In Jim Henson's "Labyrinth," a thinly veiled remake of "The Wizard of Oz," Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a willowy girl with a vivid imagination and a chip on her shoulder, has to stay home with her baby stepbrother. This galls her. She wishes that Jareth (David Bowie), the king of the goblins, would come and take the baby away. Sure enough, he does. So Sarah's mission is to get to Jareth's castle to rescue the child -- the problem is that the castle sits at the center of a giant maze. Along the way, she enlists the help of Hoggle, a conspiratorial troll with a taste for jewelry; Ludo, a huge, wookielike beast who can call the very rocks to his aid; and Didymus, a gallant, pint-sized knight with a strong resemblance to a biped Pekingese.
"Labyrinth" has a list of technical credits at least as long as the labyrinth itself, which is both the movie's strength and its undoing. Henson's puppetry here far exceeds his work in the Muppets movies, both in technical detail and imaginative depth. The world he's created is, for the most part, not cuddly at all -- it's nightmarish, with an edge of mordant humor.
A group of roosterish demons is dancing madly to a rock 'n' roll tune, for example, when one of them pops out his eyes and rolls them like dice; he then swallows them, and they pop back into their sockets. Sarah falls into a well lined with grabbing hands whose fingers combine to form faces -- it's the dark side of improvised shadow puppetry.
But whatever psychological insight might be found in some of the individual effects isn't welded into a consistent vision of adolescence in the way that, say, the best Disney movies were.
And somewhere along the line, someone forgot to write a story.
That same someone (presumably screen writer Terry Jones) forgot to write characters, and the unavoidable fact is that puppets can't fill in the blanks the way that Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and the rest did in "The Wizard of Oz."
The construction of "Labyrinth" departs in several other ways from its model, always for the worse. Part of the artistry of "The Wizard of Oz" was that you didn't see the Wizard till the end, whereas here the mystery is lost when you see David Bowie in some of the opening scenes. The original built toward a moral -- "There's no place like home" -- whereas all Sarah learns is some vague sense of her own independence. And "Labyrinth's" rock music, including some undistinguished tunes performed by Bowie and a kind of aimless thumping (by composer Trevor Jones), adds nothing at all. The result is a tour de force of rootless effects. It should amaze, but it's just a maze.
Labyrinth, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG