The first time I watched Labyrinth, I was a chubby, bespectacled daydreamer who took full advantage of Southern California's flawless weather by staying the hell indoors. My time was devoted to fantasy books and imagining the adventures beyond the auto malls and underfunded schools of my city. I jumped off piles of boxes in our garage because I wanted to be Último Dragón. I begged my mom to pay for kung fu classes because I wanted to be Jackie Chan. Heck, I don't even need to tell you about the Dungeons & Dragons.
I don't believe in re-watching movies. There are just too many of them out there to tread over the same 90 minutes twice. The only exception I make is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and that's only because Thanksgiving turkey doesn't taste the same without it. But with David Bowie's death earlier this year, I compromised my morals again and revisited Jim Henson's penultimate big screen work. It's a film worth going back to, and this is why.
David Bowie's Bulge
OK, let's get this out of the way now. David Bowie's bulge. There it is. Stare at it, be mesmerized by it, and question its presence in a movie with goblins and talking animals. I'll still be here when you're done.
What Labyrinth Is Really About
Sarah, your typical movie teenager, wishes for her little brother Toby to be taken away. Jareth the Goblin King complies. After realizing her parents probably wouldn't approve of her giving the little guy away like that, Sarah confronts Ziggy Stardust, who decides to make a game out of it and transports her to his kingdom. There, our protagonist teams up with a dwarf voiced by Jim Henson's son, a horned gorilla that was kicked off the Sesame Street cast, and a dog that uses another dog as a mount. Using the power of friendship, baby Toby is returned, unharmed and with a new appreciation for pop rock. Sarah learns her lesson, she has a dance party with her adventuring party, and the credits roll.
At its most superficial (or through the eyes of a preteen with a crush on Jennifer Connelly), Labyrinth warns the viewer you get what you ask for. But I don't think it's that simple. Labyrinth is a coming-of-age movie, yes, but it's closer to 1990s Mermaids than the children's movie it was perceived to be when it was first released.
It's a story about the need for escapism. The events in the movie happen because Sarah feels held back by the realities of her circumstances. Authority figures who don't understand her. A teddy bear named "Lancelot." Rehearsing lines from a book, in costume, in a park by herself. Losing track of time, at that. She feels like she's supposed to be more than just "an ordinary girl who takes care of a screaming baby." All she really wanted was to wish away the idea of her little brother. Toby was her anchor, and Jareth took that away. That's why the movie ends like it does. Sarah learned to keep one foot in the real world and one foot in the Goblin City. Jareth is merely the figurine by her vanity mirror, and the owl watching her from outside. He has no power over her anymore.
But it's also a story about ch-ch-changes and knowing who you are. No matter how many setbacks Sarah suffers in her journey through the labyrinth, she still retains her friendliness and stubbornness, which the movie portrays as her positive aspects. She refuses to hate Hoggle, even after he feeds her the enchanted peach. She befriends Ludo, despite his appearance, and Sir Didymus, despite his personality. The Fireys — those orange, hairy guys with the funky song — were a literal take on this theme. Sarah won't change what makes her Sarah. That's why she refuses the Junk Lady and gifts Lancelot to Toby in the end. She won't be defined by her things anymore.
Taking this interpretation a step further, Sarah is at the point in her life where she's going through a lot of physical changes. It's why Bowie plays the Goblin King as a tempter and a seducer. It's why he sounds like a bad poetry book when he speaks to Sarah. It's also the real reason why the bulge is prominently displayed whenever The Thin White Duke gets screen time. (At least, this is how I am choosing to interpret that choice of direction.) Jareth is adulthood, and adulthood scares and confuses Sarah. It's an Escher staircase, it's a masquerade in a crystal ball, and it's her biggest struggle in the movie.
Then again, I also like reading too much into things. What do you think the movie's about?