At The Movies: Labyrinth (1986)

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Labyrinth

★★★½☆

1986 • 102 minutes • TriStar Pictures

As a teenager, my love of the eighties was not particularly shared by the alternative scene kids I ran with. But during my deeply ill-fated tenure on my high school’s debate team, I acquired a scene partner who loved Labyrinth. I’d heard of it—specifically, I’d heard of “Dance Magic”—but I’d never actually seen it. She gushed to me about David Bowie’s ethereal beauty and other attributes (I was identifying as asexual at that point in my life, so I was unmoved), and I trotted off to our local Blockbuster to rent the film in question. To quote John Mulaney, that’s a very old-fashioned sentence nowadays.

I enjoyed it, but it didn’t particularly stick with me. (Nor did I stick with debate, transitioning instead to an even more ill-fated tenure in school theater.) Recently, though, I had an opportunity to revisit it when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema hosted an outdoor screening in Brooklyn. To be honest, I mostly went to try and ferret out an official opening date for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Brooklyn (let me give you all of my disposable income, you monsters!). But I enjoyed the screening, despite the drizzle and despite being deep in the throes of the dissociative funk that Disaster Preparedness pushed me into. And now… I kinda get Labyrinth.

Maybe it’s because of the rise of CGI in children’s films over the last decade or so, which, more often than not, is not exactly Pixar quality. And while Labyrinth boasts one of the first CGI animals in its opening credits, it’s, of course, a Jim Henson’s Creature Shop production, and that means tactility. As someone who grew up on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, I really value this in film. It doesn’t necessarily have to be generated via practical effects—there are plenty of ways to make CGI look tactile. Part of the joy of watching special effects reels is discovering what looked real that actually wasn’t even there. But a Henson puppet is a marvelous thing, and I forgot how much I adore Sir Didymus. Part of it is his design (the whiskers are so expressive!) and part of it is the puppeteering of Dave Goelz and David Barclay, which manages to make him both prim and scrappy.

It’s also really nice to see a coming-of-age film that focuses on a girl—Sarah, as played by a practical but dreamy Jennifer Connelly. I really appreciate that it covers a lot of different aspects of growing up—taking responsibility for herself, understanding the obligations of family, trying to create a coherent identity out of her seemingly disparate interests, and, yes, sexual awakening. That stems inherently from the sheer charisma of David Bowie as Jareth. A lot has been said about how Labyrinth is about Sarah experiencing her first feelings of desire, but I think it’s important to note that it’s also about Sarah trying to negotiate the complicated power dynamics that romance—or, at least, her culture’s conception of heteronormative romance—imposes. My main memory of growing up and into an actual person is struggling (and failing, hence the ill-fated tenures) to assert, define, or even understand my agency. I so rarely see that reflected in media that it’s utterly charming to find it in an eighties classic.

I saw this film at a free outdoor screening.

4 thoughts on “At The Movies: Labyrinth (1986)

  1. I love your theater perspective on this; I never knew about “tactility” and now I know a little bit. CGI usually doesn’t do much for me, and maybe that’s why. But Bowie is mesmerizing! What I remember most (having not seen it in quite a while) is the fanatastical lushness of some of it,tense with darker motives and outcomes. Bowie’s “Do as I say and I will be your slave” speech is unforgettable: agency in a nutshell.

  2. I saw this movie in college and didn’t, ah, entirely get it, and that situation is ongoing. I ain’t mad at it though. One of my flatmates in England used to quote it all the time, because another of our flatmates was called Sarah, so while I don’t have fond memories of the film, I have fond feelings about some of its contents. I support the Jim Henson company tho!

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