Toward the end of the seemingly everlasting credits for "Labyrinth" (opening citywide Friday), its director and story co-author Jim Henson, "acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak." Quite rightly too.
The movie's plot, of a baby who is stolen by goblins and who must be rescued by his heroic sister is, in outline, Sendak's "Outside Over There." (And that had its antecedent in one of the stories of the Brothers Grimm.) Ludo, the movie's hulking furry beast with the undershot jaw, might be one of Sendak's Wild Things, and so might scattered members of the goblin city.
If "Labyrinth" worked at the level of Sendak, whose drawings and stories speak directly to the inner (under?) world of children, it would be a classic. From all the detail and attention that Henson and his collaborators lavished on "Labyrinth," it's not hard to assume that's what they had in mind.
And it contains memorable individual sequences: a fantasy ball; an Escher-like room full of stairs on which the characters defy gravity.
But, by rights, they shouldn't have started from this screenplay at all. Monty Python-ite Terry Jones has written a classic quest story: Can dauntless Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) pierce the labyrinth and get back her little brother Toby from the realm of Jareth (David Bowie), king of the goblins? And at the same time, can Sarah go beyond a 14-year-old's selfishness and self-centeredness to a more mature place in the "real" world around her?
Unfortunately, it's a pretty trying trip, with less humor, less wit and fewer flashes of great imagery than you might imagine from this crowd. This in spite of miracles of puppetry and, in one case, computer graphics (the white owl who flies so magically under the credits).
We must care about Sarah, for starters, or at least have some stake in her perilous journey. But as we meet her, rehearsing her role in a play and quite forgetting her promise to be home an hour earlier to baby-sit her baby brother for her father and stepmother, she's a selfish pill.
Her room at home is still a little girl's, stuffed with toys, classic children's books and fairy-tale trappings until it looks like an explosion at F. A. O. Schwartz. This is where she flings herself around melodramatically, praying to be rescued "from this awful place." Fourteen is not a great age to live through, either as the sufferer or the sufferer's parents, but since the un-divine Sarah isn't our languishing problem, it's a great temptation to write her off right there.
And that's even before, in a fit of play-acting--longing for her Daddy's attention and querulous at her brother's crying--she utters the enchanted words which do send little Toby (Toby Froud) straight off to the goblins. Quest indeed--getting him back would seem to be the least she can do.
Her adversary will be the goblin-king, Jareth, although why he wants a little baby, to diaper and watch out for and keep from falling into things like the Bog of Eternal Stench, isn't terribly clear. But Bowie's Jareth is one of "Labyrinth's" strong points; he has a nice, mocking sense of irony, and he looks suitably magical with his Kabuki lion-mane hair. (He might, in fact, make a fine Shakespearean Oberon, and he'd hardly have to change costume.)
Bowie has also created and sung five songs, the funniest of which has him singing about "Mah baby," whose fun has gone, leaving baby blue. Presumably we're supposed to equate his "baby" with little Toby.
On her travels toward the goblin city, Sarah encounters the usual collection of oddly assorted chums: Hoggle, a curmudgeonly gnome simply waiting to be softened by the word friend ; Sir Didymus, the fierce one-eyed guardian of the bridge over very troubled waters, who is part Yorkshire terrier, part Elizabethan actor, and 8-foot-tall Ludo, orangutan-furred and, of course, marshmallow-sweet and soft inside. He's the most original of the crowd; his singular talent is howling until rocks arrive at his command.
Henson et al. are by now so amazingly adept that they run the risk of having their magic taken for granted. "Labyrinth" seems eons ahead of "The Dark Crystal," which was both static and so dark you could almost never see the painstaking detail of the characters' designs and costuming. Those qualities afflict "Labyrinth" a little less, but it's almost never filled with surprise--with more characters like the tiny fairy, or the nifty Cockney worm in the beginning (a very Python-esque critter)--or with enough inventive details for these "actors" to do.
It's also a little hard to imagine what audience "Labyrinth" is aimed at. Very young children may be frightened by the cackling malevolent goblins--especially when they pop up on Sarah's home turf. (Isn't that one of the things we worry about most as children, the lurking goblin under the bed? The film's PG rating may be for this, as well as the light sprinkling of very mild expletives.) And girls Sarah's age are today more likely to be reading Tiger Beat than "Alice in Wonderland."
No matter how sagely the ending is maneuvered, with its hint that Sarah has (somehow) made a journey into awareness of others on her mystical voyage, there's more length than depth to "Labyrinth." The Baryshnikov staging of "The Nutcracker" has more to tell about a girl on the edge of young womanhood, with more poignancy and a more palpable sense of transition, than all the technical wizardry Henson and crew have offered so lavishly--and without a single pop song, either.
A Tri-Star Pictures release. Producer Eric Rattray. Executive producer George Lucas. Executive supervising producer David Lazer. Director Jim Henson. Screenplay Terry Jones, story by Dennis Less, Henson. Camera Alex Thomson. Editor John Grover. Music Trevor Jones. Songs David Bowie. Production design Elliot Scott. Art direction Roger Cain, Peter Howitt, Michael White, Terry Ackland-Snow. Conceptual design Brian Froud. Director choreography and puppet movement Cheryl McFadden. Puppeteer coordinator Brian Henson. Sound Peter Sutton. With David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson, Christopher Malcolm, Shari Weiser, Brian Henson, Ron Mueck, Dave Goelz.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).