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“It’s my dream”: whose dream is Helena caught in?

“It’s my dream”: whose dream is Helena caught in? published on 7 Comments on “It’s my dream”: whose dream is Helena caught in?

A few months back, my friend Katrine and her friend got into a big discussion about MM which gets at its central theme of dreams and responsibility. When Helena objects to performing yet again, her mom, Joanne, tries to coerce her into participating by saying, “You know your father keeps this circus running on peanuts. It’s his dream.” Later, in the Light Lands, when speaking to the Prime Minister, Helena states, “It’s my dream. I’ll find the Mirror Mask.” [Or something to that effect.] Further on in the movie, Helena talks to Joanne, who sees Valentine in the background and says, “Hullo, did I dream you a boyfriend?” So we have three dreams competing for supremacy here: Morris’, Joanne’s and Helena’s. Whose dream is MM? Thanks to mysterious LJ user lupa for the thoughts about Helena as child laborer.

MM could be Morris’ dream. Joanne explicitly points out that the circus is his “dream,” his job, his goal. While Morris is the ringmaster, both his wife and Helena perform in the circus and work backstage too, subsuming their desires to keep the circus going. They literally act out his dream.

Morris’ dream spills over into Helena’s sleeping world as well. In fact, before she realizes she is dreaming, she mistakes Valentine, the fiddler and the juggler for fellow troupe members. Once Helena gets going on her quest, she meets characters in masks, just like those in her father’s circus. Though laid out according the the geography of Helena’s art work, the land of MM takes equally strong visual cues from Morris’ circus, so it is, in a very real sense, his as well.

To stretch things just a bit more, Morris’ dream arguably rules not just the real-life scenes and the dreaming scenes, but the entire structure of the movie. Joanne’s collapse in the ring causes an internal crisis for Helena, yes, but it also causes commotion in the entire circus. Because of Joanne’s illness, Morris stops the circus tour. Finances, which were already “peanuts” anyway, become tighter [note that Helena runs interference between Morris and the bank] while the circus members worry. Announcing that they are departing from the troupe to seek work up north, one of the Finnish acrobats says, “We are rats sinking the leaving ship.” You know things are bad when people refer to your circus as a shipwreck! Anyway, since the continuation of Morris’ circus depends on Joanne’s return to health, Helena’s dream quest to heal the White Queen / Joanne can be read as Morris’ dream as well. MM charts Morris’ struggle to realize his dream and his anxiety when his dream is threatened.

Okay, so Helena might be acting out her dad’s dream. Additionally, she may be acting out Joanne’s dreams that she be an obedient daughter — a compliant child laborer rather than a child. If you think I’m overstating, look at the scene where Joanne yells at Helena in her trailer. Helena is making up stories, playing with sock puppets, sketching — in other words, she’s behaving in a developmentally appropriate way for a lonely, artistically inclined, 15-year-old girl. Joanne perceives these activities as immature. She contrasts Helena with the kids in the audience when she says, “Those kids out there want to run away to join the circus.” It’s okay for the silly kids in the audience to have circus dreams, according to Joanne, but those kids expect a show. As part of the show, Helena has a job to do. Joanne wants Helena to accept her role as working performer and as responsible adult [Helena is the only teenager in the troupe]. To put it another way, Helena supports her father’s dream of running the family circus by being a responsible adult, which is her mom’s dream.

Joanne’s dream shows up in Helena’s dream world as well. During a confusing sequence [find out exactly where and when in the film this occurs], Helena talks to her mom, who occasionally turns into the White Queen. Like I said, when Joanne sees Valentine, she thinks that Valentine is a creation of hers, not Helena’s. That is, Joanne thinks that Helena and Valentine are in her dream, not Helena’s.

