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Labyrinth (1986) and Return to Oz (1985) as Metanarratives

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Original poster for "Labyrinth"

Original poster for "Labyrinth"

What is a Metanarrative?

Both of these movies have protagonists who are aware they're in a story. This self-awareness is the meta element of the narrative and both filmmakers use it to mirror the characters' transition from children into adults.

Labyrinth and Return to Oz feature young women searching for an object or a person that will help them return home. Sarah must undo her rash decision to banish her baby brother to the Goblin Kingdom, and Dorothy is accidentally swept into Oz and searches for the ruby slippers she believes can return her home.

She Has Come with a Small Army

Because of opposition the protagonists face, they create bands of friends and allies to assist them. The colorful casts include robot bodyguards, talking hens, mean-spirited dwarves, and chivalrous foxes, and they are a visual delight for kids and adults. This development is standard in children’s stories as a means of teaching about judging people for their inner character.

These movies deviate from this norm a bit because of the awareness of the protagonists. Sarah takes her storybook knowledge (and so much else) for granted and learns to accept the rules of a new reality, while Dorothy accepts Oz because of a sub-textual desire to prove her psychoanalyst, Dr. Worley, wrong.

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A World of Fear

Sarah’s complains about life being unfair even before having to deal with the crazed and uncooperative creatures in the Labyrinth. As she comes to accept that world, her real life does not look so bad; a lesson borrowed from Alice in Wonderland. Having to change her plans and baby-sit against her wishes pales when compared to the Goblin King’s (David Bowie) manipulations of time and space in an attempt to thwart her progress. In similar fashion the junk heap hag tries to burden Sarah with her love of material possessions to prevent her from rescuing her brother.

Dorothy is surrounded by distorted reflections of her real life, too. The Wheelers embody all the scary elements of the sanitarium in Kansas just as Mombi’s interchangeable heads represent the terrifying changeability of adult attitudes—how they can be helpful one moment and monstrous the next. All of these lead to the Nome King; though he his physically intimidating, the Nome King’s real weapon is his cunning mind and ability to make Dorothy doubt herself and her friends just as Dr. Worley had done.

What makes Sarah and Dorothy different in these movies from so many other children’s stories is that these girls are both aware of the story they inhabit. Sarah knows she is inhabiting the storybook world she reads about and attempts to adjust her actions accordingly. Dorothy, too, knows Oz is not like the real world but is aware that everything may be a dream just as so many people believe back in Kansas. Both Sarah and Dorothy come to realize the lessons of these fairytale adventures have meaning for their real lives as well, not the least of which is the necessity of imagination.

Coming of Age in Another World

Both movies also show their protagonists transitioning into more mature individuals. Sarah’s adventures teach her to value other people and to leave her petulant selfishness behind. Likewise, her extended dream sequence is a subconscious reflection of Sarah coming to terms with developing sexual impulses and visions of being romanced.

Dorothy grows increasingly self-assured in Return to Oz by defying corrupt authorities—Princess Mombi and her many heads—and bargaining with the Nome King even though his offer is stacked against her. Dorothy also displays remarkable acceptance in the face of adverse conditions, frequently saying, “It can’t be helped now.”

© 2009 Seth Tomko

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