The late 1980s were the golden era of Jim Henson. From Sesame Street and the Muppet Show (which ended in 1981, but remained on heavy syndicated rotation for years to follow), to Fraggle Rock and the various Muppet movies, Henson’s particular creative vision made its mark on the collective imaginations on an entire generation. But as Henson’s success grew, so did his concern that he might be pigeonholed as a children’s entertainer. There is an adult sense of humor slyly woven into all of the delightfully goofball puppetry of the early Muppet material. But Henson had far more ambitious projects in mind, including an epic tale of youth, fantasy, temptation and responsibility. I’m talking, of course, about Labyrinth.
This is the story of 15-year-old Sarah Williams, who is no longer a child, but not yet a woman. She wants to be taken seriously by her father and stepmother, but resists the responsibilities they put upon her, such as looking after her infant stepbrother Toby. There’s a lot of resentment in Sarah, who seems to reflect the angst of growing up in a home that has already suffered some kind of parental disruption. That Sarah must balance her burgeoning independence with looking after a sibling she never asked for is too much for her to bear. In a moment of rashness, she petitions Jareth, the mythical Goblin King to take her crying stepbrother away, so she can pursue the fairytale life she desires. To Sarah’s surprise, Jareth is listening, and he and his army of misshapen minions whisk Toby off to the goblin realm, to turn the boy into one of their own.
Suddenly aware of what she’s done, Sarah chases Jareth back into his weird world, and must navigate the endless maze that surrounds his palace. If she can do it in just 13 hours, Jareth will give Toby back. But if she cannot, Toby belongs to the Goblin King. Sarah persists, and gains several allies—all strange denizens of the maze who are in some way opposed to their king—as she navigates the maze’s many twists, turns, blind alleys, puzzles and perils. The closer Sarah gets to the center of the labyrinth, the more Jareth is determined to stop her…and the more interested he becomes in her. And the more Sarah comes to understand her adversary, the more fascinating he becomes to her.
Jareth is played by the late, great David Bowie at the height of his powers, wearing some of the tightest pants ever committed to the silver screen. He drives the many musical numbers in Labyrinth, in a way that none of his contemporaries considered for the part—including Mick Jagger and Sting—ever could. He isn’t just the antagonist here. He’s the lure of the power and responsibility that come with growing up. But he is also a fickle creature stuck running the realm of the goblins instead of just playing within it; if ever there was a guy who regrets being promoted to management, it’s him. But he is also a walking embodiment of smoldering sexuality, a source of power over the mortals he encounters. Ask any woman in the crowd who was a teenager when she first saw Labyrinth and they’ll likely admit that yeah, this movie definitely made them notice some things.
And this is no different for any man who saw this when they were at that age, either. Playing Sarah is Jennifer Connelly, whose beauty is hard to dispute, and who was an enduring crush for just about any boy within her age bracket. As both Jareth and Sarah deal in different ways with the conflict between doing what you want to do and doing what you ought to do, a sexual tension simmers between them. Jareth cannot help but notice the beautiful young mortal who dares to defy him in a world where no one and nothing ever does, even if he seems far more interested in using Sarah’s romantic naivete as leverage to steal her brother rather than to take pleasure with her. And Sarah cannot help but notice the elfin lord whose physical beauty and fearsome independence are as attractive as they are impossible to fully understand, and which never really seem wholesome or benevolent. Both see something deeply compelling in the other, even if that which attracts them is likely to become a source of defeat and downfall. Still, they cannot help themselves. Passion—especially the kind that grows stronger the more misplaced it is—can be like that.
This all comes together late in the tale when Jareth drugs Sarah with a magic peach, and she falls into a trance. She dreams she is splendidly dressed at a masquerade ball at the fairy court, where Jareth dances with her and proclaims his love for her. When Sarah does break free from the spell, that notion of being Jareth’s love interest persists, and he tries one more time, pleading in person to her to simply do what he wishes, and he will love her. This is Sarah’s true test as an adult, for what Jareth is offering is a non-starter to anyone who respects their own self-worth. But to one who cannot see the consequences lying in wait behind the wanton desire of what the Goblin King offers, this is no trivial enticement. But at the movie’s moment of truth, Sarah asserts her womanhood in a way that preserves her identity and denies the powerful temptation of adult desire fueled by adolescent impulse. In so doing, she defeats the darkest aspects not only of the Goblin King, but of the various creeps and users that inevitably cross the path of any young person’s life. The Goblin King possesses an undeniable rock-star magnetism, but it’s no match for Sarah’s own strength of character. That is a victory worth celebrating.
Sadly, Labyrinth was a commercial failure upon its release, and seeing this project bomb was a real trial for Henson, who never directed another feature film. By 1990, he would be dead, stricken down by a sudden illness. But before the end, he did learn that his intended audience knew what the critics did not: that there is something special and true going on in Labyrinth, which doesn’t just make it a great movie. It makes it a moment of truth for an entire generation of dreamers looking for a way through their own mazes of adolescence and adulthood. Nobody who sees Labyrinth ever forgets it. Even the Goblin King himself can appreciate that.