Today marks 30 years since Jim Henson’s initially slighted, but since lauded, masterpiece Labyrinth was released in cinemas in America. At the risk of sounding slightly hyperbolic, this was a moment in cinema history that changed the lives of several generations of children – introducing them not only to the seductive brilliance of David Bowie, but the seductive brilliance of one of cinema’s most daring and eccentric bad boys, Jareth the Goblin King. Following Bowie’s untimely death in January of this year, there have been outpourings of nostalgic love for his pheromone-stimulating performance, but what is it about this character that inspires such a myriad of emotions? It’s time to give Jareth a thorough examination.
For those uninitiated into the world of Labyrinth, the film follows hormonally-charged 15 year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl with a penchant for petulance. She has a preoccupation with drama and romantic fairy tales, with an early panning shot over her bookshelf revealing titles such as Alice Through the Looking Glass, Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her bitterness at having to babysit Toby, her baby brother, leads her to wish that he would be taken away by goblins. When her wish actually comes true and the Goblin King himself rocks up to her house, she finds herself with only 13 hours to rescue her brother from Jareth’s castle at the heart of the eponymous labyrinth. If she fails, Toby will be transformed into one of Jareth’s goblins.
So, where does Bowie’s Jareth fit into this fairy tale? Basically, he’s a lonely, sexy Goblin King with only goblin minions to talk to. In his spare time he enjoys stealing babies as well as singing, wearing glittery leather jackets and juggling crystal balls. That’s a Tinder bio you don’t mess with. He also happens to be in love with Sarah and enjoys toying with her, placing obstacles in her way as she progresses through the labyrinth in a game of cat and mouse. In an interview with Empire, Brian Froud, the film’s conceptual designer, and screenwriter Terry Jones (Monty Python) recall that Henson’s intention for the film was to present a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, experiencing a sexual awakening. In this sense, Sarah’s journey through the labyrinth is her own imaginative way of exploring and attempting to understand these new feelings of confusion, uncertainty, curiosity, and desire. It’s a fantastical rite of passage, and who better to lead the way than a rebellious, hyper-sexualised rock star?
Bowie is perfectly cast as a symbol of Sarah’s budding sexuality and he sets the tone for Henson’s subversion of traditional childhood fairy tale clichés, bridging the gap between childhood and adult fantasy. Froud has said that as a representation of a young girl’s desires, Jareth is pieced together from romantic heroes, old and new; from medieval knights, Heathcliffs, James Dean-esque rebels and, of course, from rock stars. The first time we see Jareth, he transforms from a white owl into a towering, wraith-like figure in a rush of wind, glitter and floaty fabric (this has got to be a contender for one of the greatest film entrances ever). With immaculate coif and makeup in the New Romantic style, he’s dressed in an elaborate leather outfit complete with a breastplate and a cloak. He looks every inch the threatening, predatory, birdlike figure from which he has transformed, poised and ready to play with his prey, while also retaining a birdlike grace and elegance. Jareth strikes a dangerous presence, but in that most delicious of temptations, he’s also incredibly beautiful.
Now, obviously I can’t go much further without discussing the codpiece. I’ve been skirting around it, mainly because I think it does a pretty good job of speaking for itself (although that’s not going to stop me from dedicating the rest of this paragraph to it). There’s no denying it: it’s very big. And this is intentional: according to Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son), his father was all for emphasising this particular asset of Jareth’s as it served as another symbol of how frightening and confusing the unknowns of the adult world can be for one so young. And it works: it’s pretty intimidating.
At the risk of too much objectification, Jareth does have other assets. His confidence (some might call it arrogance, and they’d be right) and wit are incredibly attractive – he has the pride of Austen’s Mr Darcy, the vanity of Wilde’s Dorian Gray and the eloquence of Milton’s Satan. Throughout the film Sarah continually complains “It’s not fair!” and at one point Jareth coolly replies “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is?” He can also be very romantic: ignoring Jareth’s dubious methods in instigating the ballroom fantasy, the sequence itself is heartbreakingly beautiful – a masked Venetian ball wherein Sarah and Jareth’s eyes meet across a crowded dancefloor and they dance to ‘As the World Falls Down’, a beautiful Bowie ballad.
In scenes such as this, Jareth does and says (and sings) all the right things, even when they don’t make sense, and it is at times such as these (carefully placed towards the end of the film) that his character becomes most transparent. With contradictory lines such as “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave”, it’s clear that Jareth is a mouthpiece for the romantic lines from books, plays and films which Sarah has absorbed but doesn’t quite understand. In the Goblin King’s final scene, dressed all in feathery white and slightly out of focus due to a very soft camera, he actually begins to lose definition before returning to his owl form as Sarah’s fantasy comes to an end.
Ultimately, Bowie’s Jareth does exactly what he is designed to do – he is the ultimate heartthrob, a representation of danger, love and lust as well as the confusion that such feelings inspire. He is an inherently rebellious figure; his character defies romantic and moral conventions, as well as the structural conventions of a fairy tale. He is neither definitively good nor evil, neither romantic hero nor villain. For a children’s film whose target audience were probably brought up predominantly on Disney, having a character rebelling against the good/evil dichotomy is pretty ballsy. Having an antihero as the object of lust is even ballsier, and giving the role to one of the biggest rockstars ever… well, that took a pretty big codpiece.