On Labyrinth and the Journey to Adolescence

Labyrinth Lancelot

Still from Labyrinth (Henson 1986)

 My Background with Labyrinth

I can remember the very first time I saw Labyrinth (Henson 1986), at ten, maybe eleven years old simply seeing the cover of the VHS tape at Blockbuster (for those unfamiliar, this consisted of an illustration of all (or almost all) of the significant characters of the movie–Jennifer Conelly in a beautiful white and very nineteen eighties ball gown, David Bowie in his flamboyant-but-not-humorous-because-it-was-appropriate Jareth makeup and hair style, and some fascinating, fantastic and whimsical creatures like dwarf Hoggle and hairy, gentle giant Ludo—all suspended above and around an expansive maze was enough to not only be my selection for the day’s movie, but to be one that I anticipated watching for the entire drive home. After the anxious, excited ten minute drive home I quickly retreated to the basement, popped the cassette tape into the VCR (I truly miss those by the way), and almost immediately got completely lost in the magic of Labyrinth. From this first viewing I was totally hooked, if memory serves me correctly, I watched it a few more times that day—it was an instant favorite. I thought about every single scene in that movie what seemed like every hour of every day—whether it be singing the catchy songs, playing make believe with my best friend Tiffany that we were in Jareth’s Labyrinth, or even secretly acting out scenes from the movie when I was alone. I simply couldn’t get enough of everything about this movie, it was an obsession, but a healthy one—I watched it over and over and incorporated it into my creative play. It is a movie that has always been near and dear to my heart not just because of its sentimental value but because of the enjoyment that I could always get from it even during viewings as I got older, each time I watched it whether I was 14 or 20, I always enjoyed it for its creativity, its delightful and lovable characters, its great humor and of cours.e the great soundtrack. My love for Labyrinth was always there and always grew stronger with each year and each viewing.

Reunion with Labyrinth

At the age of 24, I was really and truly beyond excited to learn that the art theater across the street from my building was having a midnight showing of Labyrinth. As I have gotten older, and especially since I have graduated college and no longer have the opportunity for weekly film screenings on a nice, big screen, I have truly appreciated the chance to see movies on the big screen—it’s an experience that I find to be transporting and if you’re lucky, transformative and very moving. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine how excited I was to be able to see my ultimate childhood favorite on the big screen, at midnight no less. I went into this experience expecting to be entertained and transported not just by nostalgia and sentiment, but also by the fantastic story, music, characters and effects on the huge screen—I am thrilled to say that not only was this the outcome, but in addition, I left the experience seeing this ultimate favorite in a very different light, feeling its effects on a totally different and unexpected level that I did not expected, it was truly the most pleasant of surprises

Although I had indeed watched this movie during adulthood, there had never been a very long period of time between viewings (I don’t think it ever went past 3 years, but I’m just guessing with my best attempt at remembering), and in addition, a lot has happened in my life in the past few years (i.e. truly becoming-or trying my best attempt to become a mostly self-supporting/sufficient “adult”, becoming responsible for the life of something else–our dog Henri who I love like a child, and truly discovering who I am, what makes me fulfilled). Given that it had probably been about four years (give or take) since I last watched Labyrinth, and that in that “off time” I have experienced a decent amount of somewhat big, coming-of-age type of changes, this most recent screening went so far past entertainment and nostalgia—it actually reached me in a different way than ever before, hitting me unexpectedly with the notions of growing up, letting go of childhood and the past, and knowing that even with letting go and moving forward, your treasured times and memories are never really fully gone, as they can always be called upon when in need.

