Labyrinth, the musical fantasy epic from Jim Henson and Brian Froud, has long been one of my favorite movies. I loved it the first time I saw it in 1986, and I love it now. A few months ago, Fathom Events brought Labyrinth back to movie theaters for a few days. While I was enjoying a new viewing on the big screen, I started thinking about the life lessons encoded in Henson’s Bowie-filled masterpiece.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic premise for the start of the movie- Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a teenage girl who clings to the fantasy life and toys of her childhood. As the film opens, she is late to babysit her brother Toby, and she’s a whiny brat about it. She complains about having to babysit to her Stepmother and father, “It’s not fair!” Once they go out, she is frustrated by Toby’s constant crying, and she super dramatically wishes for the Goblin King to take the baby away from her. Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) appears, and takes the baby as she requested.
When she says that she wants him back, he gives her thirteen hours to get through the Labyrinth to the castle beyond the Goblin City. This is where the story really kicks in- and the lessons.
Pretty isn’t always good, and monstrous isn’t always bad.
When Sarah first meets Hoggle outside the Labyrinth, he’s cheerfully killing faeries with a pump-spray filled with of some sort of pesticide. She picks one up, thinking it’s a poor abused thing, and it promptly bites her. Later, she first encounters Ludo suspended upside-down and being tormented by goblins with biting-sticks. Ludo looks and sounds like a ferocious beast at first, but it’s an illusion. Once he’s right side up, his fierce expression turns out to be sweet and friendly.
The idea that pretty things can be dangerous and that helpful or good-natured things might be hiding behind ferocity is repeated throughout the Labyrinth, and that leads us to…
Take nothing for granted.
Early in the film, Sarah is following an outer track of the maze but she struggles to find an entrance to the Labyrinth. When she slumps against the wall in frustration, she meets an adorable worm who invites her in for a cup of tea, and to meet the missus.
Sarah is too preoccupied with getting through the maze to stop, and she says as much to the worm. He tells her not to take anything for granted, and points her to a place that looks like solid wall. She realizes after a moment that it’s an illusion, and that there are openings all over, and rushes off.
Don’t be in such a rush that you miss the important things.
The worm isn’t done with the lessons there, either. At the end of their exchange, the worm tells her not to go in the first direction she chose. She doesn’t question it, thanks him, and races off in the other direction. Once she’s out of earshot, the worm says, “If she’d have kept on goin’ down that way she’d have gone straight to that castle.”
If she hadn’t been in such a rush, she would have gotten to the castle much faster. and the movie would have been considerably shorter.
Life isn’t always fair.
Throughout the movie, Jareth sends obstacles to keep Sarah from reaching the castle to reclaim her brother. When he speeds up the clock and changes the conditions of her challenge, she impetuously complains that it isn’t fair. Jareth’s dry retort is one of my favorite lines in any movie: “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”
It’s important to have perspective about the problems in your life- fairness rarely enters into it. Whining about how things haven’t been fair to you will accomplish nothing at all.
You can get used to any bullshit if you spend too much time around it.
When our intrepid heroes reach the Bog of Eternal Stench, they meet Sir Didymus, the stalwart defender of… a tiny rickety bridge across the bog. While we never find out why Sir Didymus has pledged himself to defend this bridge, we do realize that he must have been in the Bog for quite some time. Everyone else in the group is recoiling with disgust at the stench, but Sir Didymus doesn’t notice at all. Think of it as the olfactory equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.
This is also true in real life- if you have a terrible job or a bad relationship or a friendship that is withering on the vine, it’s easy to get used to it. Inertia is sometimes difficult to break through and we often let a less-than-ideal situation go on for far longer than we should because it’s what we’re used to.
Sometimes you just need a new quest to get out of the Bog.
Your stuff is just stuff.
During the requisite drugged-peach hallucinatory trip segment of the movie, Sarah finds herself in a junkyard with no memory of what she was doing. She encounters a Junk Lady with all of her possessions on her back. There’s a moment where Sarah returns to what she thinks is her room, surrounded by all the things she loves – her old games and books and toys and stuffed animals.
The Junk Lady starts to hand her the things she loves, and begins stacking them up on her back- after a moment, Sarah starts to have an improbable stack of her things resting above her shoulders, just like the Junk Lady. She realizes after a few minutes that her things are all just junk- the belongings aren’t that important, and she quickly resumes her quest to reach Toby before the clock runs out.
This is a recurring theme in many of my favorite movies- the things you own often wind up owning you. They can pull you down, and weigh heavily on you. And at the end of the journey, it’s really all just junk- the important thing is the people you meet along the way.
Love can be a subtle control.
In one of the most subtly nasty moments in the entire film, Jareth says a thing which summarizes the tricky control of many a psychologically abusive relationship. Gaslighting, in a nutshell: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”
In a way, this is the same lesson as most of the others- you can get used to any situation, no matter how bad. The things you love can control you. Pretty things are often bad for you.
The way out is to remember your own strength, as Sarah did when she stopped playing Jareth’s Goblin games at the end of the movie: “You have no power over me.”
What lessons did you learn from Labyrinth?