Labyrinth is a movie for girls with hardly any female characters. That’s not the part that doesn’t make any dang sense; actually, the film uses this setup fairly effectively. The part that doesn’t make sense is the central conflict: Sarah Williams endures dangers untold and hardships unnumbered to rescue her baby brother Toby, whom she hates. Exactly how much sense this doesn’t make will be made clear at great length in this essay. First, let’s examine my claim that Labyrinth is a movie for girls:
The movie Labyrinth opens with Sarah acting out a scene from the novel Labyrinth, a scene that she’ll act out “for real” at the end of the film. When Sarah gets back to her room, the camera crawls past a number of books with clear thematic influences on the story that will follow (Where the Wild Things Are, The Wizard of Oz) and a bunch of toys and decorations that look an awful lot like the creatures and locales that Sarah is about to see.
We’re meant to infer from this that the world of Labyrinth that follows is a product of Sarah’s imagination—but of course whether the events of the film “really happened” or not is immaterial when you’re trying to figure out what the story means. More importantly, the contents of Sarah’s bedroom imply that the denizens of the Labyrinth are all modeled after things she does recognize on some level, as opposed to, say, a movie where Sarah rescues her baby brother from Edo-era Japan.
But if Sarah is constructing the Labyrinth with the elements of her own experience, why is it the case that the first thing she sees after Jareth ushers her in is a goblin urinating in the open air? Why is everybody in her fantasy world (with the exception of one matronly trash-collector) male?
It’s because the Labyrinth represents what Sarah thinks it’s like to be a teenage girl. Jennifer Connelly was 16 when she made this movie; I’m not sure whether her character is supposed to be a little older or younger than that. I do contend, however, that the target audience is early or almost-teens, and the Labyrinth is for them a delirious preview of what adolescent girlhood will be like:
You are surrounded by anarchic, immature, hygiene-challenged boys/goblins, who don’t see anything wrong with peeing in public. You are prettier and wiser than them, though, and you outwit them on a regular basis. Far beyond the legions of gross boys your age is an older, more thoughtful goblin, whose skin has cleared up. He is definitely pretty, but he’s also scary, the way high school seniors are scary. He has fallen in love with you,* and uses all of his charms to seduce you—but you are able to resist him. You also keep yelling about how “it isn’t fair!” whenever things don’t go your way.
*If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, it might seem like reading a bit too much into things to say that the 39-year-old David Bowie/the probably ancient Goblin King is straight-up in love with 16-year-old Jennifer Connelly/the probably 14-year-old Sarah. This is explicitly a part of Sarah’s fantasy, though, as she narrates it to baby Toby: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay home with the baby. […] But what no one knew was that the Goblin King fell in love with her, and gave her special powers.”
There’s a little bit for teenage boys to relate to: Hoggle gets a friendly kiss from a girl who’s out of his league, and Jareth is probably a sympathetic character to a certain class of creepy dude. But the movie’s not about their emotional journeys. The adventures in the Labyrinth are primarily wish-fulfillment for Sarah, and for girls of a certain age in the audience. And they do not—we are inching toward the point of this essay!—involve learning anything about responsibility.
Labyrinth does have a lot of the trappings of an anti-escapist narrative: A girl loves fairy tales, then she falls into one, but she doesn’t like it, so she endeavors to return to reality. “Beware of losing yourself in fantasy!” is a popular enough thesis, although it’s not one you’d expect from the people who had recently made fifteen million dollars with The Dark Crystal. And Sarah doesn’t learn any such lesson. If this movie is learning about a big, important lesson, here are the contenders:
“Things aren’t always what they seem.” – A compelling statement for a viewer who remembers that basically everyone Sarah meets is a puppet, but pretty generic inside the narrative context.
“It’s not fair!” “No, it isn’t. But that’s the way it is.” – After Sarah complains about things not being fair a few times, this exchange has the cadence of a powerful epiphany. I don’t know much it affects the narrative, though. Does Sarah act any differently after she figures this out? Is she able to navigate the Labyrinth more effectively now that she realizes it’s not fair?
“You have no power over me.” – The line from the book that Sarah can’t remember in the first five minutes but can remember in the last five minutes has a strong structural resonance, but doesn’t mean much for the narrative. Any dramatic-sounding sentence would work just as well! It’s a good thing for girls who run into Jarethesque older boys to remember, I suppose.
“Every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you—all of you.” – Such a heartwarming sentence with which to close a film! But if this is an expression of a thesis, then this movie is pro-escapist, pro-fantasy, and definitely not pro-responsibility.
