That this movie was largely ignored (and dismissed) at the time it came out doesn't seem to matter now. Like The Dark Crystal, it has found its audience over the years, and there was always something great in the imaginations of Jim and Brian Henson and Frank Oz. And, where the story was originally much darker, we have Bowie to thank for it being lighter in tone and giving it many of the quirks it does have - as well as a great soundtrack.
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a 16-year-old girl who still mourns the passing of her actress mother. She hates her stepmother (Shelley Thompson) with a passion, and is really not happy to be left at home babysitting her cranky baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud). She becomes so frustrated that, in a moment of desperation, she asks the Goblins to come and snatch him away.
To her surprise, his crying suddenly ceases, and Toby has disappeared. It turns out that her pleas were answered for real, and Toby has been whisked away to the castle of Jareth, the Goblin King (Bowie). Sarah immediately regrets her rash decision, saying she takes it back. Jareth decides to give her a chance: solve his Labyrinth in 13 hours, reaching the Goblin City (and ultimately his castle) at the center, to rescue her brother - or Toby becomes a Goblin forever.
On the outskirts of the Labyrinth Sarah meets the dwarf Hoggle (Shari Weiser / Brian Henson), who tells her to turn back and not bother. At her insistence, however, he lets her into the Labyrinth, and she quickly becomes lost - even more so when she follows the advice of a worm (Karen Prell / Timothy Bateson) who leads her completely astray through a misplaced act of kindness. Sarah eventually finds herself trapped in an oubliette, where she is again met by Hoggle, whom Jareth has instructed to lead her back to the beginning. Hoggle, despite Jareth's threats, has second thoughts once Sarah refers to him as a friend.
Continuing on, she rescues the monster Ludo (Rob Mueck / Rob Mills) and the brave knight Sir Didymus (David Alan Barclay / David Shaughnessy) who help rescue her and lead her to the castle to face Jareth and rescue her brother.
The outcome is rather obvious, but the journey is worth it. We have a Bog of Eternal Stench, the unintentionally threatening Fireys and a number of other beings that Sarah encounters prior to challenging Jareth and, as the movie goes on, it becomes more apparent that the journey is less to rescue her brother (whom she quickly realizes she loves despite how much he irritates her), but from childhood to adulthood. This is made abundantly clear when she meets the Junk Lady (Karen Prell / Denise Bryer), who attempts to pile Sarah's worldly possessions on her back until Sarah realizes that they are really just things.
Did the whole thing really happen? It's kind of left up in the air at the end, but again the journey to the castle is less literal and more metaphorical.
As for the film itself, it often straddles being a film for adults and one for kids, which was probably one of the major confusion points for audiences at the time. There are musical interludes, which even when it's David Bowie it is hard for most audiences today (and even more in the 1980s) to get through these in a movie that is not a Disney cartoon. It has its technical and narrative flaws, but there is much more to it than would appear at first.
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie
Director: Jim Henson