Saturday, July 12, 2014

Labyrinth: Second thoughts

Puppets are pretty awesome in these movies, not gonna lie. The practical effects in Labyrinth were always fairly good when they weren't plain ingenious (I'm still a big fan of the Helping Hands). What a surreal and wacky dungeon adventure this one was. :D

I still haven't seen another puppet on the level of Yoda, which makes me very sad, but that's an awfully high bar to set. These are more primitive, but then they make use of a hell of a lot of them in this movie. The set design is excellently surreal and reminds me of Escher and some of the better maze puzzle books I played as a kid. The fact that they have all these little random encounters along the way kind of waters down the narrative, but on the other hand it enriches the adventure, which actually feels blah at the one point you wouldn't want it to (the Goblin City/Castle) while being otherwise quite excellent. Except the stupid red guys. Fierys I think? (Thanks Rachel!)

Like Sarah, for me enjoying this film was about learning to not take things for granted. It's got a subversive and sly sense of humor and storytelling, such that things like a talking bird hat or popping out of a giant pot after climbing a ladder or a portable door that opens onto different things are quickly par for the course. There are a lot of strange creatures that show up in throwaway or bit parts, and though they lacked the sheer excellence of the aliens in Star Wars, it's refreshing to see spare creativity get used to fill in the screen.

Now, I'm betting that this movie inspires debates about whether it was or was not all just a dream. I'm in the latter camp: there's no way she could grow out of being that much of a spoiled brat all by herself without something to help her get there. On top of that, of course, there are several scenes without Sarah in them and without her awareness of them, which suggests that it's not just her experience we're seeing but actual parts of the Goblin King's strange world. Getting pulled into a fairy kingdom and coming out again is a classic learning motif in fairy tales, and Sarah's lucky she's in one of the kind where she's allowed to take her lessons and run, rather than getting Rip Van Winkled.

I'm sort of confused by Jareth (thanks again Rachel!) in that... well, in that a lot of things, so I'll start with who let that man wear pants like that? Seriously, though, the whole movie shows us goblins in all their diversity and the Goblin King is no goblin. He reminds me of some kind of elf or dark elf out of mythology - shades of the Erlkonig, I think. He's a very active villain, which I enjoy tremendously, though I have to ask whether he's really a villain, per se, or just an antagonist? His final song and speech both suggest that he fills the role of a genie annoyed by an ingrate - your wish is granted, Sarah, why don't you just stop and see how awesome it is? I don't think for a minute that his goal is to get a new goblin out of the game. It goes deeper than that. There's also the implication that he's attracted to Sarah; if that's the case, turning her brother into a goblin might be an incentive for her to stay with him rather than return and own up to losing the baby.

I think he does desire her, not sexually but in the sense that he's desperately lonely and alienated, a dark elf sorcerer among goblins. Love him, fear him, do as he says and he will be your slave. All he wants is an equal, someone he can be with. The goblins don't fear him. Hoggle doesn't really fear him; he fears the Bog of Eternal Stench, but if he were outside the Labyrinth it's pretty likely that he'd be beyond Jareth's power. Nobody else fears him. Nobody even understands him (you can practically hear Sarah whining that same idea in the beginning) - the goblins have to be told to laugh more than once when he's trying to be funny, they think of terrible things when he just wants to have a good time. I'm sure they like him just fine and will accept him as a king, but there's no kingdom for him in the Labyrinth. Sarah's line when she confronts him has power because her "kingdom" is rule over herself; that's what Jareth asks of her, is that she let him rule over her and her kingdom, which is as great as his. I feel like the ruined castle in the final confrontation is the form of Jareth's true "kingdom." Oh sure there's a maze with a city, castle, all those goblins and creatures in it, but even though it's his playground, it's almost like a prison for him. Everything he does is about the two humans he brings to his realm. The true Jareth and his true kingdom are there at the end; the blurred realm of shattered pieces here and there, the king of nothing, garbed in white like a ghost haunting a hollow hall or an angel bereft of charge to guide. He came to Sarah looking for someone to aid in exchange for her dreams, her fears, her love. Go back and play with your toys, I will give you a window to your dreams. At the end, he even mentioned that he put on a frightening air because she wanted to be intimidated, to cower before something and feel outmatched.

