Navigating Ambiguity in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

“Times of transition are always magic,” the late Jim Henson is quoted as saying in Jim Henson: The Works, a hefty coffee table book chronicling the career of the visionary creator of the Muppets. “Twilight is a magic time and dawn is magic – the times during which it’s not day and it’s not night but something in between. Also the time between sleeping and dreaming. There are a lot of mystical qualities to that, and to me this is what the film is about.” Henson was referring to Labyrinth, the 1986 film that he described as being “about a person at the point of changing from being a child to being a woman.” Labyrinth indeed falls into a tradition of coming of age stories that straddle the line between the real and the fantastic, from family- friendly fare like the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz (one of Henson’s inspirations), to Neil Jordan’s grownup 1984 horror film In The Company of Wolves. It makes sense that this is so. Adolescence is certainly a liminal time in one’s life: neither childhood nor adulthood but a confusing in-between, and a film like Labyrinth populated by fantastic characters and possessed of an uncertain sense of time, place, and space perhaps more aptly conveys the outsized anxieties of adolescence than many realist films about young adults.

Henson keeps us off-balance from the start, opening the film with our heroine, Sarah (a teenaged Jennifer Connolly) dressed unusually and airing her grievances to a goblin king. In a moment we realize that Sarah’s only playing, reciting lines from her favorite book to her pet sheepdog, but for a moment we thought we were somewhere else entirely. Later, when an annoyed Sarah summons Jareth, the goblin king of her favorite stories, to steal away her baby brother, and the king actually arrives, we are thrown off balance once again. Is this a dream or not, and how much does that really matter? The labyrinth of the title, which Sarah eventually must navigate in order to get her baby brother back, pushes our feelings of disorientation even further. Henson designed a climactic scene in that space with the specific aim of making it impossible even to determine which way is up or down, transforming the uncertainty of adolescence into a literal land of confusion.

“Is it all a dream, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz? In my mind it is.” Henson said of the film, “But it’s all rather ambiguous – dream or reality? Fantasy or fact? It’s whatever you like to make it.”

As the goblin king Jareth, David Bowie makes an effectively ambiguous character. It’s true that by casting Bowie, Henson inadvertently cemented his film’s future cult status (What punky teenager worth their salt could resist seeing Bowie in a family film?), but it’s also easy to argue that the vaguely ethereal, famously androgynous rock star is quite well-suited to his preternatural part. Bowie’s is one of only a few human faces in the mix with Henson’s puppet characters, but otherworldly comes easily to him, and he makes Jareth equal bits appealing and frightening. Sarah’s ambivalence about Jareth reflects her anxieties about growing up. One of the film’s most curious set pieces finds her at a fancy dress ball inside of a bubble, transfixed by Jareth and surrounded by vaguely unsavory humans masquerading as goblins. It’s a grotesque variation on a fairy tale, representing an adult world of courtship and desire that Sarah isn’t yet ready for. She finally realizes this, and that Jareth is no Prince Charming, and reacts by smashing the bubble and escaping the strange scene. But Sarah can’t reject the adult world forever either.

After escaping the bubble she is confronted with an equally unsettling scene. A bent-over hag called The Junk Lady hands her Sarah Lancelot, her beloved teddy bear, then leads her to what appears to be Sarah’s bedroom, urging her not leave. The Junk Lady continues passing the young teenager more of her favorite childhood things, trying to lull her into childlike complacency. Remembering her responsibility to find her brother, Sarah must escape her own room just as she did the bubble. “It’s all junk!” she shouts before clawing her way through a hole in the wall and returning to the labyrinth to finish her quest. Sarah’s decision, at the end of the film, to give Lancelot away to her brother, represents her understanding that she can’t remain a child. Neglecting her growing responsibilities is dangerous both to herself and to the others who rely on her.

The Junk Lady scene in Labyrinth recalls a nightmare scene in In The Company of Wolves involving a girl being attacked by her playthings – dolls and teddy bears. The underlying subtext of both scenes is the danger of trying to remain a child, and the two films could make for an interesting, if unlikely, double feature in someone’s film class; where Labyrinth uses goblins as its figures of adult menace, Jordan uses werewolves. Yet while Henson’s film shares a surprising affinity with Jordan’s more gruesome vision of coming-of-age anxiety, Labyrinth ultimately takes a much more benign view of growing up. In The Company of Wolves concludes with a frightening scene of wolves invading a young girl’s room, smashing dolls and playthings in their wake, symbolically slamming the door on childhood. On the other hand, the conclusion of Labyrinth allows that Sarah won’t ever have to give up the most magical, and defining, trait of her childhood: her active imagination. “I don’t know why,” Sarah tells the fantasy creatures that she befriended in the labyrinth as the film concludes, “but every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you. All of you.” The film ends on a celebratory note: it’s understood that no matter how much Sarah grows up, she will always have the power to dream. One would be hard pressed to find a more fitting message for Henson to send. He surely knew the value of imagination, and of maintaining, in whatever way possible, a bit of childlike wonderment.

U.S., 1986. 101 min., TriStar Pictures/Lucasfilm/Henson Assoc.

Victoria Large Written by: