Analysing a Childhood Film
I was struck just yesterday morning with a revelation that seemed to me to be both astonishing and perspicacious. If I don't say so myself. I was thinking about the 1986 Jim Henson film, Labyrinth, and considering what the film was actually about. The simple answer would be that it is about a girl (the young Jennifer Connelly) who must make her way through a treacherous maze in order to rescue her baby brother, held captive by the cruel Goblin King (the masterful David Bowie). This is, of course, a very simplistic overview of the plot, and it occurred to me that a deeper meaning underlay the entire story.
The film is actually about adolescence. It concerns a young girl's journey from childhood to adulthood, and her appreciation of the fact that true adulthood can only come once she learns to also embrace the childhood that she is leaving behind. Viewed in that way, many elements of the story make sense. Her rejection of her brother at the beginning is contrasted with the emotional maturity that she demonstrates in rescuing him at the end. She is often given a way out of the labyrinth (Jareth, the Goblin King, frequently tells her to go back) but nonetheless chooses to face him alone at the film's denouement.
This confrontation is also very telling, for Jareth represents Sarah's burgeoning sexual desire. In a scene that would have made Freud choke on his cigar, Sarah eats of a poisoned fruit and experiences a dream in which she alternates between dancing with Jareth and searching for him desperately. Upon awakening she is offered a room much like her own, stuffed full of all of her childhood toys and comforting in its oblivion. In truth, it is little different to the oubliette in which she found herself in the previous scene, and she makes the decision to leave it behind her and accept responsibility in her brother's life.
Sarah's victory over Jareth is also her victory over herself. She conquers the Goblin King (her own sexuality) by asserting that even though he turns her world upside-down, he nonetheless has no real power over her. She remains herself but, importantly, so does he. In the final scene, Sarah is attended in her room by all of the characters of the film (minus the goblins of teenage angst, acne, etc). They are arranged on her bed and her bookshelf, muppets amongst the toys with which she grew up. She confesses that, yes, she does still need them all and it is then that we realise that her adolescence is in some manner complete.
Outside the window, Jareth observes the scene in the form of an owl: the same owl that was responsible for transporting Sarah to the labyrinth at the film's beginning. Lest we do not notice this parallelism, the film's opening song ("Underground") begins playing again just before the credits role. Jareth was in control of Sarah at the start of the film, but the end of the film has witnessed her control over him. She is the master of her own desires and, now that she is willing to embrace her childhood and accept responsibility, she is also an adult.
Needless to say, I was quite pleased with my observation.
Having spoken to a friend of mine, it would seem that every woman in the world has known this since 1986. Am I slow? Is it a male/female thing? Anyone?