"But what about his decades of classic work and stage performances, iconic songs, and so on?" you might ask. Well, if there's always been one weak link in my pop culture knowledge and study (other than sports because, seriously, sports? I've been hit the face by too many pieces of athletic equipment in my life to deal with sports), it's music. I tend to just like what I like, without the same level of knowledge or research that I apply to all my movie/TV watching.
So before you complain that I'm focusing on his work for a children's movie, remember: This ain't a music blog.
Back to LABYRINTH!
It's a classic, and I don't mean that in the ironic hipster sense. Yes there are 80s clothes, yes the music is tinged with 80s, yes there are goofy puppets, and yes David Bowie is wearing leggings that leave NOTHING to the imagination. But I genuinely love this movie and watched it all the time as a kid.
They used to play it on the Disney Channel along with a couple of other obscure favorites, The Worst Witch and Return to Oz. I feel like no one remembers the time when Disney was a wee more experimental in its programming and less focused on the tween demographic and their original movies and TV series. Disney, I wish you had stayed just a little bit weird.
Labyrinth is a Jim Henson production, with a screenplay by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame (not Terry Gilliam, the other one). There's no Miss Piggy or Kermit. There are fun, funky, and weird puppets, a very young and charming Jennifer Connelly in the lead, and of course, The Thin White Duke himself as Jareth, The Goblin King.
The story centers on Sarah, a teenage girl still obsessed with fairy tales and fantasy (she LARPs in the opening scene!) with a bit of bratty streak.
What a neeeeeeeerrrrrrrddddd!
One night she's stuck babysitting her younger half-brother and semi-intentionally calls for the Goblin King to steal the kid because she feels put upon by her dad and step-mom. When The Goblin King actually shows up and snatches him away, she immediately regrets her decision and tries to talk Bowie out of it, but he offers her a challenge instead: navigate his labyrinth and get to the center in 13 hours, or the kid becomes a goblin forever. So she enters the labyrinth, makes some friends, learns some lessons, and rescues her brother. And jams to some sweet Bowie tunes in the process!
This is stuck in your head now and there's nothing you can do about it!
Again, I know Bowie's got some amazing classics, but damn if I don't love the songs on this soundtrack. I've always really liked "As the World Falls Down" from the dream sequence in the movie. He's got such a cool voice and it's a great stand alone song. Think hard, if you heard this before now, would you have assumed it was in a movie with puppets? Probably not.
I also love her costume and overall look. It's 80s fantasy, without being too much.
Speaking of puppets, I love the look of the goblins and they are funny to boot. This is pretty much my favorite scene in the whole movie:
Word play! Weird little worm guy offering tea! Just the best. It's got a British sense of humor to it that suits children stories, mixing dry humor with silly. Witness:
There are some silly edits, but I couldn't find any other decent clips. But you get the idea: Fart noises! A puppet riding a dog!
One of the things that people seem to remember most is this scene, with the world's most befuddling riddle:
WHICH DAMN DOOR IS IT????
I'm fairly confident she's right, and that she loses anyway because David Bowie is messing with her, but I've met people and read things that say she's wrong. Which door is which?
With puppets, riddles, and fun songs, it's just a good children's story. It doesn't over explain anything, no needless backstory about why David Bowie is human looking and all the other goblins are puppety-looking, no revelation that Sarah has known the Goblin King since she was a child and has to go back and defeat him as an adult (I'm looking it you Tim Burton version of Alice In Wonderland). They set up some key story elements in the first few minutes of the movie, with Sarah's reading of a book called Labyrinth and a pan through of her room showing all sorts of knick knacks and stuffed animals that appear as goblins or set pieces later in the movie. With those bits of backstory established quickly and efficiently, we're off to wacky goblin land for fun and adventure while we learn to be a little more mature.
