Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen.
Many believe that the best fantasy film ever made is The Wizard of Oz. Others adore the scope of Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. But for those of a certain generation, the greatest fantasy story ever told isn't about Hobbits or Munchkins, but about a pop legend in a world populated by the contents of Jim Henson's creature shop.
The classic British-American 1986 film Labyrinth is set in a unique fictional world, crafted to the highest detail. It is enthusiastically and imaginatively directed by Jim Henson, best known for being the creator of the Muppets, and the film's goblins of all shapes and sizes are played by his unique puppet creations. It also stars Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly and iconic musician David Bowie, who provides the classic soundtrack. Labyrinth is an incredibly uplifting film that reaffirms the importance of familial relationships and concludes with a celebration. This cult feel-good family film is enjoyed by young and old alike, leaving audiences not only singing along to the catchy songs for days but also contemplating many of the film's hidden meanings.
Sarah is a young, teenage girl who is asked by her shoulder-padded stepmother to baby-sit her half-brother Toby. After being in a park with her dog, where she dresses like a princess and re-enacts a fantasy scene, she realises that she is late and runs home just as a storm breaks, arriving soaking wet. Annoyed by an argument with her stepmother and frustrated by her brother's crying, she says 'I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now', never realising that goblins are listening and do exactly what she says.
She then meets the Goblin King, who desires Sarah and wants her to be his possession. He offers to grant her dreams if she agrees to abandon her brother. He warns her that the only way she can get her brother back is to rescue him from the Castle Beyond the Goblin City, a castle located at the heart of a vast magical labyrinth populated by the weird, wonderful and terrifying. Sarah has only 13 hours in which to get through this maze to the castle to rescue her brother, before he is turned into a goblin for ever...
|Jareth, the Goblin King
|Body: Shari Weiser
Voice: Brian Henson
|Body: Rob Mills
Voice: Ron Mueck
|Puppeteers: Dave Goelz & David Barclay
Voice: David Shaughnessy
|Puppeteers: Steve Whitmire & Kevin Clash
Voice: Percy Edwards
|Puppeteer: Frank Oz
Voice: Sir Michael Hordern
|The Wiseman's Hat
|Puppeteer: Dave Goelz
Voice: David Shaughnessy
|Voices: Danny John-Jules, Richard Bodkin, Charles Augins, Kevin Clash
|Voices: David Healy and Robert Beatty
The key puppeteers were David Goelz, Steve Whitmere, Karen Prell, Ron Mueck, Kevin Clash, Brian Henson, Anthony Asbury and Frank Oz. These puppeteers performed as many of the different characters throughout the film. Most of them had worked with Jim Henson on The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal or Fraggle Rock. As the film required a large number of puppets, experienced puppeteers who had worked on other puppet shows, including Spitting Image, were also recruited.
Jennifer Connelly had previously appeared in Once Upon a Time in America and would later star in films such as The Rocketeer, Dark City and A Beautiful Mind, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a BAFTA.
Frank Oz is well-known not only for being in the Muppets but also as the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars films. Sir Michael Hordern was a highly respected film and theatre actor who appeared in numerous roles throughout his career. Labyrinth was one of his last roles. Christopher Malcolm had played Zev, Rogue 2, in The Empire Strikes Back.
The Executive Producer was George Lucas, most famous for the Star Wars trilogy. Director Jim Henson and Concept Designer Brian Froud came up with the basic story idea together. Henson had worked previously with Froud when he had directed The Dark Crystal. Froud, who designed the goblins, supplied the film's key image when he painted a picture of a baby surrounded by goblins. This was used as the central basis of the film. His son, Toby Froud, appears as Toby in the film.