After Thoughts from my Reunion with Labyrinth

The very first thing we learn about heroine Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is that she is very interested in fantasy. The film opens with Sarah reciting a monologue in the park, wearing a long, white dress and flower head crown—it is quite possible that she is practicing a play; however, as soon as she stumbles over a line (“You have no power over me”) and pulls a small red book entitled “The Labyrinth” from her pocket we realize that she is very invested in and consumed by the fantasy that lies in that book given that she goes so far as to act it out with such seriousness.  The extent of Sarah’s serious investment and interest in fantasy is apparent when she actually becomes so involved her own personal reenactment that she completely loses track of time and arrives home to babysit her stepbrother an hour late. As of now it is somewhat unclear as to how old Sarah actually is, while she looks like a younger teenager (maybe 14 or 15) she is much more involved in fantasy and make believe than one would expect for a girl of that age; upon her tardy homecoming and statement from her stepmother that she “should have dates” at her age we learn with certainty that Sarah is indeed a teenager who has an unusually strong interest and involvement in fantasy and make believe that is akin to that of a child.   Once we enter Sarah’s bedroom, we see the room is completely filled with stuffed animals, dolls, and other objects like childhood classic fantasy books and a music box. The room of this fantasy-obsessed, teenage girl is comprised almost entirely with childhood objects—it is now very clear that Sarah is not just interested in fantasy in a way that is much more intense and involved for most girls her age, but she is also completely attached to and stuck in childhood—she can’t seem to let it go. The extreme degree to which Sarah is stuck in and trying to hold onto childhood is increased by tenfold when she realizes that her teddy bear Lancelot is missing from a cubby shelf on her wall. The anger that Sarah displays about this is significant not just because of her age but also because the item she is upset about missing was not being used, it was just sitting on a shelf, a childhood item set up on a pedestal in a room clad with childhood objects. Sarah’s room at this point seems like it is her own wonderland enclave of childhood where she can not only indulge in her fantasy stories but hold onto childhood and throw herself into in an attempt to make it last forever.

Given that Sarah’s strongest reaction was to Lancelot the teddy bear missing from her room, we can see Lancelot as being a sort of physical manifestation of childhood itself—she does not want anyone to take it away from her, she puts it on a pedestal and she cherishes it and fears losing it even though she is not a child. We learn that Lancelot has been removed from Sarah’s room and into her baby stepbrother Toby’s crib—Sarah resents that she has to babysit for Toby, who is almost at the start of his childhood—this resentment goes past annoyance at having to babysit and dives into the territory of resenting the fact that Toby still has his childhood ahead of him while hers is actually long gone. Toby’s presence is a threat to her imagined childhood and a reminder that she cannot hold onto it forever, as indicated by Toby being in possession of Lancelot, the embodiment of the childhood that Sarah desires to keep regardless of the fact that it is over and that there is a baby in the house who will soon start his childhood.

When Sarah finally reaches her breaking point with Toby she wishes him away to the Jareth the Goblin King, and we are very soon after introduced to the physical manifestation of fantasy itself. Before she says the words to make the goblins take Toby away, Sarah tells Toby a story of the Goblin King (we had heard of the Goblin City earlier during Sarah’s reenactment of her book “The Labyrinth”) who fell in love with a girl and gave her powers. With this story and the mention of the Goblin City earlier, we know that the Goblin King is straight out of her fantasy story that consumes her; what’s more, his status as fantasy in the flesh is furthered given the fact that he comes to take away the “thing” that threatens Sarah’s ability to cling to her childhood and obsession with fantasy, his action would allow Sarah to continue to be living in fantasy, letting it continue to consume her and take over entirely. Although Toby being taken away would allow her to fully indulge in childhood and fantasy, Sarah immediately realizes what she has done and begs Jareth the Goblin King to give Toby back; he gives her thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth and get to his castle at the center of the labyrinth to get Toby back from him or else Jareth will keep him and turn him into a goblin.

