Let’s talk about David Bowie’s crotch. It is, after all, the key to Labyrinth, a bizarre Alice in Wonderland riff that makes the events in that strange tale seem tame. In this version, written by Terry Jones and directed (and Muppeted) by Jim Henson, a surly teen girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), forced to babysit her infant step-brother, spitefully whispers a curse from the fantasy novel she’s reading. When an actual Goblin King (Bowie) appears in response and kidnaps the boy, Sarah must journey into a bewildering labyrinth to rescue him.
The episodic structure allows Henson and his special-effects artists to go wild, ushering in a series of increasingly odd creatures and settings. The more handcrafted ones are the most compelling, including a lumbering, mournful monster named Ludo and a tunnel whose walls are made of grasping hands, which “speak” by forming faces. Less successful are those characters that rely on early, dodgy green-screen technology. (For a better integration of Henson’s craft and the art of cinema, I’d recommend The Dark Crystal, which benefits from no human characters and has far superior world-building.)
Connelly, as the sole human for much of the movie, is bratty and overbearing, while a dwarf named Hoggle (embodied by Shari Weiser and voiced by Brian Henson) falls into the uncanny valley between fantasy and reality. Hoggle is meant to be the emotional lynchpin of the movie, as he wavers between affection for Sarah and pressure from the Goblin King, but thanks to that uncanny effect—his head is animatronic while Weiser’s movements are “natural”—he mostly comes across as creepy.
There are also loads of minor goblins popping out of the corners of the frame, a belching pond that emits a horrid stench, and a fox-like guardian who rides a sheep dog. Yet even with all this going on, Bowie’s crotch has the most gravitational pull. (Let’s just say the Goblin King prefers spandex.) And that’s fitting, for Labyrinth is most coherent as an allegory for an adolescent girl’s unease over her own sexual desire. For Sarah, the Goblin King represents the boys she’s beginning to be interested in, and the fear that accompanies these feelings. The stage is set for this early on, when her stepmother—exasperated by the “childish” fantasy world Sarah lives in—suggests that she go on a date. Her ire toward her little brother is partly due to the fact that he represents the natural outcome of following through on sexual desire—a child. Most tellingly, one of the many weird musical numbers is a fantasy within the fantasy in which Sarah—glammed up and looking years older—is wooed by the Goblin King at an elaborate ball. Her rejection of him is the turning point toward her escaping the labyrinth and retrieving her brother.
Consider, even, how the movie ends. Sarah is back safe in her bedroom, notably decorated with the dolls and frills of a little girl. In a final, fantastic touch, she’s magically joined by some of the creatures she’s met on her adventure—but only the “safe” ones. The Goblin King, now in the form of an owl, is perched, peering/leering, outside. Labyrinth is a goofy, freaky camp fest, but when you see it as a PG-rated psychosexual fever dream, it actually begins to make some sense.