Most kiddie-fare is propaganda, whether it’s Harry Potter telling you racism is bad or Twilight telling you sex is bad. While you might think that Jim Henson’s muppety fairytale with the Python jokes will do no more than implant into your little princess some worrying feelings about middle-aged pop stars, it’s actually teaching her something else entirely:
1. The good guys aren’t always good
Take Sarah, the protagonist: she’s a whiny, self-entitled brat. “It’s not fair!” she bleats practically the whole way through the film, railing at her loving and supportive parents and generally being a big crybaby. They’ve only asked her to babysit her brother, noting that they wouldn’t impose if she had a date – she should have a date at her age! – but since she had nothing better to do, they just wanted her to remain in the house with the sprog. Since aforementioned tyke won’t STFU, within just a few minutes she’s begged the Goblin King to take him away. A second or two later, she realises what a horrible, nasty, selfish cow she’s being and decides to go after him.
Along the way, she befriends an avaricious, cowardly liar; a sweet but spineless and idiotic furball; and a well-meaning but dangerously aggressive fox with poor impulse control.
2. The bad guys aren’t always bad
“She treats me like a wicked stepmother in a fairy story no matter what I say!” complains her really-rather-reasonable stepmother before leaving Sarah to do the one teeny-weeny thing that’s been asked of her in her rather pampered life.
Enter the Goblin King – who turns out to be the outrageously sexy David Bowie. Not only does he defy the convention of the easily-identifiable hideous villain, but he’s not actually that wicked at all. He doesn’t threaten anyone – save for his acted-on warning to plop Hoggle into the Bog of Eternal Stench – but only serves as the most conservative definition of Mild Peril as he helpfully tells Sarah she can pop by and grab the sproglet back any time – he’ll be home for the next 13 hours.
3. She can’t give up
Nobody is coming to her rescue. There are no white knights on valiant steeds – just a muppety fox on a fluffy dog that ultimately isn’t much help. She has to fix this herself, and none of her whingeing and whining that “IT’S NOT FAIR!” is going to save her.
Each time Sarah faces a setback, she has to sit down and consider where she went wrong, and find another path. She’s encouraged to give up, to choose something else – anything to distract her – and isn’t actually forced in either direction. To win, she simply has to decide to carry on, regardless of the obstacles in her way, which look impenetrable but actually crumble rather quickly once she’s applied a bit of common sense and elbow grease.
If she chooses to continue – which, of course, her conscience dictates – then she must accept that it won’t be easy and that she has to grow a spine. She has to stand up to her enemies, and also to her friends, without rage or recrimination.
4.She can’t win by force
Sarah doesn’t defeat the Goblin King by whining, screaming, punching him, or inciting a goblin revolution against the tyrannical oppressor. On the contrary, the goblins rather like the guy – he’s lots of fun, after all – but the threat he holds is of the subtle, insidious, everyday sort.
When I first saw Labyrinth, I didn’t really understand about the whole tights-bulge thing, but I did get that he was this really handsome, appealing sort of fellow that was offering to let Sarah be his fairytale princess. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t stay and be (whatever his necessarily chaste crush-offering was, because anything else would have been downright creepy) … right up until he said “let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.”
At that moment, it became clear that he would always be trying to control her, and that whole speech at the end really was a bit much, with all that “after everything I do for you” passive-aggressive bulls***.
I was quite relieved, even at the age of ten, that she did what any right-minded young lady would have done and calmly told the patronising old git to go f*** himself.
5. She isn’t congratulated for doing the right thing
After she rescues Toby, she doesn’t return home to a fanfare to celebrate what an amazing individual she is. Yes, she’s grown as a person and stopped being such an awful, selfish, whiny human being – but really she’s just done what anyone in her position ought to have done and it doesn’t on its own merit any particular praise. Instead we see her being more caring and sharing, appreciating what she has – and, mostly, appreciating her friends.
Poor Bowie’s stuck outside, of course, and forgotten by everyone in the room. Maybe there’s a dress code or something: no fright-wigs or tights.
Shame, really – he looked hot in those tights.