Life Lessons from Labyrinth

Me as a high school junior in my Halloween costume as Jareth, the Goblin King. 

I recently got a chance to watch Labyrinth on the big screen--you know, that cheesy 80s movie starring David Bowie in a mullet wig and codpiece as a Goblin King who grants a whiny teen's wish that her baby brother be taken away. The only way to get her brother back is to make it through the Goblin King's labyrinth, solving puzzles and making friends with muppets along the way.

I hadn't seen the movie since I was in high school, and I was pleasantly surprised by its flashes of genuine quality, and not just in David Bowie parts (though obviously, his grinning, tossed-off, unreasonably charismatic performance as Jareth the Goblin King and his synthy, super-80s, inappropriately romantically intense score are highlights). There's also ingenious practical effects and virtuosic puppetry by Jim Henson (you'd expect nothing less from him, but there are so many different types of puppets and they're all so individual and animated! The "helping hands" were most mind-blowing to me in their technical simplicity and expressiveness.) The writing, too, is funny and clever. I saw the movie in a theater full of sarcastic 30-somethings there for nostalgia value, and they were quite willing to laugh at things that were unintentionally funny (such as the goofy-looking effect when David Bowie swings over the edge of the staircase in the Escher scene), but this hardly ever happened. Instead, they laughed genuinely at actual, intended jokes.

The movie also has some surprisingly good life lessons. It's easy to overlook because the focus of this movie is whimsical worldbuilding, so lessons aren't the main point. I think that's to its advantage. Kids' movies that lean too hard on lessons can be preachy. A movie like this--a simple plot that's really a series of bizarre setpieces on a few loosely connected themes--usually ends up being more nuanced and interesting, and sticking with you better. Here are some of the lessons I take from the movie:

Words have power.

The most obvious moral of Labyrinth is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for type thing about not wishing away your loved ones, no matter how annoying they may be, and how frustrated you may be at the situation. Though, I'd argue that this statement about the nature of family relationships is actually more of a given than a lesson. Sarah is immediately willing to do whatever it takes to get her brother back. She doesn't need to learn that she really loves him--she always seems to know that.

Still, as Jareth admonishes an immediately remorseful Sarah, "What's said is said." It's not enough that you know you don't really mean what you are saying. Sometimes, words can't be taken back. Even though charms, incantations, and spells don't really exist, even in the ordinary world of mortals, words have a strange power to make thoughts real. It's important to wield this power thoughtfully.

Question your assumptions.

The second most obvious lesson of Labyrinth is stated several times in the early part of the movie: "Things aren't always as they seem in here!" The Labyrinth is full of optical illusions and puzzles with outside-the-box solutions. In order to make progress, Sarah has to learn to get out of her standard ways of thinking.

Even if you're not in a magical maze, when you're feeling stuck, it's important to ask yourself: what am I taking for granted? Why do I believe those things? Could there be another solution I'm not seeing?

Don't get sidetracked by stuff.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is surprisingly straightforwardly anti-materialist. After eating a cursed fruit that makes her forget her quest, Sarah wanders around a junkyard. She knows she's looking for something, but can't remember what. An old lady puppet carrying an enormous pile of stuff on her back hands her a stuffed bear. Sarah accepts it, feeling slightly dissatisfied. The hoarder-y old woman then leads Sarah through a replica of her own room, handing her all of her favorite things: "Here's your doll. You like that. And this nice pencil box. And Charlie Bear, mustn't forget Charlie bear." Sarah is slowly becoming buried by her things, consumed by them. She's turning into the old woman with all the stuff on her back. Then, suddenly, hearing Toby's cry in the distance, she thrusts it all away, crying, "It's all junk!"

These are Sarah's prized possessions, and they're the reason she was angry with her brother to begin with (for messing with them), but she realizes suddenly that they're unimportant in the face of a quest to save a loved one. People are more important than things.

Whatever we are looking for in life, it is so, so easy to be sidetracked by material possessions and creature comforts. Let's always try to remember the quest we're really on, and not let ourselves be distracted and buried by junk.

"You have no power over me."

In the final confrontation scene, Jareth claims that he's been very generous to Sarah: "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 love the way he turns the cause-and-effect on its head there: he was scary because she was scared, not the other way around. He is living up (or down) to her expectations. Though Sarah is quoting from a book when she says the magic words, they seem to work only because she realizes the truth of them in that moment: "You have no power over me."

Whenever we are faced with situations where we feel we are strangely in the thrall of something--a charismatic personality, a frightening authority, a persuasive advertisement--it can be startlingly easy to break the spell if we only realize it: "You have no power over me."

Take the best parts of childhood with you into the adult world.

If I had to sum up the main theme of Labyrinth, I'd say it's about the space between childhood and adulthood. Sarah appears to be fourteen or fifteen, but she's immature for her age. Her room is filled with beautiful yet childish things: beautifully crafted dolls and teddy bears, a wooden maze, lushly illustrated fairy tale books. It's clear the the world of the labyrinth is drawn from her own interests and imagination, but it's not a safe and fun place for children: it's dangerous, and creepy, and at times even strangely erotic (one of the best-loved scenes in the movie is a masquerade ball dream sequence in which Sarah, in a gorgeous white gown, dances with Jareth as he sings about the pain of falling in love).

At the end of the movie, when Sarah gets back from her harrowing journey in the labyrinth--inspired, perhaps, by her run-in with the hoarding woman--Sarah begins packing away her toys in a drawer. Her friends from the labyrinth appear in the mirror and tell her the same thing they told her before she faced the Goblin King: if she needs them, she just has to call.

"I need you," she says. "I don't know why, but every now and then in my life, for no reason at all, I need you."

"Well, why didn't you say so?!" And suddenly her room is full to the brim with all her wacky Labyrinth buddies! And that's how we leave her, partying with the puppets.

At Sarah's age, I remember feeling that this struck me as a bit of fan service at odds with the message of the movie--she's moving on into adulthood, sort of, but not really, actually maybe she's backsliding into her fantasy world.

But really, you never fully leave childhood behind, do you? The stories and ideas that captured your imagination when you were ten may always hold a certain magic for you. And that can be a great thing! Of all people, I don't think Jim Henson, Terry Jones, or David Bowie would have wanted to leave you with the message that the only way forward for young people is to soberly pack up their childish things and blend into the adult world, leaving all wonder and weirdness behind. I don't think they'd have believed that for a second.

If you're lucky, like Sarah, you'll mature by learning to be a bit less selfish, more generous, more thoughtful with your words. You'll learn from your mistakes and get smarter and more resourceful. You'll be brave. You'll learn to distinguish true hardship from unimportant frustrations. But you'll also keep the great things about childhood: a mind open to new ideas and new ways of thinking, a heart open to new friends, a sense of fun and adventure.


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