Monty Python member and film director Terry Jones wrote the initial screenplay, creating many characters based on Froud's drawings. In the scenes in which the Goblin King juggles crystal balls – each containing a magical gift or spell – single-handed, the juggling was done by Michael Moschen. He stood out of sight behind David Bowie, holding his right arm in front of Bowie, while Bowie hid his arm behind his back, giving the impression that he was doing the juggling. Jim Henson's son Brian was the Puppeteer Co-ordinator. Cheryl (Gates) McFadden was Director of Choreography and Puppet Movement, having been the choreographer on The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Dark Crystal. She is best known as playing Doctor Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation and had previously appeared in a small role in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
The Making of Labyrinth
Labyrinth was made almost exclusively at Elstree Studios, except for the first few minutes of the film which was shot at locations in England and New York. The park scene was filmed at West Wycombe Park, a property owned by the National Trust. The other on-location scene shows Sarah running around generic American streets in New York.
This film was the first to contain a realistic computer-generated animal – the white owl seen at the start of the film. The dwarf Hoggle was the most technical puppet ever made at the time, with a radio-controlled head using 18 motors and was operated by four puppeteers as well as actress Shari Weiser providing the body.
Although Jim Henson considered casting either Michael Jackson or Sting as Jareth, David Bowie was always his top choice for the role. Bowie agreed based on seeing Brian Froud's artwork and having watched The Dark Crystal. When asked how he played the role, he said that he considered Jareth to be a reluctant Goblin King and a big kid at heart. Wearing famously tight trousers throughout, Bowie not only wrote and sang the film's songs, he also sang the gurgles in 'Magic Dance' as he could not get a baby to gurgle on cue.
The puppets were created by the legendary Creature Workshop, famed for its role in the Muppet films as well as other projects, including Farscape.
The 'Magic Dance' scene, as well as featuring David Bowie and Toby, also involved 48 puppets, 53 puppeteers and 12 people in Goblin costumes on flying rigs allowing them to be lifted into the air.
During production, a making-of documentary was filmed entitled Inside the Labyrinth. A novelisation was written by ACH Smith, who had previously novelised The Dark Crystal. Brian Froud published The Goblins of Labyrinth showing the production of the film from concept to realisation.
The Character of Sarah
Sarah at first glance appears to be a selfish, spoilt pampered girl. She lives in a huge house, has a wide assortment of toys and books, with a fondness of dressing up in blancmange princess dresses and wearing pretend jewellery while re-enacting a fantasy world. But why exactly does she escape to a fantasy world?
What we know of her is that she lives with her father and stepmother. Where is her mother? Why is she never mentioned? Judging from the fact that Sarah surrounds her mirror with photographs of her beloved mother and has a scrapbook containing pictures of her, almost like a shrine, it is implied though never expressly stated that she had died. In all of these photographs she appears to be a happy, loving woman who is close to her daughter. This explains why Sarah's reaction to the world is to shout 'that's not fair!' This phrase is said most frequently when someone dies under tragic circumstances. Sarah appears to have latched onto this, using it as her defence against the world.
Her own life seems to have stalled at the point at which her mother died. Unlike other girls her age, she does not seem interested in boys, but instead avoids reality by seeking a limbo land between childhood and fantasy to escape from the horrors of her life without her mother, the person she was closest to. We know she is particularly protective of her toys, especially a teddy bear named Lancelot. The reason for this is surely because Lancelot was given to her by her mother, and represents a comforting time when she had a complete family. The bear represents a safe childhood, now denied and inaccessible. Her other childish hobbies are dressing up, wearing plastic jewellery and lipstick, an activity often shared between mother and daughter.
Her relationship with her family is clouded by the loss of her mother. She describes herself as 'suffering in silence' and treats her stepmother as 'a wicked stepmother in a fairy story'. Her father, by marrying her stepmother, has managed to move on from the loss of his wife, and so Sarah feels that her beloved mother has been replaced. The fact that she now has a half-brother, Toby, has meant that her own position in the family has been replaced as well and she is no longer the child. Devastated by the loss of her mother and uncertain of her own position within a newly-created family, she feels she has been substituted by Toby. In an act of anger she asks for him to be taken away, in a doomed attempt to return to how life had been before.