The labyrinth itself can be seen as a visual representation of the journey through life, specifically from childhood to adolescence which, like the labyrinth can be daunting, confusing, and also ultimately fulfilling. That Sarah is attempting to solve the labyrinth in order to save Toby is in itself a marker of maturity that goes beyond childhood, she takes responsibility for her actions and attempts to remedy the damage that she has done. Given that Toby is the threat to her childhood, when Sarah makes the choice to try and get him back, she makes a choice that will ultimately ensure that she must move on from her childhood and become an adolescent—she is making the choice to go on a journey where the end goal is essentially becoming an adult. Not unlike growing up, solving the labyrinth teaches Sarah some very important lessons that are applicable to the labyrinth as well as everyday life. For example, one of the most childish things that Sarah says in the film is the very frequent lamenting “that’s not fair,” however, once she is in the process of solving the labyrinth she learns and accepts that indeed sometimes life is not fair however that is sometimes just the way that it is and nothing can be done except accepting the fact. Not only is this lesson significant in life, but it is a very mature perspective that is very different from Sarah’s initial childish complaining about the injustices of life.

While solving the labyrinth, Sarah gets a lot of help from her friends that she meets along the way; these friends are characters that exist inside the labyrinth and are not part of real life, they are essentially imaginary and thus, a part of childhood. The help that Sarah receives from her friends in the labyrinth is significant in that it greatly mirrors the process of growing up and maturing, while the goal is to grow up and become an adolescent and an adult, very frequently an individual uses elements of childhood to help along the way. This help can be anything from remembering and applying a moral from a favorite childhood story or simply retaining a memory and/or physical object from childhood that provides comfort when needed; elements of Sarah’s childhood, her friends, not only help in the sense that they allow her to learn important lessons (like fairness) but they do also provide comfort for her and help her find the strength to solve the labyrinth and finally, willingly make her way from childhood to adolescence. With the help of her labyrinth friends Sarah makes it to the Goblin Castle at the center of the labyrinth and takes the very final step to rescuing Toby and thus, fully transitioning info adolescence—she faces Jareth herself and defeats him by reciting the monologue from the Labyrinth book from the beginning of the movie, but this time she remembers the line she always forgets “you have no power over me.” In remembering this one line, she accepts and acknowledges that Jareth, and thus, fantasy has no power over her; previously she could never remember this line and thus, could never fully accept or realize that fantasy does not need to be her entire life, she is finally able to grow up because she accepts that she needs to let go of childhood fantasy in order to do so.  Not only does Sarah take the final step to move on from fantasy and grow up, but she chooses to do this entirely on her own without the help of her friends. As Sarah is about to head deeper into the castle to find Jareth, her friends begin to follow her; she turns to them and says she must do this on her own because “that is the way it is done.” Sarah’s final step to complete her journey into adolescence must be completed on her own just as it ultimately must be completed in real life, growing up means solving things on your own at some point, and ultimately the journey through childhood must be completed on one’s own.

While the film can be seen as the journey of growing up and becoming an adolescent, it very clearly shows that growing up does not mean completely disavowing or forgetting about childhood. After Sarah has told her friends that she must face Jareth on her own they tell her that if she needs them they will be there. Upon defeating Jareth and solving the labyrinth Sarah returns home and sees her friends in her bedroom mirror, they again tell her that if she should need them they will be there, she says that “…every now and again in my life – for no reason at all – I need you. All of you.” Her labyrinth friends are fantasy characters who were a big part of the childhood she didn’t want to lose; even though she has successfully become an adolescent and moved on from childhood, these important parts of her childhood not only helped her get there when she needed it, but they can continue to be there for her if she needs them. In Sarah telling them that she will need them at some point in her life for “no reason at all,” she acknowledges that even though she has moved on from childhood she will indeed still need some parts of her childhood. Just as in real life, Sarah’s childhood is now part of her past, but it is not fully gone and most certainly not forgotten. Despite the fact that Sarah grows up, nobody can ever take away her childhood completely—it is always part of her, and helped to make her the adolescent that she becomes at the end of the film.

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2 responses to “On Labyrinth and the Journey to Adolescence

  1. It amazes me how much this movie has held up over the years. The effects are still great, even by today’s standards when the whole thing would have been a CG wash.
    The characters are memorable, the scenes are still beautiful, David Bowie is… creepy as always… yeah sorry, everything has at least one negative and the gray tights were it for me.
    Otherwise, yeah I loved it.

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