Joanne’s “Did I dream you a boyfriend?” line makes Helena’s quest problematic. Just as you can convincingly argue that Helena’s quest is actually Morris’ quest for the circus [as I did above], you can also make the case that the dream sequence is Joanne’s wishful thinking. In the dream sequence, Helena spends no time procrastinating with toys and stories. She sees that the White Queen / Joanne needs help, and she promptly volunteers her services. Through Helena’s quick thinking, hard work and responsible actions, the White Queen / Joanne is restored to health. Obedient child supports family unit — yup, that’s Joanne’s dream all right.

Where do Morris’ and Joanne’s equally strong desires leave our poor protagonist Helena? You’d expect a girl of her age to have some independent mental, emotional and imaginative development, but, as I’ve shown above, her internal conflicts are overdetermined by what her parents each desire. Helena is neither stupid nor unimaginative, but she remains mentally, emotionally and imaginatively dependent — extremely dependent — on her parents. She shows flashes of independent, critical thinking, like the characterization of her dad as the clueless and ineffectual Prime Minister, as well as her defense of the Dark Princess [“She’s not a pet! She’s not even a child!”] to the Dark Queen. In the end, though, Helena appears to save the Light Queen and banish the Dark Princess [her rebelliousness], restoring filial obedience and the family dream.

Maybe MM is best viewed not as the dream of a particular character, but as the dream of the entire family. Since they run a small business on a small budget, Morris, Joanne and Helena not only eat and sleep and talk together, but they work together, almost every single day. They each have very little space or time to themselves. They live in an intimacy that most of us would find smothering, an intimacy that is increased by the nature of the circus. First, the circus requires constant travel, leaving its members little time to make friends or sustain relationships outside of the troupe. Second, the circus requires performances, so, even if the circus members do get to interact with non-circus people, it’s because the troupe is performing and the audience is cheering, not because the two groups are mingling. Given their situation — a combination of tight-knit interdependence and social isolation — it makes sense that Helena takes on her parents’ desires in her dream quest even as she feels ambivalent. Unlike its ancestor and acknowledged inspiration, Labyrinth, MM is not a coming-of-age tale. It’s a vivid portrayal of a family straining under unusually harsh circumstances.


I should say here that i don’t think Joanna ever really turns into the Light Queen…I thought she did, but as pointed out, Joanna talked to Helena in an in-between place.

To me, MM was set up so that the Real World was basically under the father’s control, and the dream world–though obviously influenced by the father’s world too–was made up equally of both Joanna’s and Helena’s dreams. I’ve actually come across that conceit in fantasy before: of two separate beings dreaming a world together.

I thought MM fell apart structurally in the end (that’s my criticism of everything, isn’t? :-). Messy, messy, messy. The sequence with the Dark Queen voicing some of the very real faults of Joanna, and Joanna’s saying it was her dream should have implied, by all artistic rules, that we were also going to get to see at least some of the dream from Joanna’s side, and that Joanna, like Helena, had to realize some of her faults and adjust her behavior.

Nope, that was dropped. Instead, as I said in my comments, we get the abused Dark Helena sent back to live miserably with her controlling Dark Mother while Real Helena is somehow triumphant about this.

Interestingly enough, there is no independent Light Helena… the Happy Light Queen has no daughter. Hmmm.

Then there were the other storylines. When Valentine had that premonition of taking the.. crystal? Or whatever it was? (It’s been awhile, sorry) and running off into the Real World himself, by all rights that implied that we’d get more story to
a) show how he’d like to go to thr RW
b) have a dramatic temptation scene, where he is indeed about to take it, and then his memory comes back to him, and he overcomes temptation. But the temptation would have to be very real and very compelling for it to work!

Instead, after spending an eternity of showing Helena putting on makeup and wandering around the Dark Castle, the filmmmakers seem to have realized that they’ve run out of time, and dropped all that too. (So maddening!!)

No temptation, no conflict–not even much drama about finding the damn crystal. All we get is an out-of-nowhere little blip of Valentine suddenly expressing an out-of-the-blue, and out-of character desire to take the crystal and go–even though he’s never wanted anything like that before–and just as quickly he shrugs and gets over it.


