I occasionally post on Quora.com, a question and answer site. Recently someone asked why Labyrinth is so great. You might already know that I love Labyrinth. But let me tell you more, because this movie is dismissed far more quickly than it deserves. Someone else had already given a short answer that mentioned the fantastic story and David Bowie, but I will go deeper.
I don’t like the sequel manga and I think it derailed some of the fantastic symbolism, so my answer below is going to pretend it doesn’t exist. In my mind and in my answer, I’m treating the movie completely as a standalone.
The writing is superb. There are layers of meaning and ambiguity that make the movie more enjoyable as you watch it over and over.
As already mentioned, there’s the intense psychological drama of a teenager being a self-absorbed overly dramatic twit, then dealing with the very real, terrifying consequences of her selfishness. There’s a coming-of-age story – facing the monster of the Goblin King and the journey to get her baby brother back. Sarah learns not to judge people (dwarves, big orange monsters, etc.) by their appearances. She learns forgiveness after betrayal. She learns to focus on what’s really important (her brother) rather than what makes her comfortable (staying at home).
Symbolism! So much symbolism!
One interpretation – Jareth is a personification of temptation in a Christian allegory. Yes, I know the movie isn’t a “Christian movie”, and the allegory isn’t exact…. but there’s a lot of depth in it.
- Sarah sins in wishing her brother away. By sin, I mean she makes a selfish, self-centered choice. Her goal is to make her own life easier and more pleasant, without considering the consequences for anyone else. Yes, she doesn’t really expect anything to happen… but out of the heart, the mouth speaks.
- Jareth offers her the easy choice and the hard choice… enjoy her new baby-brother-free life, or face dangers untold and hardships unnumbered to rescue him. Recognizing what she has done, Sarah is horrified and chooses to try to get her brother back. She faces the consequences… partly in genuine understanding of what she has done, and partly in youthful arrogance and ignorance of what she’ll be facing.
- Hoggle – a picture of good being done through and by a weak, stupid character who nonetheless wants to do the right thing. He’s not brave, he betrays Sarah at the slightest threat… but he loves her. He reminds me of Peter, and of Christians in general. We’re not always good or brave or kind, we mess up… but we can do the right thing, and we’re forgiven if we throw ourselves on grace rather than relying on our own merit.
- The Fieries – they make me think of drug addicts and much of modern secular hedonism. It’s all about fun, and as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, you can do whatever you want. From a Christian perspective, “don’t hurt others” is obviously important, but… it’s not the only thing or the most important thing. They aren’t malicious, exactly… they don’t intend to hurt Sarah (at least at first). But they’re dangerous. If Sarah forgets about Toby and joins in the fun, she’ll lose her baby brother forever. The Fieries want Sarah to join them in their uncontrolled indulgence, but when she refuses, they turn on her.
- Jareth – His temptations and distractions become increasingly sophisticated as the movie continues. It’s a children’s movie, and it’s unclear whether any of the dangers are ever meant to be truly dangerous. But they are distracting. He doesn’t want to kill her. He wants to win.
- Sarah wins by realizing that Jareth (sin) has no power over her. His power literally crumbles around her at this realization and assertion. The consequences (and punishment by her parents) of her selfish choice are erased… but she remembers what she did, and she remembers the cost. It’s not a redemption by Christ (or a Christ-figure within the narrative), but it is a revelation of the power Sarah has over her own actions and her ability to be braver and stronger and kinder than she has been previously. She renounces the temptation of Jareth and everything he offers in order to save her brother. She chooses differently than she did at the beginning because she has grown up.
Another interpretation – It’s a dangerous love story (multiple sub-interpretations).
Jareth is a Fae with some shape-changing ability and some ability to manipulate time and space. How old is he? He loves her (for some values of love) before she knows he exists – he watches her practice acting (dramatically) in the park. How did she get the book that outlines their adventures and the critical line of dialogue that destroys everything? I get the feeling he gave it to her. Did he hope she’d forget that line? Did he believe he would be able to convince her to stay, or win before they ever got to that point?
He never really tries to hurt or kill Sarah. I mean… yeah, it’s a children’s movie, but really he could have been more dangerous than he was. His “army” of goblins is comically clumsy, and he is neither surprised nor particularly upset by this. You get the feeling that his dramatic rages are more for goblin discipline than because he actually expects much of them.
But how much control does Jareth really have? He seems bound by rules that may or may not entirely conform to his own desires. Does he even want Toby? Yes…. but not to be turned into a goblin. He doesn’t seem to love the ones he has, they’re not particularly useful, and they’re pretty indestructible. The continuation in the manga reveals that he apparently wants to make Toby his heir, which kind of makes sense except that I get the feeling that Jareth is an ageless kind of creature. Why does he need an heir, and why must it be Toby? I think Toby is merely a means to get to Sarah, which brings us back to whether he really loves her.
How many children does he steal? Do the others get turned into goblins? Possibly. The goblins imply that they steal children regularly (“she hasn’t said the words!”); Jareth doesn’t seem to regret this part of his job, but I’m not sure how gleeful he is about it. More on this in a minute.
The ending has so many divergent possible meanings.
“I can’t live within you.” – What a play on the lover’s “I can’t live without you”! Is the whole thing a dream? If so, Jareth is somewhat independent of the dream – his owl form is outside the frame of Sarah’s imagination. He surprises her at times… in fact, most of the time. He’s more dangerous than she understands… she understands the physical danger of the labyrinth, scary though it is, but the seduction of the dance in the peach dream is quite a bit more sophisticated. Perhaps it’s a miscalculation on his part… might she have succumbed to it if not for the clock chiming? Was that an outside force as well, or merely her personality reasserting itself? Yet, despite his disappointment, he doesn’t stop her from fleeing. Maybe he can’t. Maybe he merely restrains himself.