The movie ends with her stating that she's in control and defeating The Goblin King, thus saving her brother. She tucks him into bed and then goes to her room, where she gets one last visit from her goblin friends. She admits that she has to grow up, but every now and then, she'll think of them because she does need them, she needs the fantasy sometimes (don't we all?). Then they have one last party in her room and it looks like oodles of fun. (Of all the videos posted online, I'm sad this is one people seemed to skip.)
Everyone has to grow up eventually. But that doesn't mean you can't party with goblins in your room every once in a while.
If it's good enough for Bowie, it's good enough for me.
(This is not the scene I was talking about, but it's all I could find. Why don't people like that scene as much as me?)
I find it unique in another way, specifically that there's no romance for Sarah. It's a story about finding the balance between growing up and accepting responsibility, while at the same time not losing your imagination and sense of fun in the world. It's a fairy tale and a fantasy, but there's no prince for Sarah to marry or meet at the end.
For crying out loud, this is her male lead for THE WHOLE MOVIE:
Although, if you were maybe really drunk.....
Her journey is all about her, and discovering herself without being validated by a male character. Pretty significantly, the way she saves her brother and herself from The Goblin King is by declaring, "You have no power over me."
Obviously, I noticed all this as an adult, but the fact that it's there for kids, especially little girls, to absorb is encouraging. The only other recent movie I can think of that sends a similar message was last year's Brave, where the princess refuses to marry anyone because she's enjoys her freedom to do un-princessy things too much, and it focuses on the mother-daughter relationship instead.
Now of course, there's a lot of people who point out a certain amount of romantic and/or sexual tension between Sarah and The Goblin King. But to me it's on par with people who are like, "Hey what if The Mad Hatter and Alice hooked up?" To which I say, "That's not the point. And also, EWWWWWWWW. She's supposed to be a little girl in that story!"
This shot does nothing to undermine all the "shippers" rooting for these two crazy kids to get together. Oh, wait. Only ONE of them is a kid. He's old enough to be her dad, people.
Yes, that is a way to read it. In that final scene, he asks to her to love him and be ruled by him, and in exchange he will be her slave. People seem to be enticed by the idea that he, as he says, does everything she asks, and all he wants back is for her to love him. There are MOUNTAINS of fanfiction, tribute videos and artwork that show them as king and queen or at least deep in forbidden love. But she says no. Because offering to rule over someone and be their slave is, while not only contradictory, not really love, romantic or otherwise. And it stands in the way of her journey to growing up and moving on from a fantasy that's holding her back.
I've always had an issue with adults finding romance or reading something too cynically in stories aimed at kids or younger adults. As I mentioned, a lot of people see some kind of romantic and ultimately sexual relationship between The Mad Hatter and Alice, particularly after the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland came out, which featured (thankfully) an older Alice. People have whole weddings and engagement photo sessions dedicated to this idea.
On the flip side, I know a lot of people think Gene Wilder's portrayal of Willy Wonka comes off like a he's a pedophile. I can kind of understand it, because there is a certain unsettling air about his interactions with the kids, but if anything, it's comes off more as a callous disregard for safety than sexual assault. To me, that's overly cynical and needlessly dark reading of the movie. And people apply the pedophile/pervert criticism to Labyrinth a lot too, because David Bowie is much older than Jennifer Connelly and wears really tight pants that show off his business. But, seriously, do you really think they would make a movie about a pervert goblin king out to seduce and menace a teenager and let little kids watch it?
Sometimes a crazy person who used to make hats is just crazy person who used to make hats.
Sometimes a guy who runs a chocolate factory and wants to give it away to a non-terrible child is just a guy who runs a chocolate factory and wants to give it away to a non-terrible child.
And, sometimes a Goblin King who steals children to turn them into goblins and make your life hell is just a Goblin King who steals children to turn them into goblins and make your life hell.
Labyrinth is ultimately, at least in my not so humble opinion, a story about a child growing up, not a fantasy romance novel with heaving bosoms and tight pants.
Well, okay, there are tight pants.
So. Damn. Tight.