Jareth's Earthly Form

Being Goblin King comes with all sorts of magical powers, but sometimes a guy needs to enter the mortal world and mess around with humans, kidnap babies, spy on beautiful girls and whatnot. For this, Jareth morphs into a Barn Owl (Tyto alba), a common owl species throughout the world. The name means "white owl," but it's usually orangey-brown with colorful, banded wings, like Jareth has. It's famous for its masked, outlined face.

We think the Barn Owl was hired for this role because he was the actor most available for the shoot (there are probably more working barn owls than other species), but it's an appropriate choice because the Barn has such character. When a Barn owl stares at you, it looks like it has an opinion. That's the way Jareth is, and Bowie's features have a natural beauty and precision, not unlike an owl.

There's also something Ziggy about this white face and rusty-red head.

Wolf or Owl?

Jareth's original design (in costume and possibly transformation) was supposed to be a Wolf, which would have been cool. But the owl suits him better for elegance and mystery. Just like David Bowie, Owls are badass, but in a graceful way.
The wolf is beautiful, but a bit rough n' tumble for this character; brute strength isn't Jareth's or David's style. Too, Wolves have a more merciless association with predation and sex. Jareth is overwhemingly sexy to begin with, so maybe a wolfy appearance would have been over-the-top.
We love Jareth just the way he is, beak and feathers and all.

Owls have cultural meaning as mysterious creatures, beings of the night who are seldom seen, and they have historical connection to the occult. They're also stereotyped as very intelligent, which is true in David Bowie's case, but not so much the owl's. (Raptors are smart, but owls are no more so than hawks, eagles, etc.) But it's believable that an owl could have a link to the Goblin Kingdom.

The Many Owls of Jareth

The CG Owl

This is the lovely, computerized Jareth that flies through the opening titles. By today's standards, he's a little stiff-looking, but he was way ahead of his time. We love this guy! His sharper design is part of his charm, and his performance is perfect! It just wouldn't be Labyrinth without his beautiful feathers and playful swooping by the camera.

The Real Owl

Some real Barn Owls played Jareth. This was an easy gig, as most of them just had to hit their marks. A couple of them had to do more complex stuff like flutter at Sarah's window.

This particular Owl is looking at the camera. He needs to work on his craft.
Not a Method Owl, this one.

The Fake Owl

Some fake/model owls were used in the indoor flying scenes. Personally, we've never seen a model or animatronic animal that was even remotely convincing in any movie ever in the history of film. Ever. But as fake animals go, this guy is decent and works ok for quick shots.

"My Life As an Owl"

When Sarah is in the park, she doesn't even notice when Jareth lands nearby. She also doesn't seem to recognize him when he's fluttering at the window. We interpret this to mean that the Owl Form is not part of her Labyrinth Storybook mythology. It's a trait of Jareth himself. It's further evidence that he's real and separate from the storybook, and not just part of Sarah's imagination. He may be The Goblin King, but the other part of him is some unknown, magical being that can create the Labyrinth on a whim - and transform into all kinds of owls: CG, Real, and Fake.

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