The mass media have been particularly arid territory for children lately, treating our young as little more than vessels for advertising pitches. In fact, even theatrical films have become advertisement vehicles, as many of the recent releases aimed at children have been little more than blatant 90minute commercials hawking toy lines such as the Smurfs, the Care Bears, and the Transformers, betraying in their producers attitudes so cynical as almost to defy belief.

Still, even in this gloomy region there are rays of hope. The output of Walt Disney studios has been particularly notable recently. Such films as Tron, Flight of the Navigator, and Return to Oz, while of varying quality, are at least sincere attempts to create decent, instructive entertainment for children. The Great Mouse Detective, Disney’s most recent animated release, is even better. Supervised by the last of Disney’s oldfashioned animators and furnished with a sTrong story and interesting characters, the film is a treat for young filmgoers and their chaperones alike. Also heartening is the Disney studio’s professed desire to continue along these lines with their future animated productions.

Then there is Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. From the television series Sesame Street and The Muppet Show through his feature films The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and others, Henson has provided children and their parents with a considerable amount of entertainment over the past 20 years. Fortunately, there is much more to Henson’s works than puerile charm. In fact, he may be one of the best things to happen to America’s children in quite a while. While Henson’s works may seem frivolous on the surface, there are worthy ideas underneath.

As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, most notably in his book The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales are not just pretty stories with which parents divert their children. These tales, says Bettelheim, provide ethical instruction for children and also help them confront feelings and ideas which are too fearsome for them to face directly. The story of “Little Red Cap” (aka “Little Red Riding Hood”) teaches children to beware of strangers (among other things), while the wicked stepmother in numerous tales has been seen as a stand-in for the child’s occasional anger toward his or her mother. Since fairy tales have been traditionally handed down from generation to generation, it seems natural that they would teach only socially acceptable behavior. On the other hand, any newly devised fairy tale would need to be judged on what it teaches its impressionable young audience, especially when it’s distributed to millions of children through a modern mass medium.

The similarities between movies and fairy tales are intriguing. Many people are involved in the creation of a motion picture; likewise, many are involved in the creation of fairy tales. Our culture, according to Bettelheim, finds its expression in fairy tales; culture also expresses itself through motion pictures, in a similarly veiled manner. Fairy tales make a unique contribution to children’s education and the development of their imaginations; so do movies, for children and adults alike. Finally, like fairy tales, movies often help audiences confront feelings and ideas which are too fearsome for them to face directly.

In Labyrinth, Jim Henson has teamed up with George Lucas, of American Graffiti and Star Wars fame, to produce what can appropriately be described as a modern fairy tale. The film opens with a pseudo-dramatic scene of a teenage girl named Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, reciting romantic verse in an archaic courtyard, then abruptly descending to reality as she realizes she is late for dinner and races home through prosaic suburban streets. The story begins when Sarah’s parents leave for a night on the town and she balks at having to take care of Toby, her baby brother. Sarah begs some nearby goblins to take him away and relieve her of her responsibilities. Much to her surprise, they do, and Jareth, alias the “Goblin King,” played by David Bowie, sportingly gives her 13 hours to solve the Labyrinth and rescue her brother, who will otherwise become a full-fledged goblin himself.

What sounds perhaps overly cute in summary here turns out to be not only very entertaining but also wise and insightful. Once inside the Labyrinth, the young heroine confronts comical Muppetized versions of many of the problems which face young people today. Just as a conventional Labyrinth presents a series of directional choices, so the Goblin King’s Labyrinth presents Sarah with a succession of ethical choices. Her most common reaction to events early on is to say, “It isn’t fair!” This is of course not far from a typical child’s reaction to the irrational difficulties often encountered in brushes with the adult world and in fact is just what she said while running home earlier.

Soon, however, Sarah overcomes her despair and simply attempts to make the best of things. She meets Hoggle, a short, ugly, apparently aged homunculus, with whom she learns the value of forgiveness; Luto, a large, kindly brute who demonstrates the power of nature; and Didymus, a little fellow who looks like a cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a grenadier of the Napoleonic era.