Sarah's room is one of the few sets to be seen more than once in the film, principally at the beginning and also a deceptively realistic illusion of her room is found within the labyrinth's rubbish dump1.
Much of what Sarah finds within the labyrinth can be seen in Sarah's room. The key influences are the stories The Wizard of Oz, Grimms' Fairy Tales which includes the stories Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, as well as Where the Wild Things Are, Snow White, the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking Glass and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. These books can be seen in Sarah's room on a shelf. There is also a book of a play entitled Labyrinth.
These stories' influences can clearly be seen in the film2. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sarah finds herself transported to a magical land, following a labyrinth instead of a yellow brick road. As Dorothy has realised that there is no place like home, Sarah knows that there is nothing as important as family and her brother. Just as Dorothy is aided by a cowardly lion, a rusted tin man and scarecrow without a brain, Sarah is helped by a cowardly Hoggle, a tied-up Ludo and a fox without a sense of smell. Like Snow White she befriends a dwarf, Hoggle, and is poisoned by a piece of fruit. Like Cinderella she goes to the ball, makes a trail like Hansel and Gretel, but uses lipstick marks which are hidden or changed, rather than breadcrumbs that are eaten. Maurice Sendak, who had written about a child kidnapped by goblins and rescued by its older sister in Outside Over There, is acknowledged as an influence in the film's end credits.
Other possessions in her room include a toy Firey3, a music box with a dancer wearing a dress similar to the one Sarah wears during her trance and playing the same tune, a cuddly fox resembling Sir Didymus, and a poster of MC Escher's 'Relativity'. This predicts the appearance of the Goblin Castle's interior. A ball maze toy, with corridors, dead ends, straight runs and traps along the way, all find their equivalent in the labyrinth. Hoggle looks similar to a bookend seen in her room. She also has toys that are similar to both Ludo and the Goblin King. Sir Didymus' dog, Ambrosius, is identical to her own dog, Merlin. Ambrosius, like Emrys, is another name for mythical magician Merlin.
Life Lessons Learnt from Labyrinth
Sarah has lost her way in life and come to a dead end. Being placed in a labyrinth forces her not only to reflect upon her own position, but gives her an identifiable goal to aim for. But what other lessons can we learn from Labyrinth?
- 'My will is as strong as yours and my kingdom is as great.'
- Baby clothes should be red and white striped.
- Be very careful what exactly you wish for.
- 'What's said is said' – be careful what you say.
- It's further than you think.
- Begin long journeys with a positive first step: 'come on feet'.
- 'Things are not always what they seem – you can't take anything for granted'.
- You can't always leave a mark as you travel through life; nothing lasts forever.
- 'Life is not fair, but that's the way it is.'
- You can't be right all the time.
- 'The way forward is sometimes the way back.'
- 'Sometimes it feels that you're going nowhere when in fact you are.'
- 'Life can be easy, it's not always swell.'
- 'Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl, 'cos it hurts like hell.'
- Never assume that something is 'a piece of cake'. Do not underestimate what you are taking on.
- 'Knock and the door will open'.
- Even if you are 'a repulsive little scab', you can still make friends.
- 'You can't look where you're going if you don't know where you're going.'
- If you ask the right questions, you can get the right answers.
- To solve a problem, rather than acting aggressively, think about things logically.
- It's easier to ask permission to cross a bridge rather than fight to cross it.
- Sometimes treasured possessions are just a heap of junk.
- Cowards can be brave.
- You can be forgiven even when you don't ask for forgiveness.
- Family is the most important thing.
- It is rude to throw other peoples' heads.
- Fairies bite.
- When you meet someone new, why not ask them to come inside for a cup of tea and meet the missus?
- Sometimes you have to face your problems alone.
- 'If that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it.'
- Should you need your friends, call.
- Every now and then in life, for no reason at all, you need your friends.
