Is It What It Seems to Be?: The Theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Henson’s LABYRINTH

17 June 2012

In the beginning of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth (1986), the heroine, Sarah, pouts in her room because she is being forced to stay home and watch her baby brother while her parents go out for the night.  Hanging on the wall in Sarah’s bedroom is a poster of M.C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph Relativity, a piece which takes an interesting stance on gravity.  Because Relativity does not depict gravity the way humans understand it on Earth, Escher’s piece offers a new perspective from which one may understand this force.  Perhaps, more importantly, the lithograph suggests there are other ways gravity can operate, and limiting our understanding of gravity to its use here in Earth is too narrow of a perspective.  Expanding that thought beyond simply gravity, the way something appears from one perspective may not reveal that thing’s entirety; other perspectives may reveal more about the thing.  The placement of Escher’s lithograph in Henson’s Labyrinth is far from accidental, as it introduces the idea of appearance vs. reality, which evolves into a significant theme in the film.

Labyrinth begins with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a 15-year old girl who enjoys living a life of make-believe, often daydreaming and play-acting in the fantasy worlds she read about in books.  Aggravated that she must babysit her brother, Toby (Toby Froud), Sarah wishes the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character from a fictional book she is reading, would come and take her brother away.  Unfortunately for Sarah and Toby, Sarah gets her wish, and Toby vanishes. Sarah must then enter the Goblin Kingdom, and, in 13 hours, solve the massive labyrinth leading to the Goblin King’s palace to save Toby.  Along the way, Sarah makes friends and enemies as she tries to figure out this new world and how it operates.

It is very difficult for children to understand that appearance is not necessarily reality.  Developmentally, it is a complex concept that comes with age.  And, adding to that, experience, which children lack, lends itself to understanding how and why some things are not as they seem.  Thus, young children find it difficult to “not judge a book by its cover.”  In part, this is why children’s films often take on the theme of appearance vs. reality; children’s film, much like parables and folktales, attempt to teach children about the world, themselves, and life.  A children’s film possessing the theme of appearance vs. reality will communicate to children that one should not make a surface-level judgment, that one must get to know something/someone before making a decision, and why making a judgment on appearance alone may be incorrect or harmful.

Appearance vs. reality is a major theme in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, starting with the opening sequence.  Labyrinth opens with Sarah, dressed like a princess, standing in a beautiful open garden, speaking directly to the camera.  She is not simply speaking; she seems to be confronting someone or something who has done her wrong, and we meet her mid-confrontation.  Because this is the first shot the audience sees, viewers assumes Sarah is, in fact, a princess.  However, after Sarah forgets a line and hears a clap of thunder, a shift is made and the audience realizes she is not a princess at all; she is a teenage girl play-acting in a town park.  And, that someone or something she is confronting is her dog, Merlin, who she has cast as the villain in this fantasy performance.  Right from the start, appearance is not reality; what viewers assumed real from the opening shot was inaccurate.

A short time later, Sarah enters the Goblin Kingdom, and looks for the entrance to the labyrinth.  There she meets Hoggle (Shari Weiser/Brian Henson), who is zapping small fairies flying about.  Immediately, Sarah gets upset with Hoggle for his actions and runs to the aid of a zapped fairy.  But, as she scoops the fairy up into her hands, it bites her.  Sarah is clearly shocked by the fairy’s action, and Hoggle asks Sarah what she expected the fairy to do.  Sarah thought, based on the exterior of the dainty fairies, they would be kind and friendly, and certainly could do her no harm; however, she made her judgment based on appearance.  Since appearance is not always reality, Sarah made a judgment before learning what fairies actually are, which caused her harm.

After Sarah enters the labyrinth she gets stuck in its outer most layer, and she happens across a small worm (Karen Prell/Timothy Bateson) who wisely tells her “nothing is as it seems.”  Labyrinth is littered with wise quotes like this, which support the theme of appearance vs. reality.  The worm helps Sarah see her perception is incorrect.  The walls in the labyrinth are assembled to hide entryways in plain sight.  After the worm helps Sarah see the labyrinth’s appearance is not its reality she has an easier time navigating thought the structure’s design.

When deep in the labyrinth, Sarah comes across Ludo (Ron Mueck/Rob Mills), a giant, hairy, horned beast.  Ludo is tied up and hanging upside-down, while smaller creatures beat him.  Once again, appearance is not reality.  Although the creatures doing the beating are smaller, they are the bullies in Labyrinth.  Ludo, who has a frightening, burly exterior, is being bullied.  Sarah rescues Ludo, only to discover he has an unrefined temperament, which matches his frightening exterior.  However, based on her experiences in the Goblin Kingdom and its labyrinth, Sarah begins to see appearance is not always reality, and she gives Ludo a chance.  As it turns out, Ludo has the kindest heart of anyone she meets in the Goblin Kingdom.  Earlier in the film she mistook the appearance for reality with the fairies; yet, by this point in the film, Sarah has now learned “not to judge a book by its cover.”  In fact, Ludo turns out to be exactly who Sarah mistakenly assumed the fairies were. 

Lastly, Sarah experiences are not the only tool through which Henson explores appearance vs. reality in Labyrinth. Henson is most famously a puppeteer.  Yes, he and his crew created the puppets for Labyrinth, but he and his crew also created set pieces for the film, demonstrating his skillful artistry, as well as cleverly reinforcing the notion that appearance is not necessarily reality. One of the clearest examples is the split rock sculpture appearing mid-way through the film, as Jareth confronts Hoggle for the second time.  As Hoggle enters the shot, there is a large rock that looks like Jareth’s head; it is an unmissable prop piece.  Hoggle walks though the set and the camera tracks to follow his movement, and, because the camera moves, so does the audience’s perspective.  All of a sudden, the audience realizes the rock that once looked so much like Jareth’s head is not one rock at all; it is several rocks, each one shaped differently.  From one perspective the alignment of these ricks may resemble Jareth’s head, but, in reality, it is not that at all.  The film never comments on this prop piece; however it clearly demonstrates that what something appears to be, often times, is not what it really is.

Appearance vs. reality is not the only theme in Henson’s Labyrinth, but it is one of the most prevalent.  Similar to Escher’s Relativity, perspective is everything; something may appear one way from a certain vantage point; however, only a fool would not consider as many vantage points as possible before attempting to understand what that something is.  In the film, Sarah enters a new world, which, in the end, was Escher’s Relativity lithograph (literally, the interior of the Goblin King’s palace is Relativity).  Sarah was completely removed from what she understood reality to be, and forced to look at her surrounding from a new vantage point.  Many of the things she assumed to be real were actually appearance, and the judgments and decisions she made off appearance were incorrect. But, ultimately, she learned the difference between appearance and reality, which helped her succeed in the film’s conclusion.  And, as a children’s film, highlighting the theme of appearance vs. reality helps Henson pass on this life lesson to a youthful audience grappling with the difficulty of distinguishing the two.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 17/06/2012.

One Response to “Is It What It Seems to Be?: The Theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Henson’s LABYRINTH”

  1. Reblogged this on The Quivering Lip and commented:
    I once saw this at a house-party and the group, having all fallen asleep, awoke at the same time to see David Bowie in a Tina Turner wig walking upside-down. Freaky! Appearance and reality, indeed…

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