Sarah briefly forgets her mission, and is led through a junkyard into a simulacrum of her bedroom by a trash-goblin-lady who tries to pacify her with the dolls and toys Sarah loves so much. When Sarah finds her copy of the Labyrinth book and remembers what she’s supposed to be doing, she denounces everything around her as “junk” and tears down the walls so she can reunite with her companions.
This is a really confusing (or maybe confused) scene, thematically. The toys are junk, but apparently the fantasy world they inspired is urgent and important. Most of the distractions the trash lady uses are kids’ stuff (mostly stuffed animals), but a tube of lipstick is featured prominently, so is Sarah rejecting both girlhood and womanhood? Most importantly, the strategy Jareth uses to waylay Sarah is to use the real world to distract her from the fantastic world—which is the opposite of what the villain in an anti-escapist narrative would attempt.
So Labyrinth is not about learning to deal with the responsibilities a young woman has in reality; it is about how exciting and dangerous the life of a young woman is, in the imaginations of younger women. Why, then, is there a baby?
I asked this on Twitter and everyone said “The baby is a MacGuffin.” He is, but he’s a poorly-chosen MacGuffin. Sarah really doesn’t like having this baby around. He’s a pain. Sarah herself can’t give much of a reason for going after him: when Jareth tries to tell her to stay home and forget about it, Sarah’s reasoning is: “I want my brother back.” (Pressed further, she elaborates: “I need my brother back.”) Having to care for a screaming baby that you hate is not part of any preadolescent girl’s fantasy of adolescence.
Of course, within the fiction, Sarah has to rescue her baby brother because you can’t let David Bowie kidnap and raise your baby brother—it’s just a terrible idea. But the implied motivations of familial loyalty and moral obligation don’t jive with anything else that’s going on in the movie. Baby Toby doesn’t fit the emotional or thematic narrative at all, and the fact that his existence drives all other action in the movie doesn’t make any dang sense.
The movie works, obviously: You notice that I care about it enough to have written 1,362 words about it so far. But I think it works in spite of this problem with its central conflict, and I think that Labyrinth could have been a better movie if the MacGuffin were handled differently.
We have reached the end of the substantive part of this essay. It is, in my opinion, outside a reviewer or critic’s purview to go on after evaluating a work and suggest how to fix it. (As a creator I find this type of “let me show you how to do it the right way” feedback extremely obnoxious.) What here follows, then, stands in opposition to my own strongly-held beliefs. But I went ahead and wrote it, and you, if you wish, can go ahead and read it.
I have thought of three ways to fix the central conflict of Labyrinth, and none of them are entirely satisfactory to me:
Make Sarah hate Toby less: As reasonable people, we assume that Sarah likes her baby brother at least a little bit; it’s just that the film itself doesn’t give us any reason to believe that. If we saw a glimmer of affection for Toby at some point before the goblins showed up, the quest to rescue him would make a little more logical sense, and a bit more thematic sense as well.
It’s understood that something bad will happen if Sarah doesn’t find Toby before the clock runs out, but exactly what bad thing will happen is glossed over pretty fast: “You have thirteen hours in which to solve the Labyrinth before your baby brother becomes one of us forever.” Toby might turn into a goblin! And goblins, as we learn, are disgusting, and loud, and annoying—but this sounds like the Toby we already know. If Toby were presented at first as a baby that is at least somewhat pleasant to be around, then the threat of his becoming a goblin would mesh fairly well with the movie’s symbolism: Sarah would naturally be anxious that her cute baby brother will grow up into one of these gross teenage boys/goblins.
But if Sarah didn’t completely loathe Toby, why would she wish for the goblins to take him away? The fact that she gets herself in all this trouble by making a selfish wish is very effective, and I don’t know how else you’d construct that scenario.
Make Jareth kidnap Sarah’s friend: Say instead of a baby brother, Sarah has a female friend, also a teen of some description, and circumstances conspire such that the Goblin King whisks that girl to the center of the labyrinth—or the two girls act out an elaborate make-believe game to that effect. Now Sarah is questing after something she really wants: literally, her friend; symbolically, the life of a teenaged girl. “Rescuing your best friend from a dangerously sexy older guy” is a pretty potent narrative for this audience as well.
But, man, remember that opening scene, where Sarah has to act out the Labyrinth story opposite an owl, with only her dog for company? She’s so lonesome, and part of the effectiveness of her making friends with these puppets in the Labyrinth is the fact that she doesn’t appear to have any friends in the real world. That pervasive loneliness wouldn’t work quite the same way if Sarah started out the movie with a friend.
Make Jareth kidnap Sarah’s dog, Merlin: The only problem with this idea is that it’s stupid.