less taken straight from The Wizard of Oz: a teenage girl gets transported to a mystical world where she is joined by three strange companions on a quest to return home while a powerful magician pulls every trick at their disposal to stop her. One could argue that Sarah is a somewhat stronger character than Dorothy, but the parallels are undeniable.

However, while on the surface, this appears to be the basic narrative, the movie might just be more complex than one will initially realize. Far from a surreal adventure with strange Muppets (even for Jim Henson), it is actually a very detailed character study. Many aspects of the film become much more sense when one realizes that, much like The Wizard of Oz, most if not all of the central narrative actually happens in the mind of its heroine, played by Jennifer Connelly. What the audience experiences is not in fact a physical journey but a mental one. It is really a story about conflicting emotions, and her struggle to accept herself.

When Sarah is introduced, the film immediately begins by way of a strange sequence which sets up an important detail about her character. In this scene, Sarah appears in a suspiciously medieval-looking environment. She is in an open field near a stone bridge, wearing an old-fashioned dress while reading her book. At first glance, it appears that she is in a medieval fantasy world, creating a jarring affect when the next scene reveals a modern neighborhood. This contrast is also emphasized by the composition of both scenes. When she is at the bridge, it is bright and sunny with a strong use of high-key lighting, while low-key lighting is used for her running through the neighborhood in the rain. These touches allow a glimpse into Sarah's imagination.

The opening scene represents how she imagines herself, while the following sequence shows that image being shattered by reality. She tries to enter a fantasy world, but keeps getting pulled out of it by her real-world responsibilities. The only thing that she is able to cling to of the world she longs for is her soaked and antiquated looking dress, and even this is revealed to be nothing more than a costume. Once at home, Sarah removes a large portion of the dress, revealing underneath a pair of jeans and running shoes. This sets up the movie's prominent theme of fantasy and reality, and the conflict between childlike imagination and adult responsibility. The tension between these two extremes drives much of the film.

At the beginning, Sarah's imaginary world is shattered by her adult responsibilities. When she returns home, she finds out that she has to look after her baby brother Toby. While she does not appear to have any specific plans, Sarah is frustrated about being given responsibility without a choice in the matter. She feels as if Toby is taking over her personal life, represented when she enters her room filled with fantasy characters and costume accessories. She also upset when her teddy bear, fittingly named Lancelot, is found in Toby's room. Sarah finds Toby crying, and drawing on her imagination begins to taunt him, though less out of any intentional abuse and more her not thinking straight due to her frustration.

Eventually, Sarah unwittingly summons the goblins, including their King Jareth, played by the late David Bowie. It is the moment Sarah coldly says "I wish the goblins would come and take you away" that reality ends, and her mind takes over, drawing on her imaginary worlds. In addition to the title of the movie, Labyrinth is also the title of a book she is seen reading several times. It is presumably from this book that she draws her "story" that describes her feelings about having to babysit Toby, which includes a "goblin king." It therefore seems strange that a film until now grounded in reality should suddenly incorporate these fantastical elements with no logical explanation.

This makes more sense when one realizes that Jareth as a person does not actually exist in the world of the story, nor does the labyrinth. The conflict is not one between two people so much as between the protagonist and her own consciousness. Sarah's personality is broken up into two roles, and the movie is the tension and eventual reconciliation between these two sides of her personality. Sarah casts herself as the responsible and mature side, while the frustration and desire to get rid of Toby that she has displayed becomes personified in Jareth.

Immediately before he appears, Sarah steps out of the bedroom, pauses, and re-enters, presumably feeling guilty about her momentary outburst. It is fittingly timed that this is when Jareth makes his first appearance, as he represents this side of Sarah's personality. As he does not actually exist, he probably never abducted Toby, but he does act as Sarah's darker side. Upon taking the child, he opts to try to pursued Sarah to ignore her responsibilities, to go back to her room. Sarah refuses to accept this, but this other part of her mind is persistent. These two sides clash together, represented when she finds herself in the titular labyrinth.

The labyrinth is less a physical location than it is a mental state. This is why Sarah appears to simply teleport into the area outside its entrance, rather than any travel actually taking place. Jareth challenges Sarah to "solve the labyrinth" in order to retrieve her brother. The labyrinth, however, is symbolic of the tension between both sides of Sarah's own mind. At the moment, it is the irresponsible side, represented by Jareth, that remains in control. This is evidenced by the increasing obsession that he develops with Sarah. He never shows any real concern for his actual responsibilities as the supposed King of the Goblins, symbolizing his role as her irresponsible side.

This is shown by Sarah's initial struggles to begin navigating the maze. She has trouble even finding the door, and upon entering is easily motivated to give up whenever it gets too complicated. She breaks down upon entering the first passage. Later on, she tries to use lipstick to mark her routes, only to find someone has been moving the tiles she drew on. "It's not fair," she childishly yells several times throughout the first act. It is only as she metaphorically grows up that she makes any real progress. With her progression into the maze, her responsible side slowly becomes more powerful, while Jareth becomes weaker and increasingly desperate to maintain control.

