The most obvious and frequently cited difference between Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal is the presence of human actors in the former. While The Dark Crystal generates a deeply strange and alien world through puppetry, Labyrinth utilizes puppets and human actors to strike a middle ground between the uncanny and the familiar.
My feeling is that the human element in Labyrinth has given it a broader and more enduring appeal than The Dark Crystal. In particular, speculation over the relationship between Jareth and Sarah has kept the Labyrinth section of fanfiction.net well stocked for over a decade.
While the two characters are positioned in opposition to each other, the chemistry between them is undeniable. Much of this emerges from David Bowie’s performance – his Goblin King is sensual, layered and strikingly adult. Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah is a great foil for the character –she has to prove her resolve by resisting his attempts to seduce her.
While the Jareth/Sarah relationship is often taken to be romantic, some hold to an opposing view - that any apparent overtures of ‘romance’ on Jareth’s part are simply attempts to distract Sarah from her quest. I subscribe to an alternative perspective, which is primarily based on one observation – Jareth’s interest in Sarah appears to be far more pronounced than her interest in him.
Toby, Sarah’s kidnapped baby brother, comes across almost as a MacGuffin – his disappearance motivates the plot but he has little importance beyond that. While Jareth is shown to find Toby amusing and entertaining, his real interest seems to lie with Sarah. The film repeatedly shows him watching her – the first scene of the film shows him spying on Sarah while disguised as an owl. This first scene is particularly intriguing because it never explained – no reason for it is established in-narrative. How did Sarah first attract Jareth’s notice? Exactly how long has he been watching her?
This theme of covert observation is returned to again and again: Jareth watches Sarah through crystals; from the crowd in the dream ballroom; from a window in his castle. His interest intensifies throughout the film – while his earliest observations of Sarah are a source of light amusement, he quickly becomes obsessed with tracking her progress. He attempts to make her forget her duty to her brother, trapping her in an illusory ballroom inhabited by depraved revellers that stare and grasp at her body. By the end of the film he offers his servitude in exchange for her love, fear and obedience; his offer (‘just let me rule you and you can have anything you want’) is irrefutably adult.
As the film takes no definite stand on what Jareth is (with that, perhaps, forming a topic for another discussion), it is impossible to comment definitively on the nature of his interest in Sarah. Jareth’s interest is implied to be intense, excessive and frightening – the Goblin King behaves in a predatory manner, getting close to Sarah at every available opportunity and presenting her with offers of servitude that she fails to understand. The idea of Jareth as a predator is reinforced by his association with the figure of the owl. Traditionally associated with wisdom (Athena, goddess of wisdom, had the owl as her symbol), owls are also predators known for their stealth and cunning. In other cultures, the owl is perceived as a harbinger of death.
While Jareth develops a strange and intense attachment towards Sarah – a bond attested to by his dialogue, body language and songs – their relationship is not portrayed as a romance. This is because Jareth’s interest is almost entirely one-sided. Sarah is fascinated by Jareth and somewhat in awe of him – he appears in the ballroom sequence as a fantasy prince charming, rescuing her from the rude and sexualised crowd. It is only once they have danced together that she becomes afraid – she notices the jeers of those watching them and her eventual flight is triggered by the sight of Jareth’s smug, satisfied smile. Although he is charming and alluring, Jareth is also a dangerous figure – far too adult for any kind of romantic relationship between him and Sarah to be acceptable.
The characters are also divided by their goals. Sarah’s mission is clear from the moment Toby is taken – she has to save her brother from the Goblin King. Jareth’s ambitions are far harder to pin down but seem to be focused around Sarah – by the end of the film he clearly aims to keep Sarah with him, deploying a combination of seduction, promises and threats. At the start of the film, Sarah is selfish (in wishing away her brother) and Jareth appears to be selfless (in fulfilling Sarah’s wish). By its conclusion, Sarah is selfless (focused solely on saving her brother) and Jareth is selfish (focused exclusively on keeping Sarah for himself).
Although Jareth protests that he does what he does for Sarah, his actions repeatedly point to his self-interest – he is sympathetic only because certain lines (“I wonder what your basis for comparison is”) indicate that he is somehow compelled to obey the wishes of those who summon him.
That’s my view on this issue – as with my previous mini-essay I’d be glad to hear your thoughts. I really enjoyed reading your comments on my last piece – they brought up lots of interesting points.