This morning I woke up to discover the shocking news that David Bowie had passed away, aged 69. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most influential musicians of our time and could be described as a creative genius, and just like magic, this transpired through any medium that he touched or role that he played, whether it was his work as a songwriter, singer, painter or actor. I felt that today was the perfect opportunity to reflect and appreciate his creative portfolio, so after giving his albums a few spins on the record player, I sat down to revisit the adventure-family film Labyrinth (1986). Unlike other childhood favourites that sometimes fall apart years later, Labyrinth has aged incredibly well and remains a hit with audiences three decades later. The film adheres to a classic fairy tale structure, one that invites us to escape to another world, but – at the same time – it breaks the traditional rules of storytelling.
In case you need a reminder, Labyrinth stars David Bowie and a cast of wonderous creatures created by Jim Henson. The narrative tells the story of 15-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who is frustrated with babysitting on an otherwise-average weekend night, so with her active imagination at her disposal, she decides to summon the Goblins from her favourite book, “Labyrinth”, and invite them to take her baby stepbrother away. Rather unexpectedly, her wish is granted! Sarah must now follow little Toby into the world of the fairy tale to rescue him from the wicked Goblin King (Bowie)! However, she is only given 13 hours to solve the labyrinth (a twisted maze of deception that is populated with outrageous characters and unknown dangers at every turn) and reach the castle. Sarah has to outwit the King by befriending the very Goblins who protect him, in the hope that their loyalty is just another illusion.
The settings in Labyrinth appear so real, this is a place that actually exists to the audience, despite it being so full of fantasy – and the reason is because the film demonstrates and celebrates authentic special effects that rely on hand-painted pieces, models and puppetry, as well as other in-camera visual effects, rather than adding CGI during post-production. It’s both artistic and incredibly impressive. Beyond the masterpiece of puppetry and special effects, the film is sprinkled with symbolism and deeper messages, for example – when Sarah enters the labyrinth it is both delightful and dark, which is representative of her journey from childhood to adulthood. She is changing, all that she has loved is fading and she has to fight to hold on, but is also plagued by the knowledge that she is being stalked by time. She has to navigate through the difficult and multi-layered mazes of the labyrinth, a journey that is reflective of her having to free herself from childish impulses without succumbing to adult cynicism and dangerous temptations.
The first character that Sarah encounters in the labyrinth is Hoggle (voiced by Shari Weiser). At first he appears to be a helpful companion but, as the story progresses, we see him switch sides more times than a restless sleeper struck by a bout of insomnia. However, audience members with a keen eye will have spotted that the character’s qualities were revealed right from the very beginning, as during his introduction he wears a jacket with a face on the back of it, proving that he has two faces (literally and metaphorically).
As for Sarah’s baby stepbrother Toby (aka the babe aka the babe with the power), he symbolises childhood, which he is entering at the same that Sarah is leaving this stage of her life, perhaps that is one of the reasons for her initial resentment towards him. Though, by the end of the film, we see that Sarah has come to accept that this is the case as she gives Lancelot (one of her beloved teddy bears) to her sibling.
Moving on to the Goblin King himself and the reason behind watching the film this time around. Bowie is perfect for this dual-character, who is both seductive and villainous. He adds the same otherworldly facet to the character ‘Jareth’ as he adopted for his multiple personas during his music career. Surprisingly, Labyrinth was released between the recording of Bowie’s two less successful studio albums but he is on top form during the film. There is the fun ‘Magic Dance’, which features Bowie’s effortlessly cool dancing, the darkly romantic and goosebump-inducing ‘As the World Falls Down’, and the oddly menacing ‘Within You’ – to name but a few.
During the ‘As the World Falls Down’ sequence, the film suggests that despite Sarah’s inevitable maturity, she should not completely grow up. During this hallucination, she attends a masquerade ball but nothing is as it seems, all of the guests wear masks to hide their true appearance and this is representative of the adult world, from which she is able to break free. At the end of the film, Sarah realises that all of her treasured childhood memories and imaginary friends are never too far away, should she ever need them, for any reason at all.
With a lot of lessons learned for the characters, as well as the viewing audience, the film stands the test of time and is a true testament to all of the creative forces involved in the picture, especially David Bowie.
“The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” – David Bowie (1947-2016), Rest in Peace.