Labyrinth - Picturehouse Spotlight


Ian Bird looks forward to Jim Henson's cult favourite ahead of its Culture Shock screenings.

Director: Jim Henson.
Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud. UK/USA 1986. 101 mins.

You remind me of the babe…

No one writes a fairy tale. They are truths from the campfire at bedtime and we have always known the lessons: the baby always goes missing, the woods are always full of surprises, and you should never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.

So Labyrinth, written by one of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, directed by the creator of the Muppets, executive produced by the man behind Star Wars, and starring Ziggy Stardust, shouldn’t really work, surely?

Fortunately, in a labyrinth no line is a straight line, least alone a family tree, and Labyrinth has outgrown its seventies pedigree and eighties style to become winningly timeless.

Once upon a time, Sarah, halfway between child and woman, rashly abandons her baby brother to the ambiguous (to put it mildly) Goblin King. Childish narcissistic caprice instantly gives way to a burgeoning sense of adult responsibility and she bargains to win back the little cherub: all she has to do is solve his labyrinth in twelve hours. To succeed she needs to trust in herself, find her resolve and exercise her innate good sense (all good lessons for young people everywhere) while simultaneously resisting the romantic and sensual advances of the Goblin King – clearly the most counter-intuitive and preposterous course of action ever formulated. “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave…” Well, quite.


Labyrinth balances smart, imaginative and methodical puzzles for the children with swooning, dreaming dilemmas for the grown-ups and, as if traversing the Bog of Eternal Stench itself, never puts a foot wrong. As a child I loved the rigour of the riddle of the two gatekeepers, one who can only tell the truth and one who can only lie, but as a decrepit geriatric I keep returning to Jareth’s masquerade, where Sarah’s painted dolls come to life as woozy sophisticated suitors, attempting to seduce her with the promise of an adulthood that she’s only ever read about…

The performances are wonderful: Jennifer Connelly is smart and charming and full of hope and agency as Sarah, while Bowie is hilarious and horrifying as Jareth – the boyfriend who only visits when your parents are out. All the creatures are utterly convincing characters. It’s a joy to figure out how the actors work beloved Ludo; Hoggle is a blackguard friend in low places; and when Didymus harrumphs and nods his head to make his point you’ll realise you’ve known him all your life.

This is a film with dimension, and not just when gravity gives up the ghost in the Escher-inspired climax. There is weight to the whimsy (when Jareth’s hideous horde seeps into Sarah’s home to steal away the baby you’ll momentarily fear the dark all over again, and the Junk Lady’s betrayal of Sarah’s comfort in her childhood is genuinely wicked) and there is an engineer’s intellect behind the poet’s dreaming. Jokes and ideas seethe everywhere: how does the worm tie his scarf? Who thought to have the goblins dutifully put out their milk bottles? Is that Bowie’s photo in Sarah’s bedroom mirror? Did J.K. name her school from Jareth’s insult to Hoggle?

Yes, my giggling goblin friends – this is the babe with the power…

Labyrinth  screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Culture Shock on Monday 13 December.

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