Does he depend on her belief for his power? Perhaps he is an old entity, losing power as people stop believing in him. Her belief in his power is fading… is his power therefore actually fading? Is he trying to lure her to his realm in order to bolster its very existence?
“I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me.” – It sounds like a plea for pity, but he doesn’t seem to want pity. Perhaps he would appreciate some compassion. Perhaps it’s all just another complicated ploy… until you actually look at him. He does look exhausted and desperate, drawn thin by the effort of… what? Shaping his world to fit her expectations… how? A dream world made real? A real world concealed in a dream? The effort of playing a role that doesn’t fit him as well as Sarah thinks it does?
Is all that effort to keep Toby? I think not. I think it’s for Sarah, although why he went to so much effort is open to interpretation. The labyrinth itself is drawn from toys and decorations in Sarah’s room, making it possibly a dream, or possibly a creation of Jareth’s shaped by Sarah, or his interpretation of Sarah, or… something. Fantasy and dream and reality blend.
(Did he manipulate her world to ensure that she received toys and dolls and books based on his world, or did he shape his world to mold her expectations?)
“Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.” – Echoes Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert, although I don’t know how intentional this parallel is. It could be the plea of an immortal being who needs her dreams to survive. She would serve him with her imagination, and he would literally be her slave, living up to everything she imagines or dreams. Or… is it a marriage proposal? Don’t laugh too hard! How much power to hurt her did he have, and how much did he actually hurt her? He scared her, he threatened her, but he never really hurt anyone (even Hoggle). He loved her, if you believe the book, and possibly the owl, since before she had any reason to know of his existence. Perhaps the phrase is a bit overly dramatic, but nothing about Jareth seems undramatic.
What dreams is he offering her? Despite Sarah’s complete distrust of him, I’m not sure that he ever really lies to her. He distracts her, he misleads her perhaps… but hypothetically, if he was telling the truth, what dreams would he have been bound to fulfill for her? To be important and to be cherished are the obvious ones that come to mind (given her childish outburst at the beginning of the movie). What is more important and more cherished than a bride?
You can see themes of power and consent and sexuality in the movie. In the final scene, where Jareth is tempting (promising?) Sarah, she refuses him and challenges him, perhaps even intimidates him (he retreats, acknowledging her power). She struggles to find her voice, but even her struggle makes him hesitate, and he hears her when she says NO.
My point isn’t to stick to a particular interpretation. I don’t know that I could decide on only one interpretation. I love how Jareth is written and performed precisely because he’s so open to divergent interpretations. You can see him as the evil child-stealing villain, the amoral enigmatic Fae, the dream-creator, or the romantic anti-hero, and all those interpretations would be more-or-less consistent with his character in the movie.
David Bowie. How is David Bowie in tight pants appropriate for a children’s movie? HOW?
He owns this role. I first saw this movie when I was about twelve, and for years, I didn’t really have words to understand why David Bowie made me simultaneously incredibly uncomfortable and mesmerized. He is sex appeal in glittery shoulder-padded popped-collar jackets with indecent ruffly shirts and tight pants and sparkles and ridiculous hair. Anyone else would crumble under the weight of the sheer audacity of this role. Puppets and singing and poofy hair and sparkles and glittery eye makeup!
He makes Jareth come alive, not just because he acts well, but because he looks like he has a tremendous amount of fun doing it. Jareth gets bored. He gets annoyed by these nitwit little goblins that surround him. There was no reason for the song Dance Magic to even exist within the plot (the action of “what happens next”), but David Bowie prancing around with the goblins actually adds an important bit of characterization. Jareth is intense and dangerous, but he’s also willing to sing and goof off with the goblins. He isn’t a one-dimensional villain; he makes a chicken-and-goblin filled crumbly castle fun, at least for a while. Dangerous, but fun. (Where does he keep all his clothes? We see a lot of wardrobe changes for a falling down castle. There’s a full world in the background; you just don’t see all of it on screen.)
Jareth has this look when he says this, as he turns away, that implies he has much more cause to be bitter at the world than she does. Little lines like this fill the movie… bits of characterization and background that just raise more questions.
Jennifer Connolly. She was 15 when the movie was filmed. Sarah is beautiful and sweet (when she isn’t being a complete selfish twit), and perfectly balanced on the edge of innocent childhood. She’s a child with an almost-adult body, and navigating that treacherous age is part of what the movie is about. There’s a twenty-year age gap between her and David Bowie, and in the ballroom scene, you can see the danger of that age difference. Jareth is in command of himself, in command of the whole room. He has power. She is awed, frightened, intrigued, and dangerously drawn to him. This is the temptation that she isn’t prepared for and doesn’t fully understand.
Cutting edge puppetry. It’s an old movie now, but at the time the puppetry was absolutely amazing. Look at the expressions on the faces of the puppets! They’re believable. This was groundbreaking at the time, and it was apparently an interesting challenge for the actors.
Editing. There are little moments scattered throughout the movie that add to the ambiguity and complexity. They’re fascinating in the depth of acting, and they’re also evidence of really good editing. I don’t know anything about making movies, but I’ve always been impressed by these little shots that, in any other movie, would probably have been considered throwaway shots and just been deleted.
There’s one where Jareth says something cruel and scary, and then instantly glances sideways at Sarah – leaving you with the impression that he’s really all about watching her react, getting a reaction, knowing that he’s important, rather than about actually being villainous.
The Labyrinth manages to accomplish all of this with no CG, no explosions (except that one small one in the goblin war), and very few actual actors. It’s amazing.