It’s not often that a film feels like a deliberate effort to cause physical discomfort, but the 1986 film, Labyrinth, starring rock legend, David Bowie, and Jennifer Connelly did just that. The whole movie just felt so wrong. The main character, Sarah, was nearly impossible to sympathize with, the antagonist, Goblin King, was overtly trying to engage in pedophilia, and the cringe-worthy rock and roll musical numbers felt entirely out of place in this over-the-top fantasy setting. The fact that this movie was produced by George Lucas, the mastermind behind the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, is truly surprising.
Labyrinth has become a cult classic despite poor results at the box office upon its release. Bowie fanatics and self-proclaimed psychonauts love to posit fan theories about the hidden meanings in the film and whether or not any of the events in the story actually happened. Admittedly, there’s quite a bit of room for interpretation in Labyrinth, considering many things don’t really make any sense. Call me crass, but the whole thing felt like a forced effort to relay some watered-down message about morality and self-improvement that was entirely eclipsed by just how weird and unsettling the film was from start to finish.
With that being said, there were some parts of the film that were entertaining. The casual humor of many of the fantasy creatures that Sarah encounters throughout the labyrinth certainly made me chuckle. Characters like Ludo and Hoggle were undeniably lovable. However, by about the midpoint of the film, I found myself counting the minutes until it was over, knowing full well that Sarah would eventually rescue her brother, Toby, and live happily ever after. For such a strange movie, the whole thing was surprisingly predictable.
Labyrinth Plot Summary
The film opens with 16-year-old Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) wearing a flowy Elizabethan dress in a garden with her dog Merlin. She’s staring at a barn owl and reciting lines from a small red book titled The Labyrinth. Suddenly, a clock tower sounds off and Sarah realizes that she’s late to babysit her baby brother Toby. As Sarah runs back home, it begins to rain, leaving her and her dog completely soaked.
When Sarah returns to the house and is accosted by her stepmother for being over an hour late, she goes full teen angst mode, running up the stairs to her room while cursing her stepmother for bestowing this small responsibility on her. Immediately, the audience is probably thinking, Wow, Sarah is a real brat. I do not like this Sarah girl. In her room, Sarah continues to rant and rave about fairytales and how evil her stepmother is. She really needs to get a more productive hobby than dressing up as a princess and talking to herself in the mirror about a Goblin King.
Once her parents leave, Sarah proves to be an even worse babysitter than we could’ve possibly imagined. She stalks around her crying baby brother, rambling about goblins as she seems completely unsympathetic towards her infant kin. Eventually, she wishes that the goblins would kidnap her baby brother, which (big surprise) they do. Great work, Sarah.
Once her brother Toby has been whisked away to the goblin realm, the Goblin King (David Bowie), who also goes by the name Jareth, comes into the bedroom through a window and confronts Sarah. He’s wearing a pair of leggings that hug his crotch entirely too tightly. His makeup makes him look almost cat-like, inhuman. He’s got the hair of an ‘80s glam rocker. It’s all very creepy and unsettling. Anyway, the Goblin King transports Sarah to the labyrinth that leads to his castle and tells her that she has 13 hours to save her brother before he turns him into a goblin.
Sarah embarks on her journey through the labyrinth, and this is where things really start to spiral out of control. The first creature she encounters in this fantasy world is a goblin named Hoggle, who’s urinating on a well when Sarah first approaches him. Hoggle shows Sarah the way into the labyrinth where she encounters all sorts of wacky characters and navigates mind-boggling passageways. Meanwhile, the Goblin King is back at a castle performing a musical number featuring a horde of goblins dancing and singing the words, “Slap that baby, make him pee.”
There’s moss growing on the walls of the labyrinth that has eyeballs. There’s a worm wearing a scarf and speaking with a British accent. There’s an old wizard-goblin wearing a taxidermied talking bird on his head. It’s a lot to take in. Along her journey, though, Sarah manages to find some friends that help her in her quest to reach the castle in time. Hoggle, the pissing goblin turns out to be a fairly reliable companion, a large beast named Ludo accompanies Sarah after she saves him from being tortured, and a dog named Sir Didymus who rides on another dog named Ambrosius ends up coming to Sarah’s aid when she’s sent to the Bog of Eternal Stench as punishment for kissing Hoggle.
Though Hoggle has proven useful many times throughout Sarah’s journey, he eventually betrays her and gives her a poisoned peach that causes her to fall into a trance and dream that she is in attendance at a masquerade ball at the Goblin King’s castle. At the ball, the clearly-too-old Goblin King proclaims his love for the 16-year-old Sarah. She refuses his inappropriate advances and is sent to a junkyard. Ludo and Didymus come to Sarah’s aid, free her from the junkyard, and she and her squad gain entrance to the castle at last.
In the castle, Sarah and her new friends battle an army of goblins wielding a myriad of different weapons. The battle is a tough one until Ludo uses his magical ability to control rocks to crush the opposing forces. Afterward, Sarah finally confronts the Goblin King in a room modeled after M. C. Escher’s famous lithograph Relativity. Sarah defeats Jareth the Goblin King by reciting the last line of the poem in her book The Labyrinth, saying, “You have no power over me.” The Goblin King is forced to give up Sarah’s brother and they are returned home safely.
The film ends with Sarah cleaning the toys out of her room, giving one of them to Toby, and being kinder to her stepmother and father, signaling that she has matured through her journey. Her friends Ludo, Ambrosius, Hoggle, and Didymus all appear in her room and start celebrating as Jareth, in the form of a white barn owl, sits outside the window and looks salty.
In theory, it seems as if Labyrinth is meant to show Sarah’s transition from being a spoiled brat who blames everything on everyone else to an adult who empowers herself by taking responsibility for her own actions. Sarah learns the tough lesson that you need to be careful what you wish for and that you can’t simply wish away your problems and responsibilities or else you might get your infant brother kidnapped by a creepy Goblin King.
While the film was meant to be a story of personal growth in which the audience is meant to identify with Sarah by the end, the message seemed fairly shallow and was overshadowed by the sheer ridiculousness of the movie as a whole. The plot, while it took a series of unnecessary diversions, pretty much followed the plot of every storybook fairytale ever written, which made it very predictable and boring. Why should I care if Sarah falls into a junkyard when I know for certain that she’s just going to be rescued and eventually make it to the Goblin King’s castle at the crucial moment?
Additionally, Sarah’s journey toward self-improvement doesn’t really play an important role in getting through the labyrinth. Sure, she gets smarter throughout the story and maybe even more resilient, but it’s the kindness of others that ultimately saves her brother, not any act of maturity on Sarah’s part. In that way, I personally found it hard to sympathize with Sarah, who nearly got her brother turned into a goblin but was able to save him only because she received aid that it didn’t seem like she deserved.
A good story centers around the development of a dynamic main character, but Labyrinth failed to achieve that. There’s bratty Sarah in the beginning of the movie and mature Sarah at the end of the movie, but her development as a character doesn’t seem to drive the plot like it should. The whole film just seemed like a girl wandering aimlessly through a maze and then having some inexplicable revelation about herself in the final minutes before the credits. Not to mention that the acting performances from both Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie were pretty lackluster.
Labyrinth might be a good watch for someone under the influence of psychedelic drugs who wants to trip out on some crazy creatures, but in terms of a well-developed plotline, the film left a lot to be desired.