- You have no power over me.
A soundtrack album was released, containing both instrumental numbers from the film as well as the five songs, marked in bold, that were sung in the film. Four of the five songs were composed and sung by David Bowie, the fifth, 'Chilly Down', though composed by Bowie, was sung by the voices of the Fireys, including Danny John-Jules, famous for being the Cat in Red Dwarf. The score was by Trevor Jones, who has written many film soundtracks.
- Opening Title and Underground
- Into The Labyrinth
- Magic Dance
- Chilly Down
- As The World Falls Down
- The Goblin Battle
- Within You
- Thirteen O'Clock
- Home At Last
The song 'Underground' plays as we meet Sarah returning from her fantasy escape in the park back to the reality of her home. Its lyrics are sung by David Bowie who plays Jareth, the Goblin King. Jareth, as the owl, has been watching Sarah, and so the lyrics reflect Jareth's perspective of Sarah and her life.
Through lyrics such as 'It's only forever, not long at all' the fact that Sarah is caught in a timeless limbo is emphasised. Sarah is described as 'Lost and lonely'. Being lost is central to being in a labyrinth. We are informed that 'No one can blame you [Sarah] for walking away', so the reason why Sarah has walked away from her life is not her fault. We learn she has suffered 'Too much rejection' and her lonely life has 'no love injection', emphasising the loneliness she feels. 'Life can be easy it's not always swell', emphasises that bad things happen, a point echoed in the next line 'Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl 'cos it hurts like hell.'
This song is often considered to be one of the film's highlights. At first glance it is taken to be a song about cheering up Toby, who is a crying baby. However the lyrics can also be interpreted as being about Sarah and her journey through the labyrinth. The words 'baby' and 'babe' not only are used to refer to a young child, but also can be used as a term of endearment for a girlfriend.
I saw my baby, crying hard as babe could cry. What could I do? My baby's love had gone and left my baby blue
At the start of the film Jareth, disguised as an owl, had indeed been spying on Sarah. Sarah is indeed missing her mother's love and distraught about life.
Nobody knew what kind of magic spell to use. Slime and snails or puppy dogs' tails. Thunder or lightning4
What magic spell will be used? The answer echoes the saying that little boys are made of 'slime and snails and puppy dog tails'. The magic spell will therefore involve a little boy, Toby, who is kidnapped during a thunder and lightning storm.
Then baby said: 'Dance magic, dance. Put that baby spell on me, slap that baby, make him free. Jump magic, jump. Put that magic jump on me, slap that baby, make him free.'
In her quest to rescue Toby, Sarah does indeed dance in a magic dance. Drugged by a poisoned peach, she finds herself dancing in a masquerade ball, surrounded by hideous costumes within a giant crystal bubble. At the very end of the film inside the Goblin's castle, in order to reach her brother Sarah jumps from a great height. This leap of faith is a magic jump, as the castle disintegrates around her.
Who Took the Teddy?
What angers Sarah the most on the night that she wished that her brother would be taken by goblins is that she discovers that someone has entered her room and taken her teddy bear named Lancelot from it and given it to Toby without having asked for her permission. Sarah has every right to be annoyed, having been effectively burgled. With three people, and therefore three suspects in the house: Toby, her father and her stepmother, the question remains, who stole Lancelot?
Sarah's baby brother Toby, barely able to walk and quite unable to open doors or climb up to grab teddy bears from high shelves, can be eliminated from the investigation straight away. At the start of the film we see that Sarah's father, despite wishing to speak to his daughter, respects Sarah's room's boundary, and does not enter. As he understands her desire for privacy within her room, he seems unlikely to be the culprit. That leaves the stepmother. So what do we know about her? She does not understand what Sarah is going through and believes that she should be acting older than she does and going on dates with boys. She has no respect for Sarah's pet Merlin, who she never even addresses by name, calling him 'the dog' and ordering him into the garage. She does not at any point have any physical contact with her son, Toby. She does not listen to Sarah or accept her apology, or sympathise with the fact that she is soaked to the bone. Devoid of all motherly feeling, she instead nags at Sarah without contradicting the fact that she likes having fun and going out with Sarah's father all the time and makes no attempt to learn Sarah's plans. By saying, 'She treats me like a wicked stepmother in a fairy-story no matter what I say', she practically signs her own confession. In conclusion, the jury concludes that the stepmother is the evil teddy-taking thief.
