Sixteen-year-old Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) recites from a book entitled The Labyrinth in the park with her dog Merlin, but she can’t remember the last line. A barn owl is watching her. She has to leave quickly to babysit her infant half-brother Toby (Toby Froud). She rushes home and is confronted by her stepmother Irene (Shelley Thompson), who leaves for dinner with Sarah’s father Robert (Christopher Malcolm). Sarah finds Toby playing with her precious teddy bear. Toby cries a lot and, in frustration, she wishes the goblins in her book would take him away.
Toby vanishes and Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) appears. He offers Sarah her dreams in exchange for the baby, but she refuses. Jareth gives her thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth and find Toby before the baby becomes a goblin forever. She meets a dwarf named Hoggle (voice of Brian Henson), who helps her find the entrance to the labyrinth. She becomes lost and asks directions from a worm (voice of Timothy Bateson) who mistakenly sends her in the wrong direction.
Sarah ends up in an oubliette, where she finds Hoggle again. They are confronted by Jareth and manage to escape one of his traps, then meet a huge beast named Ludo (Ron Muek). Hoggle runs off, but Sarah frees Ludo from a trap and becomes his friend, then loses him in a forest. Hoggle meets up with Jareth, who gives him a peach and tells him to give it to Sarah. She is being harassed by the Fire Gang, but Hoggle helps her. She kisses him and they fall through a trap door into a flatulent swamp called The Bog of Eternal Stench, where they find Ludo again.
They meet the guard of the swamp, a fox named Sir Didymus (voice of David Shaughnessy) riding a sheepdog named Ambrosius, who says they cannot pass without permission. Ludo calls up a trail of rocks to save Sarah from the bog and they ask Didymus for permission. Didymus gives permission and joins the group. When they get hungry, Hoggle gives Sarah the peach but eating it makes her fall into a trance and forget her quest. She dreams of Jareth at a masquerade ball, professing his love to her, but she runs away and falls into a junkyard outside Goblin City near Jareth’s castle. An old Junk Lady (voice of Denise Bryer) tries to brainwash her but she is rescued by Ludo and Sir Didymus. They are confronted by huge robotic guards but Hoggle comes to her rescue and they enter the city together.
Jareth sends his goblin army to stop them. Ludo summons rocks to chase them away and they enter the castle. Sarah wants to face Jareth alone and promises to call the others if she needs help. In an M.C. Escher-like room, she confronts Jared while trying to grab Toby. She recites the lines from her book but still can’t remember the last line. Jareth offers her dreams again but she remembers, “You have no power over me.” Jareth returns Sarah and Toby to their home and flies away as a barn owl. She gives Toby her teddy bear and returns to her room as her parents come home. Her friends appear in her mirror. They have a raucous party as the owl watches from outside.
The film was directed by Jim Henson, based on designs by Brian Froud. The script was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python, with portions added by Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, George Lucas, and Elaine May. It was a box-office disappointment and Jim Henson became seriously depressed afterward. Now, of course, it has a large cult following. His son Brian was glad that his father finally learned that viewers loved his movie before he died young. The film was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the works of Maurice Sendak. The Goblin King Jareth was inspired by Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Marlon Brando, and Kabuki Theater. Gates McFadden of Star Trek: The Next Generation did the choreography.
Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Warwick Davis (Wicket) were in the Goblin Corps. Sir Didymus’ canine steed Ambrosius was voiced by Percy Edwards, who had voiced Fizzgig in The Dark Crystal. The puppetry, of course, was horribly complex. David Bowie recorded five songs for Trevor Jones’ score. The film was nominated for various BAFTA, Saturn, and Hugo Awards. There are balls held annually in which people come dressed as characters from the movie, and there is an extensive shelf of picture-books of the art and puppetry in the film, not to mention books, comic books, and games.
The juggling tricks by Jareth are real tricks by amazing juggler Michael Moshen, who stood behind David Bowie and could not see what his hands were doing. Most of the characters are foreshadowed by stuffed animals in Sarah’s bedroom. The incredible ballroom scene featured 48 muppets, 52 puppeteers, and 8 people in goblin costume. Hoggle groans a lot so the actress Shari Weiser, inside, could see out of his open mouth. The movie was filming next to Legend (1985) and Brian Henson fell for Mia Sara. They married later. The heraldic device of Sir Didymus, printed on Ambrosius’ blanket, is three bones rampant, several black pawmarks, a checkered square, a fire hydrant, and trees.