I just saw the 1986 musical fantasy film Labyrinth for the first time, and I have so many thoughts and feelings about it, I decided to do a post. You are warned, this post contains multiple spoilers for the movie, if you haven’t seen it. And hey, it’s up on Netflix right now, so if you happen to like seductive fairy tales, do yourself a favor and go watch it. Bonus feels if you like David Bowie, may he RIP.
I’m not going to rehash the plot here. You can easily read that on Wikipedia. Briefly, the film follows the adventures of fifteen-year-old Sarah (rather blandly played by Jennifer Connelly) who has rashly wished her baby brother Toby to be taken away by the Goblin King. This is exactly what happens. Toby vanishes from his crib, and Jareth the Goblin King (marvelously played by the inimitable David Bowie) appears and tells Sarah he has done what she wished.
Sarah must rescue Toby from Jareth’s castle in the Goblin City within 13 hours if she wants her brother back. To reach the city, she must navigate a labyrinth riddled with traps and monsters, and fight the seductive power of goblin fruit that makes her forget what she is looking for. A single bite of an enchanted peach takes her into a dream sequence of a masquerade and a dance with the Goblin King that is one of the most (the only?) erotic scenes of the entire movie. But she escapes the masquerade, breaking through glass, and remembers the quest she is on.
She makes friends that help her on the journey, of course: Hoggle, a kind of dwarf, Ludo, a hairy monster who can summon rocks, and Sir Didymus, a fox-knight. When they reach the city, a goblin army bars their way, and is defeated by Ludo’s exceptional rock-whispering skills. In the castle itself comes one of the most thrilling scenes, when Sarah must navigate an Escher-like staircase to reach Toby. And after that, after all of that, she finally confronts the Goblin King.
“Everything that you wanted, I have done,” he tells her. “You asked that the child be taken. I took the child. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I 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.”
And here we come to the heart of it. The Goblin King is fulfilling Sarah’s fantasies of him. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, for he has also fallen in love with Sarah. The evidence for this lies in the lyrics of the songs Bowie sings throughout the movie.
Bowie makes a devastatingly handsome and convincing Goblin King, but Sarah is unmoved. She recites words from a play she was practicing back when she was in the ‘real world’ saying “my will is as strong as yours” and demanding that he give back her brother.
“Look what I’m offering you,” says Jareth, spinning dream crystals in a last ditch attempt to stop Sarah from freeing herself. “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.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. Because – swoon – those lines. So powerful. What young girl doesn’t want to be swept off her feet by a love so all-consuming that nothing else matters?
Swooning aside, what Jareth is actually offering Sarah is a deeply abusive and dysfunctional relationship. Because when you give up your will, your volition, your independence, there is nothing left of you. And when there is nothing left of you, there is no one left to love.
A part of me, of course, would have done exactly what our stolid Sarah does, which is to declare: “You have no power over me,” and walk away.
But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t another part that would have grabbed the dream crystal and said yes yes yes and gone off to be Goblin Queen of the Underground, the consequences be damned.
The ending of the movie was slightly disappointing. Of course, I’m happy Toby makes it back to his crib none the worse for his ghastly adventure. And I love that Sarah reunites with her monstrous friends in her bedroom back home, saying: I’ll need you now and then – a sub text for the need of the growing woman for the child within her.
But – sigh – that barn owl flying away from her window into the dark and lonely night. I’d hoped for one last scene between Sarah and Jareth. A sort of romantic goodbye. But really, it would have served no purpose. For while the Goblin King may have fallen for Sarah, she has not the slightest romantic interest in him. That, probably, is what saves her in the end.