Labyrinth is a film in which there are meanings that are as hidden as the way to get to the Goblin Castle. Multiple viewings reward the careful watcher with a wealth of detail in the background of every scene. The film also has many continuing themes, which ensures that it reaches a higher level than most other children's adventure films.
One of the principal themes is that, in solving the labyrinth, there is a real growth of character. Sarah, when we first see her, is impatient, blames the world for being unfair and acts like a typical teenager. She describes herself as 'tired from housework' 'practically a slave' who is 'suffering in silence' and the innocent Toby, by crying and being frightened during a storm, is 'particularly cruel to her'. This is despite the fact she has been outside in a park, walking her dog. By being in the labyrinth with problems to solve and overcome, Sarah learns and grows. On her journey she successfully figures out a logic puzzle, correctly choosing between a door leading to Certain Death and another that continues her quest. This puzzle is the sort of thing that she says she could never do before. She realises the empty folly of caring too much for possessions. By the end of the film, she is Toby's mother figure, caring about her brother in the way we never see the stepmother do5.
She is not the only one whose character grows during the film. When we first meet Hoggle the dwarf he is an honest coward, stating 'I am a coward and Jareth scares me'. Throughout the film he battles this fear, forced by Jareth to be untrustworthy while desiring to do right. By the end of the film he has overcome this cowardice to fight the gigantic Humungous goblin robot and even wishes to confront Jareth, who he had previously been terrified of.
Another of the themes throughout the film is that of Time, and how in the passage of time, things change. In the labyrinth Sarah passes sundials as well as candles, which are used to measure time. The film begins in a park near a clock tower, and clocks appear throughout the film, as her 13-hour countdown progresses. Change is emphasised by the labyrinth itself, which constantly changes layout as Sarah walks through. Endings are similarly emphasised; a bridge that had lasted a thousand years collapses and a junkyard symbolises decay.
Is it a Dream?
One question that remains throughout the film is, considering Sarah's room contains hints of the labyrinth, is the labyrinth a dream? What we see of Jareth the Goblin King is that he is both omniscient and omnipresent, and created the world Sarah sees according to her expectations. The only scene which appears to be a dream is the Ballroom scene, which is a fantasy based on Sarah's dreams while she is in a poison-induced trance. Curiously, this, the most unrealistic scene in the film is the only one which has numerous people in, rather than goblins. The Ball takes place within a ball bubble. In this scene, Sarah's pure, innocent wedding-dress look effectively contrasts with the debauched, hidden appearance of those around her.
Following this scene Sarah finds herself in what appears to be her own room, back on her own bed. This leads her to incorrectly conclude that the labyrinth was a dream. In fact it is her own room which is the illusion, and the labyrinth that is real.
Labyrinth is a feel-good film which can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Sarah begins the film lonely, on her own in a vast space with no-one else around, spied on by Jareth in the form of an owl. The film ends with Sarah and her brother safe at home, celebrating and surrounded by her new-found friends from the labyrinth.
The Final Lesson Learnt From Labyrinth
You can make a big-budget spectacular film which revolutionises filmmaking by featuring the first realistic CGI animal, has the most complex animatronic head yet created, a gigantic and convincing 15-foot robotic monster, highly respected theatre actors providing unmistakable voices, one of the world's most attractive actresses as the heroine, catchy songs which you'll be humming for days after, but the only thing people remember is that David Bowie wore disturbingly tight trousers...