The Quarantine Stream: 'Labyrinth' Is Jim Henson's Dark, Weird Trip Through Wonderland

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The Movie: LabyrinthWhere You Can Stream It: Amazon PrimeThe Pitch: Saddled with babysitting her baby half-brother Toby on a Friday night, 16-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) dreams of playing out her childhood fantasies, and accidentally wishes that Toby be taken away by goblins. The Goblin King (David Bowie) appears to grant her wish, to Sarah's horror, and gives Sarah 13 hours to solve his labyrinth and find Toby before he is turned into a goblin forever.Why It's Essential Viewing: In the '80s, Jim Henson dreamed of creating a whole genre of filmmaking with puppetry. After the modest box office success of The Dark Crystal, Henson turned to one of the biggest stars who could get people into the theater to watch a movie about puppets: David Bowie. While Labyrinth failed to recoup its budget at the box office, it became a cult hit on home video — thanks, in part, to Bowie's magnetic charisma and the dark, gnarled vision of Henson's bizarre fairy tale world.

I remember getting Labyrinth on VHS one Christmas when I was young, and being immediately frightened by the grotesque puppets and Bowie's sneeringly seductive Goblin King. But returning to the film a few years later, I fell in love with this strange Wonderland that Henson drops us into. Part Alice in Wonderland riff, part coming-of-age fantasy, Labyrinth is a strangely sensual film whose sexually charged imagery can't be totally attributed to Bowie (though you can probably pinpoint a lot of women's sexual awakenings to the star's infamous bulge). It's the fascinating exploration of a young girl's budding sexuality that makes Labyrinth such a compelling watch and such an effective coming-of-age movie.

The Sarah we're introduced to (played with a wide-eyed awe by Connelly) is one who loves to dress up in medieval dresses and recite passages from her favorite fantasy book, The Labyrinth. She bristles at her new stepmom and the adult responsibilities that she dumps on her, as well as the pointed jabs that she makes at Sarah's lack of dating life. Sarah is on the cusp of adulthood, but she refuses to leave the plush, stuffed animal-filled bedroom that she adores, which is plastered with happy pictures of her mom (one of which features her new boyfriend, played by...Bowie). Sarah's journey through the labyrinth of her childhood book becomes her own exploration of her coming adulthood, as the labyrinth — in addition to being filled with crude, funny creatures — is filled with strangely sexual imagery, from the hands that grab at Sarah as she falls down a pit, to the juicy fruit that induces a dreamy hallucination of a baroque masked ball where Bowie's Goblin King attempts to seduce Sarah, like a ballroom gown-clad Persephone. It culminates in Sarah landing in a junkyard where she finds her childhood bedroom, a haven from the weird, dark reality outside. But Sarah can't escape adulthood, nor can she ignore her responsibility for her baby brother Toby.

It's no wonder Labyrinth was not a commercial or critical hit — it's strangely adult imagery combined with the silly puppet ensemble makes it a film that appeals to neither the younger nor older demographics. It's the kind of film that can only find a cult following on home video, where Bowie can thrust and gyrate as much as he damn well pleases. This is an oft-repeated saying, but Labyrinth is a movie that could never be made today. So you may return to it out of nostalgia, to remind you of the babe, but it still holds up today as a singularly strange and wonderful watch.