The passing of the one and only David Bowie was a tough experience for a lot of people in January of this year; myself included. I wrote a post on my top seven Bowie tunes (keeping it to seven because otherwise it would have spiralled out of control and I would have ended up listing his entire discography), but I haven’t yet. After Bowie passed away, I felt the urge to reflect on his body of work, including his films. I haven’t seen much of Bowie’s acting work, but one of my most treasured childhood films is Labyrinth (1986) – a fantastic tale of mystery and courage, directed by master of puppetry Jim Henson.
For those who have never seen Labyrinth before, the film centres around Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), who is a somewhat bratty teenager with a short temper when it comes to her baby brother Toby (voiced by David Bowie, would you believe it). When Sarah accidentally wishes that Toby be taken away by the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie), Jareth shows up and whisks him away. Sarah is then given thirteen hours to rescue her baby brother by making her way through a magical labyrinth, joining forces with a gang of friends along the way in a kind of allegory for growing up and learning about the responsibilities of adulthood and caring for others (kind of).
As with many people who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, I have a strong connection with this film because I had a copy of it on VHS (taped from television, of course) and used to watch it repeatedly. As a child, I loved the whimsy and unpredictability of the film, and always had a good laugh at whatever slapstick humour was on display. But when re-watching the film as an adult, I have found that there are different things that I appreciate. Here are five of my favourite things about Labyrinth.
1. Dance, Magic Dance
My favourite song of the film, despite its flippant approach to the physical discipline of children, ‘Magic Dance’ is so good because despite the fantastical setting of the film, the song is firmly rooted in the Bowie ethos of the 80s. All of the songs in the film could comfortably sit within Bowie’s discography which I absolutely love, but there’s something about ‘Magic Dance’ that is so fun to sing along with. It might be all the different parts sung by the goblin puppets. I also really love ‘Within You’, a song located further towards the end of the film. David Bowie really is perfect as Jareth the Goblin King.
2. Costume design
David Bowie’s tights cop a lot of interest throughout Labyrinth, but the costume design (and puppet design) throughout the whole film is so beautiful. From Sarah’s billowy sleeves on her shirt that coincidentally fits both the 80s and the film’s magical setting, to her gorgeous gown worn during a pseudo-dream sequence, to Jareth’s iconic Goblin King garb, Labyrinth is filled with so much beautiful costume design to admire.
3. The Escher scene
Towards the end of the film, Sarah must save her brother from within the depths of Jareth’s castle, in a room that looks just like an Escher etching with its nonsensical staircases and seeming lack of any logical manner to walk throughout it. The etching, and set design, is so emblematic of the film – surprising, confusing, eminently intriguing – and it’s even more impressive when you learn that this room was actually one big set built for the film. The set design throughout the whole film is pretty amazing. Which leads me to my next favourite thing about Labyrinth:
4. The design and whimsy of the labyrinth itself
As aforementioned, Labyrinth is one big example of amazing production design in terms of its costumes and set. There is very little animation in the film, with Jim Henson making use of predominantly practical effects and gorgeous set design for the characters to traverse within, which is so impressive. The titular labyrinth is one of my favourite things about the film because of its unpredictability – which I also enjoyed as a kid. When watching the film, it really feels like anything could happen; doors speaking riddles, little creatures popping up out of nowhere and flipping tiles around, optical illusions of secret entrances, stone faces that just want to get their job done. It’s also worth noting that David Bowie’s face as Jareth the Goblin King appears throughout the film in little secret locations, showing how ever-present the Goblin King is throughout his kingdom. It’s the little things throughout Labyrinth that add up to one big, expansive universe.
When watching Labyrinth the other day, I was also struck with my love for one character named Ludo. Initially appearing as a fierce beast, Sarah soon finds that Ludo is a big, friendly monster with a heart of gold. It just strikes me that this is a really good message for kids; to look beyond a character’s (or indeed, person’s) physical presentation, to value their inner strengths, and not to judge a book by its cover. This is just one of the many really good messages for children that Labyrinth contains.
Those are five of my favourite things about Labyrinth. Did you love this film as a child, do you still love it now? Let me know!