Labyrinth isn’t lacking in its imagination. It creates a parallel universe where the premises are fraught with creatures from faraway lands, where gravity is something to be manipulated, where magic is a designated part of reality. Inanimate objects speak, animals talented conversationalists who aren’t afraid to let their opinions be known. Everything looks, sounds, and feels like something out of a storybook, our sense of wonder never fading.
So while Labyrinth is not a very good movie, I refuse to take down Jim Henson’s creativity with its shipwreck of dated ambience and barely there dramatic tug. Though its story never quite clicks, the film feeling like a half-assed children’s novel little more than a cultural artifact, Henson’s artistic work is something to behold. Aside from a handful of actors (Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, among others), everything we see is a result of masterful puppeteering and brilliant set design — Labyrinth paints its very own world, more inspired in its concept than most films in the fantasy category. It contains everything one could look for in the genre, especially children; we’re swept up in a dream world we, more or less, want to escape into and explore.
So it’s frustrating that its substance isn’t as impressive as its style. Soggy and juvenile, it’s the weird children’s show that barely made it through pilot season. I cannot say who its target audience is — chances are, it’s too scary for the children it aspires to appeal to (I have faint memories of being frightened of Bowie’s character just by looking at pictures during my young years), and it’s too childish for adults to really succumb to. It’s a movie never quite sure of what it wants. At least Henson provides it with some shininess.
In Labyrinth, Connelly stars as Sarah, an awkward teen whose nighttime plans are ruined after her father and stepmother decide to go out on a date night, leaving her in charge of her baby brother, Toby. Being whiny and self-centered, as most teenagers are, she throws a quasi-tantrum, and jokingly wishes her brother would just “disappear.” But bad choices of words can sometimes get you in trouble, and Sarah soon finds herself in a hell of a pickle. In the blink of an eye, the baby is kidnapped by, if you can believe it, a sinister coterie of goblins led by King Jareth (Bowie), the ruler of a distant land.
According to the latter, Sarah, who is swept into this fantastical goblin-run world like a feather blowing in the wind, has less than thirteen hours to sneak into his castle and retrieve her brother. Such an action would be easy if the castle weren’t surrounded by a miles long and miles wide labyrinth, which, upon entrance, seems basically impossible to decipher. But have no fear: Sarah is spunky, and with new friends she meets along the way in her wake, she may even complete the mission with a smile on her face.
Labyrinth has admirable enthusiasm, and benefits from tonal instincts that supplement its sense of wonder in an awe-inspiring fashion. But it is bone dry in its thrills, its story feeling forced due to the fact that it kicks off so abruptly. Keep in mind that Toby is kidnapped perhaps only ten minutes into the film, which effectively squashes any sense of palpable sympathy. And Sarah, played by Connelly with the suggestion that she’s doing her best with so-so material, is not characterized as much more than a bratty teen — we decide she’s a worthy heroine only because the film makes her one, not because it develops her in a way that makes us like her. Even Bowie, who gives a wonderfully campy performance, oftentimes feels out of place. Henson’s imaginative deftness is at its peak here (he died just four years later), but Labyrinth’s storyline certainly is not as immaculate as its artistic content.
So the film is a strange case, delightfully conceived but executed without much confidence by way of plot and acting. It looks like the fantasy film of our childhood dreams, but doesn’t match in mood. It never really jumps out at us, like a painting masterfully shaded yet empty, perhaps inexplicably, in its message. C+