Didymus is a particularly interesting character. He is the ultimate warhawk but is played as a likable, enthusiastic British gentleman-soldier. Although he loves to fight, he never gets the group into needless danger and proves to be very courageous when they do need his skills, although his cowardly “steed,” a sheepdog named Ambrosius, keeps preventing him from getting into the thick of things. In contrast to many other filmmakers working today, Henson resists the temptation to play the character as a pathological danger to society. He’s a soldier, not a sociopath, and he comes in very handy when he’s needed.

Although Sarah makes several friends in the Labyrinth, she is frequently separated from them and has to make most of her major choices alone. Clearly Henson is stressing the fact that, while they will receive help from others throughout their lives, children can’t depend on others to make their moral choices for them. Sarah quickly learns to make the right choices. She encounters a ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll band composed of strange, demon-like characters who detach their grotesque heads and playfully toss them in the air. She is amused at first, but when they swarm over her, invite her to stick around a while, and attempt to help her remove her head, she fights them off and makes her escape. She chooses responsibility over mindless rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, a choice the film’s youthful audiences no doubt encounter every day.

Sarah is forced to confront her own selfishness and materialism in a scene which takes place in a vast junkyard patrolled by a pack of horrendous vagabonds. Guided by one of the tramps, she opens the door to a rundown shack, enters, and is shocked to find that she is suddenly back in her bedroom at home. She is tempted to give up and remain there, especially when the tramp begins piling the girl’s toys around Sarah as she sits dazed on her bed. The tramp, in attempting to comfort Sarah, unwittingly mocks the girl’s maternalism by saying, “It’s all here. Everything in the world you’ve ever cared about is all right here.” Sarah, finally realizing that she loves some things besides her toys, shouts, “It’s all junk!” and races out of the room and back into the junkyard to continue her search for her brother. The scene is just subtle enough to be effective.

The ending, however, is positively stunning. Sarah confronts the Goblin King—alone—in a tower high above the Labyrinth. She steps into the tower and enters an M.G. Escher dreamworld, with stairways going off every which way and gravity and her perspective changing from moment to moment. She sees Toby and runs toward him, but each time she makes any progress he disappears and reappears elsewhere. She leaps into a hole to prevent Toby from falling in, tumbles through space, and is left standing in a demolished universe with herself and Jareth floating in mid-air among bits of debris and pieces of stairways. Jareth finally reveals his true motivation in bringing her to the Labyrinth: He wants her, not Toby. He never wanted her brother; he took the boy only because she asked him. “Everything you have wanted I have done,” he says. “I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you. I’m so sick of living up to your expectations!”

Jareth offers her a Faustian bargain: “Look what I’m offering you: your dreams! I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything you want. Fear me, love me . . . and I will be your slave.” But Sarah has learned too much in the Labyrinth to be fooled by this and speaks the magic words she learned—but was unable to remember—earlier: “You have no power over me.” Jareth, defeated, transforms back into the snowy owl he was when the film began. Sarah wakes up back in her room and finds that her baby brother has been returned. She also finds that she’ll be able to call on her friends from the Labyrinth if she ever needs them in the future, and the film ends with her and her new friends dancing in her bedroom.

The ethical foundation of the film becomes clear only in the final scene—and is only implicit even then, never explicit—but on reflection it is clear that the foundation is there throughout the film, embodied in the concept of choice. We are always given a choice, every moment, on which path to take, but Sarah is given a series of explicit choices. That she ultimately makes the right ones is as gratifying to the audience as it is to her. If many parents nowadays seem to have forgotten how to tell their children fairy tales, we may be glad that at least some filmmakers still know how. Sam Karnick is a screenwriter who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


[Labyrinth; directed by Jim Henson; screenplay by Terry Jones; story by Dennis Lee and Jim Henson; Tri-Star Pictures]