Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen: Jim Henson's Labyrinth

                It’s (past) that time again! Time for another episode of Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen.

I know other rock stars were considered for the role, but can you really imagine anyone other than David Bowie playing a convincing Goblin King?

                I know I’ve seen parts of Labyrinth before, and I feel like I must have watched it as a child, but I have more memories of hearing about it than I have of seeing it. There’s a lot I could say about Labyrinth, but what really strikes me is how much it is a story about puberty—specifically, female puberty. Forgive me if I delve briefly into “over-analyzing children’s movies” (this is my favorite game, after “over-analyzing comic books”).
Middle-school me wants every single thing in Sarah's room.
                Jareth is a combination of symbols of male power and sexual fantasy, which explains Sarah’s uncertain relationship with him. (Seriously, the whole Goblin Kingdom is full of phallic imagery, never mind David Bowie’s. . .er, “magic dance.”) The story Sarah tells at the beginning is about the Goblin King being in love with her and offering her some of his power. Pre-journey Sarah is in love with the romantic and fantastical, but her baby brother represents the realities of adult responsibility (and real human relationships). Sarah wants the freedom and power she assumes are attached to adulthood (and romance), but she rejects their responsibilities, particularly the responsibilities of family, which she associates with her stepmother, while idolizing what she assumes was the more romantic life of her deceased actress mother.
                Before Sarah can accept the world of adult responsibilities, however, she has to go deeper “underground,” into the world of dreams and wishes, into her own subconscious.
Me and ever other Muggle who didn't get their Hogwarts letter.
                As with most hero’s journey’s, what the journey represents is change within the hero. As the story continues, Sarah begins to befriend creatures in the labyrinth, she looks for wisdom instead of easy answers, she becomes more generous, and she stops expecting the labyrinth to be “fair.”
                I know people have commented on how the dream ball scene seems a little creepy given that David Bowie is obviously so much older than Jennifer Connelly. Add that to David Bowie’s unsavory history with underage girls, and it becomes difficult to view this scene the way I think it was intended. But if you consider that everything in the Goblin Kingdom comes from Sarah’s fantasies, it’s a little less disturbing. The Goblin King is the romantic “other”—intriguing and sexually mature, dangerous and different, exciting and frightening, but also less threatening than a real flesh-and-blood boy Sarah’s own age would be.
It’s not really clear why the Goblin King would want a baby, but that doesn’t bother me. In puberty logic, it’s not really clear why anyone would want a baby; we’re just vaguely aware that is a thing people want.
                When she momentarily wakes from the dream, she thinks she is looking for “Lancelot”—her bear, but also her dream of courtly love—but what she is really looking for is her baby brother (representing family and responsibility) and her creature friends (representing, well, friends). Her childhood toys represent selfishness and an unwillingness to face adulthood, but paradoxically, her stories from childhood give Sarah the determination she needs to break free from the illusion that the self-centeredness of childhood can last forever.
                When Jareth says that he is “exhausted from living up to your expectations of me”—well, of course he is. He is a projection of everything Sarah thought she wanted. Jareth is pure fantasy, and he promises, “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” In other words, “give in completely to fantasy and never have to face the hard world of reality again.”
I know, Sarah. This is pretty much what I thought adulthood was going to be like too. (For the record, I am severely disappointed by the lack of masquerade balls in my life.)
When Sarah remembers the line from her book, “You have no power over me,” she is finally realizing her own power—power that has not been given to her by Jareth or any figure of romance, but that is completely her own. And this is the point of story: to give us tools to face our own goblins, to remind us of our power.
                The dance party of rejected goblins that takes place in Sarah’s room at the end might seem to contradict the idea of leaving the realm of fantasy behind, but it actually shows Sarah’s ability to now incorporate her fantasies into her real life without letting them take the place of her real life (it also hints at Sarah now having the ability to make friends). Sarah has accepted reality. She sees that her treasured childhood toys are “junk” when compared to the value of her baby brother. She has traded the black-and-white childhood definitions of “fair” and “unfair” for a view of people that is both less naïve and more forgiving (allowing her to forgive Hoggle’s betrayal). And she is able to see both that she needs others (like Hoggle) and has a power of her own.
Why can't all movies have Escher stairs?
                All that aside, while Labyrinth is fun, and I appreciate seeing a fantasy coming-of-age tale with a female protagonist, it can a bit. . .tedious. I think this is partially because the movie is trying give the viewer a sense of also being trapped in a never-ending labyrinth, which makes the pacing much slower than the average children’s movie (and raises the question: who exactly was this movie intended for?). This also partially because the dialogue becomes repetitive, and at times, falls into the “if a character repeats and repeats something, with increasing freneticism, it must eventually become funny” fallacy. Also, Sarah is not a particularly enjoyable character for a good fourth of the movie (Jennifer Connelly plays a fairly one-note petulant teenager).
                All in all, I enjoyed the movie, even though I frequently caught myself checking the time. I give it three and a half plastic bracelets out of five. 

1 comment:

  1. I saw excerpts of this in a tribute to Jim Henson recently--not sure if I've ever seen the whole movie either. My muppet fan self wants to enjoy this, but my--I'm past raising teens and wa-a-y past being a teen--self would probably have me counting the minutes until the credits, too.