The Goblin King is far more interesting than Sarah, whose themes are very predictable and hammered home with no subtlety. She takes everything for granted, is too quick to yield to her first read of a situation, and believes things should be fair without any basis for what "fair" really is. She thinks the world is about her and has built herself a living tomb of chintzy fairy-tale junk that she considers more important than her family life or even her little brother. I noticed that every setback she encountered seemed to be marked by two things: her cavalier belief that the world was just going to work for her (piece of cake!) and her utter failure to actually talk to anyone. She assumes that if it's need-to-know, someone will tell her, and goes from there. Had she asked the worm what was wrong with the left path, she'd have gotten straight to the castle. Had she asked the hands what was down and what was up, she wouldn't have gotten dropped into the I can't spell it so pit. Hell, even when she was down there she was ready to pretend she knew what it was until Hoggle called her out on it. Sarah really does think that everything's a piece of cake even while taking it all for granted. Actually, even the resolution of the final confrontation hinges on her realizing that she was taking Jareth's power over it all for granted - when she declares that he does not, in fact, have any power over her, it all breaks down. But she never would have asked, no. In her world, everything is just so and that's all anyone needs to know, and whenever something deviates from that expectation it's not "fair," because "fair" is knowing all the rules or getting a participation ribbon or something like that.

Her further problem is that she's willing to learn, but only on a case-by-case basis. Every lesson she learns she has to relearn during the movie. Don't trust Hoggle - but take a convenient fruit from him when he's acting shifty, sure. Don't take things for granted - take a few more things for granted and then whine about it. Aaaagain. I think she goes into the climax alone because she realizes that she can never outmatch the Goblin King if she keeps expecting things to be fair and to just work out for her, which is what all of her new friends represent. Hoggle's always appearing to pull her out of a scrape, Ludo (thanks Rachel) brings howling druid skills to bear that open a pathway whenever all seems lost, and even Didymus, latecomer though he is, makes for an effective frontline fighter. As long as they're around, she's never going to accomplish anything herself, and the Goblin King doesn't give a crap about any of them, really. To reach the final confrontation and save Toby, she has to stop taking the Escher castle for granted and make a leap of faith; once there, she has to come to that final realization that Jareth's powers are all enchantment and illusion magic and that none of them actually work directly on her if she doesn't want them to. My Will is as great indeed.

It's a fine movie, and I bet kids really enjoyed it. The songs are generally catchy (excepting the stupid Fiery song) with Magic Dance being particularly cool, since it opens with this wacky patter and has a good rhythm. The final song is probably the second-weakest of the lot, since its themes are sort of out there and it's more of a musical poem than an actual song. What a great voice that guy has, though. I understand from the comments that he's an actual musician; I'll have to check out some of his work. Hopefully when he's wearing more appropriate pantaloons.


  1. I think you've got Jareth's character pegged perfectly. And Sarah's, though as you say, there's a bit less to her.

    And the word is "Oubliette."

  2. Heh, if anything the kind of costumes Bowie wears are even more outrageous during his golden years. His whole thing was to create bizarre new personas around his music, often a new one for every album, and he was all about freaking out the normals.

  3. Labyrinth has one of my favorite quotes from any movie, and it sums up Jareth perfectly:

    Jareth: Sarah, beware. I have been generous up 'til now. I can be cruel.

    Sarah: Generous? What have you done that's generous?

    Jareth: *Everything*! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn't that generous?

  4. David Bowie rarely wore appropriate pantaloons, I'm afraid.

  5. I don't know if you've heard of Exalted, but your description of Jareth is basically a spot on representation of the way that game handles Fair Folk (aka: Fairies and HOB-Goblins). Sort of dissatisfied nobles from foreign lands with total control in their new homes... as long as you don't actually remember that their power is based on yours and their belief in it.

    Here's a clip of a parody of this movie, as an aside.

  6. The Goblin King was David Bowie, and he shall always wear such outrageous pantaloons. It is his right.

    Actually, you really need to watch The Dark Crystal if you want to see puppets TRULY at the top of their game. Seriously. Trust me. The same creative team responsible for Yoda.

  7. You say: "Now, I'm betting that this movie inspires debates about whether it was or was not all just a dream" and that is all true. Check out this article for some thoughts on that...

  8. No, you won't find a better puppet character than Yoda.

  9. Lovely and interesting insight. As a long-time fan of The Labyrinth, I enjoyed reading it (aside from my minor heart attack at seeing David Bowie referred to as "that guy").

  10. I'll Rigel, from Farscape, over Yoda.