Too often audiences for Jim Henson’s dark 80’s classic, Labyrinth (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), overlook its technical star. An attempt to redeem Jennifer Connelly’s flawed heroine, Sarah.
That the movie, Labyrinth, continues to have longevity, after receiving lackluster reviews during its 1986 release, undoubtedly comes from the big names attached to the project: Jim Henson as director, Monty Python’s Terry Jones as writer, George Lucas as producer, David Bowie as Goblin King, Jareth. One of these names alone would’ve ensured the film’s legacy with dedicated fans but together they form a formidable creative team that will always draw interest, regardless of critical opinion.
Still, it deserves noting that their dense, fairy tale collage of a film has a number of attributes to recommend itself. Bowie’s earworm-filled soundtrack and Henson’s idiosyncratic puppets may serve as the initial calling point for fresh generations, but it’s the film’s sharp, relatable take on life and amusing 80’s aesthetic (lipstick replaces Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs as a marker along the labyrinth path) that keep it quotably in the zeitgeist.
One character that rarely, if ever, gets cited as a draw for new fans, however, is its leading lady, Sarah. Played by future Oscar winner, Jennifer Connelly, any conversation around Sarah can be generally divided into three categories: dislike, age difference concerns, or paled interest next to her co-star’s beloved performance.
“I Wish The Goblins Would Come And Take You Away—Right Now!”
In people’s defense, there’s reason for that reaction. Sarah is not traditionally, or even untraditionally, likable. The movie begins with her calling on the Goblin King from a favorite story to take her baby brother, Toby, away. Instant regret means the rest of the movie follows Sarah’s quest to save him.
At least that’s what the movie suggests in its heroine’s journey structure. Sarah doesn’t want to be an adult. She shirks the maternal instincts ascribed to her gender. But in the course of an hour forty, Sarah acts selflessly and bravely to rescue a child.
“Come On, Feet!”
That’s not exactly what happens, though. When the Goblin King first tries to convince Sarah to give up her search for Toby her language goes from “I want my brother back…,” to, after seeing what lies ahead, “I can’t [turn back]. Don’t you understand that I can’t?” In a film where wording is everything (the goblins are only able to take the child after she gives them precisely phrased permission), this use of the word “can’t,” versus the more personally invested “want,” stands out. Heroes don’t usually proceed on a quest because they “can’t” not do so. They choose to go above and beyond requirement.
“I Am Exhausted From Living Up To Your Expectations.”
Yet lack of a choice is what got Sarah in this mess in the first place. She never sincerely wished Toby harm but when taking care of him got packaged as something she “needed” to do, instead of something she might have done naturally on her own, she rebelled. Now she must play the part of heroine, down to a final showdown with Jareth alone (“Because that’s the way it’s done”) to get him back.
What that means for Sarah as a character, and what can make her such a disconcerting figure for viewers, is that for most of the film Sarah’s words aren’t her own: they’re either dialogue from the pages of her book, where she’s playing a fictional heroine, or lines from the part she plays at home, of stereotypical teenage girl. That she has trouble remembering these lines demonstrates their unnaturalness. Much more telling of Sarah’s actual personality are her actions, putting aside personal safety in the moment to help friends she meets along the way. This is the real Sarah, the one who gets to make her own choices and whose predisposition for helping people is every bit the stuff of heroism.
[SPOILERS for ending ahead]
Thus Sarah’s moment of triumph isn’t when she tells Jareth, “You have no power over me,” words that cause his crystal ball to shatter and send her and Toby home. That line effectively resolves the quest but it’s also the same line she’d been practicing and trying to keep straight in her head from the start. It’s part of the scripted narrative she’s obligated to complete.
Sarah’s triumph comes in the denouement, with two final scenes that don’t have to happen but are purely of her own initiative: the one, a quiet gesture, has her giving Toby her stuffed bear, Lancelot, as he falls asleep—a peace offering apology; the other, when in her bedroom alone, has Sarah telling her friends from the Goblin City she needs them. “Why didn’t you say so?” one replies.
♫♪ Dance Magic Dance ♪♫
Sarah is finally using her own voice to speak up for herself. While her request may not be as memorable a line as her grating catchphrase, “That’s not fair!” it’s hers, and the quote that should be looked to for a greater semblance of who Sarah is than the less flattering script she often has to follow to rescue Toby.