And so on.

I swear, Neil cannot write endings. And MM has no ending. I mean, it has no ending remotely appropriate to itself. It went on, on, on, and then the filmmmakers ran out of steam and time and budget, and just stopped it dead in its tracks, without tying anything up and just tacking a “the end” on its tail as quickly as possible.

Thanks for posting. Tell your friends. Have them discuss too. :p

Re Joanne “turning into” the White Queen: In that scene, Helena’s interlocutor switches between Joanne and the White Queen so frequently that there’s an obvious symbolic equivalence. That’s what I was trying to pick up on, though I agree that Joanne does not literally turn into the White Queen.

Re the structure of MM: I agree that it really falls apart when you so much as blink at it. Compare the use of the transformation/brainwashing sequence in MM to the one in L. In MM, it’s where the dolls sing Close to You and dress Helena up like the Dark Princess. In Labyrinth, it’s when Jareth sings love songs to Sarah and tries to enchant her in a bubble.

Labyrinth sets up the scene as a seduction scene; instead of throwing up negative obstacles to keep Sarah from Toby [the Cleaners, the Bog of Stench], Jareth takes a different tack and tries to distract Sarah entirely. He wants to show her how sexy life in his illusory bubble is. Sarah must definitively reject what he offers [she smashes the bubble with a chair] in order to proceed on her quest.

This is the classic Seduction of the Innocent, also seen between Lili and Darkness [ooooh, Tim Curry!!] in Legend. It is almost a requirement that the good character must weaken, fall under the spell of the evil character, then come to his/her senses and rise up, more virtuous and stronger for having been tempted.

We don’t get that in MM. Helena gets attacked, not seduced, and forced into her transformation. There’s still the potential for her to learn something when dollified as the Dark Princess substitute, but she doesn’t. She just sits around looking sexy and vapid until Valentine throws a ball at her. Then they run away from the Dark Queen. This sequence looks cool, but builds no tension, illuminates no character, causes no gaining of strength on Helena’s part and does nothing.

Re Valentine not wanting to be a waiter: That was the Future Fruit he ate, not a crystal, and it was a completely throwaway scene, and I think it should have been cut.

Re endings: You’re right. MM had no appropriate ending. The way that Helena and the Dark Princess fell back into their old relationships with their moms just disappointed the heck out of me. Helena and the Dark Queen should have changed, at the very least. The fact that the characters end up where they started led me to my conclusion that it’s less a coming-of-age tale and more appropriately a cautionary fable about the all-encompassing DOOOOM of dysfunctional families. Let’s face it — Morris, Joanne and Helena have some definite problems.

It’s interesting for me to see how this film compares and contrasts with Labyrinth. Since it’s amply documented that the film is a Labyrinth rewrite or rip-off [depending on how charitable you’re feeling], I can’t talk about MM without mentioning Labyrinth. Labyrinth tells a good story, but doesn’t “look nice.” MM looks like a dream, but doesn’t tell a good story. Labyrinth has a lot of foundation, but not the greatest buildings, while MM has beautiful buildings and very little foundation.


Well if you remember, I think the foundation of Labyrinth is rotten through too. 🙂 I still can’t reconcile the whole “Sarah must grow up and put away fantasy!” “No, Sarah must remain innocent and childlike!” thing.

My entire Web site, Jareth’s Realm, arose out of my supposition that the fundamental assumption of Labyrinth is rotten. Labyrinth assumes that there there are two types of imaginary characters: your cuddly Muppet friends and your sexy Goblin King. The first is good and the second is evil. Since your cuddly Muppet friends have very little to do with sex and Jareth has everything to do with balls, sex, the film demonizes sex and sexuality. Thus Sarah is supposed to mature by rejecting Jareth / sex and accepting the non-sexualized Muppets. Wrong! The only way one successfully matures is to accept the different parts of one’s imagination, Muppets and balls and all, in balance. Banishment doesn’t work.