The strange Muppet dwarf Hoggle also serves as a bridge between these two sides of Sarah's personality. Throughout the movie, he is constantly torn between serving both sides. On one side, there is the pressure brought on by the irresponsible side, and yet he also has a consciousness that tells him Sarah is trying to do the right thing (even if he refuses to admit it). Hoggle's good intentions but apparent cowardice symbolize Sarah's own feelings as she struggles through a difficult evening. He constantly tries to offer assistance to Sarah, while also being easily scared or pressured by Jareth into doing the wrong thing, yet whenever he gives in, he also must face the guilt of his actions; just as Sarah struggles with the immediate guilt of her own actions.
When Sarah first enters the labyrinth, Hoggle asks her a simple question: "would you go left or go right?" and when asked which way he would go simply replies "I wouldn't go either." Sarah immediately dismisses him as being useless, completely failing to understand the meaning of his advice. It sounds at first as though he is merely expressing his reluctance to go through the labyrinth, but he actually says he would not go "either way" because neither way is correct. At this point, Sarah is still overwhelmed by her guilt and frustration, and subsequently remains unable to see the actual passage forward.
As Sarah continues through the labyrinth, she displays an increasing strength in overcoming its obstacles even as Jareth throws various tricks at her. This is symbolized by the various strange challenges she faces in the labyrinth, during which she displays intelligence and resourcefulness that gets her into the oubliette, far enough to make Jareth worried that she might actually succeed. These changes occur as Sarah herself "grows up" and begins to take responsibility. The responsible side of her personality is now taking control, while Jareth grows weaker.
With these newfound resources, Sarah also develops two new allies in the form of gentle giant Ludo and a strange fox named Sir Didymus (whose "trusty steed" is a dog that looks very much like Sarah's own dog Merlin, a cue that this is still in her mind). Both of them are obtained through challenges that require Sarah to act responsibly. Ludo is first found tied up by goblins, and freed through an act of strength when Sarah manages to scare off his goblin captors. Didymus is won over when Sarah uses her intelligence to resolve a simple (if very petty) dispute. This development of a party, rather than Sarah alone, represents the growing power of her own mind.
Jareth is able to bring out one last trick against Sarah, which almost works, but it is ultimately a test of will. This occurs when she is tricked into eat a berry that eliminates her memories. Sarah finds herself in a strange garbage dump occupied by people who carry bundles of objects on their backs. This offers a possible opportunity for her irresponsible side to take over, to reject her adult responsibilities in favor of a childish obsession with toys. However, she also shows her strength when she manages to remind herself of her responsibility, refuses to lose control, and breaks free.
This in turn leads the party to the goblin city, where the guards prove ineffective against dealing with them. Eventually, they reach Jareth's castle, where Sarah insists on facing him alone. Her companions agree to this, and tell her to "call" them if she needs them. She claims that she must do this because "that is how it is done," but in fact it is far more complicated. Everything up to this point has been Sarah's own imagination, and the struggles of her personality. She has used her great strength, her imagination, to deal with an emotional period, but in the end she must face her fears directly.
The confrontation between the two central characters becomes separated from the rest of the world. Jareth and Sarah both find themselves on a floating platform where the confrontation happens, but more interesting is the way it plays out. Rather than any type of fight, Sarah uses her voice as a source of power. In doing so, Sarah is able to accept her responsibilities reject the urges represented by Jareth, who now remains unable to control her. This is explained through the passage Sarah refers to, which ends with the phrase "You have no power over me." It is her speaking this phrase that finally ends the fantasy and brings Sarah back into the real world.
A few hours have passed, and Sarah has calmed down. The labyrinth has been nothing more than her mix of feelings over the course of the evening. She willingly checks on Toby, even letting him keep her teddy bear, and still manages to find time for herself. However, at the end, she finds herself "missing" her friends from the labyrinth. This in turn suggests that she is not ready to give up her imaginary worlds, but she has also learned from her experiences. The ending, during which a party breaks out in her room with her companions as well as several of the strange figures encountered in the maze, represents a new realization. Childhood fantasies and adult responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. It is simply a matter of learning to balance both sides.
Underneath its campy production, strange characters, and imaginative landscapes, Labyrinth is really nothing more than a simple (if very unusual) coming of age story centered around the thought processes of a single protagonist. It's all about growing up and accepting responsibility, but in the end also being able to do so without leaving everything behind. The whole movie a single teenager's struggle to deal with a mix of emotions over the course of a single evening, but what makes this unusual is the decision to enter her mind and to explore her thought processes rather than to see it from the outside.


  1. Wow, great and in depth look at this fun film. I agree that a lot of folks seem to write this off as a silly fantasy adventure, but Sarah's journey is certainly a mythic one, and her character arc end with her coming to grips with all the facets of herself and her place in real life.

    Hensen's muppet work here is really amazing, almost on par with what he did in "The Dark Crystal". But there is a lot of attention to detail in the settings and concepts that really gives this film a life of its own.

    1. It is indeed. Jim Henson was always good at giving his muppet characters personality and depth. You can definitely see a lot of his interest in surrealism here as well, something that shows more in his earlier projects from before he started working with muppets.

      It is definitely in many ways a campy film, and I'll admit Jennifer Connelly's performance isn't exactly her greatest accomplishment, but it works okay. Her character arc is definitely a relatable one, but I do find it interesting that they chose to go for a middle ground here; that Sarah is able to reconcile her real life with the imaginary one.