You seem to be saying that the film-makers wanted it both ways, that they wanted Sarah to mature, but that they also wanted her to remain innocent and childlike. Perhaps this was why they had her take responsibility for Toby and the Muppet-like aspects of her imagination, but then they had to toss out Jareth. No way they were gonna let Sarah be more sexually mature. Is this what you’re saying, or am I misinterpreting?


Not exactly… I hadn’t thought of the split in the Labyrinth world itself.

My problem lies more that initially, Sarah’s immaturity is portrayed as the root of her problems: she behaves like a spoiled child, she complains things “aren’t fair” and isn’t able to deal with the occasional injustice, she is incapable of handling responsibility (Toby) but wants independence, and she runs away from her problems and her responsibilities through her fantasy world. The last bit especially–using her fantasy world as a coping mechanism–is portrayed as especially problematic, since that’s what leads her to act the most selfishly, etc. Thus in a way, fantasy and immaturity are linked. I don’t think the film’s saying that fantasy is “bad,” but that the way Sarah uses it, it’s something that one needs to leave behind if one wants to be a functioning adult.

But when she goes to the Labyrinth, it’s inconsistent. I saw the “good” muppets representing Sarah’s strengths as shown through fanatsy. But what Sarah’s called upon to do doesn’t add up. She’s alternately challenged to either mature (handle obstacles, realize that life “isn’t fair,” put aside her wants or needs for others) or to remain innocent of adult/wordly things (reject Jareth’s sexuality, or any signs of her own sexual maturity). Sometimes the two are even in the same scene–such as when she’s confronted by the bag lady, and has to escape from her offers of her childood comfort objects–and lipstick.

(In one of the screenpalys, we learn that the lipstick is her mother’s, which would also make it an object of her past, but that doesn’t make it into the film–thus the lipstick stands as a marker of a sexual adulthood.)

And at the end, she rejects Jareth and “wins” through realizing life isn’t always fair and you have to suck it up–but then has a dance party with the fantasy animals, when by all rights, she should have also learned to be independent from them and what they represent.

As I said, the earlier draft had it right–there she turned back to them, and said that she’s not abandoning them and she might return to them yet, but that she needs to learn to be on her own now. (Or something like that.)

I see. You think the foundation of Labyrinth is rotten because of its inconsistent portrayal of fantasy. The film doesn’t want Sarah to be childish — meaning whiny, unwilling to babysit and off in the park reciting plays all the time. The film seems to punish her childish, overimaginative behavior by making the goblins actually take Toby.

But then the same type of “childish” fantasy helps Sarah, in the form of Muppet characters at various points in her quest, and plus she parties with them all [including the goblins] at the end. So Sarah’s overactive imagination [=Muppets] appears harmful and destructive one minute, then domesticated and acceptable the next. Which is it, folks? I’m all for ambiguity and ambivalence, but this is just sloppy.

While I’m at it, the very end always bugged me, in which Sarah can be seen partying with ALL the Muppet characters. I could understand why Hoggle, Ludo and Didymus showed up, but why did all the goblins show up? They represent the stupid, selfish, thoughtless buffoonery that made Sarah’s wish come true in the first place. While much less of a threat without their intelligent leader, Jareth, they’re still malicious [remember the nipper sticks]. Why do they appear in Sarah’s room?


When she said “I need you, all of you” she meant it. There will be times when the lowest part of your personality is the solution to the situation at hand. Sometimes maybe you have to be a goblin, either to defuse tension in yourself or others or maybe you’ve been too giving and need to be selfish for a change before you go mad. They’re a part of her and she can’t cut them out forever, all she can do it learn to balance them with more positive, mature aspects of herself.

Then again, I’m pretty much on a whole other side of the fence then common accepted Labyrinth analysis (including assumed stuff for the basis of this argument I don’t actually agree with), so what the heck ever.

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