*½/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly
screenplay by Terry Jones
directed by Jim Henson
by Walter Chaw As riffs on Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz go, Jim Henson's Labyrinth is a painfully dated, shockingly un-magical romp through a fragmented netherworld populated by Ziggy Stardust and a horde of little people wearing giant papier-mâché heads. Following a wish by bratty Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) that her bratty kid brother be spirited away by the Goblin King (David Bowie) and Sarah's inevitable lapse into unconsciousness and journey into the titular, Escher-inspired labyrinth, the picture unfolds at a laboured clip marked not so much by a sense of wonder, but rather a feeling of confused disinterest. While the film is a nostalgic hallmark for many (and so is Pete's Dragon, it occurs), cinematically and artistically, better to revisit Henson's flawed but alive The Dark Crystal.
To be fair, Labyrinth holds some interest as an artifact of a time in filmmaking that was dominated more by invention than by mainframes: Latex and engineering lend a palpable feeling of weight missing in the glorified screensavers of the last several years. (Though the truth is, with technology advancing at a dizzying pace, CGI is starting to catch up.) The picture's main problem, however, is that where The Dark Crystal took place in an environment all its own, Labyrinth chooses to interact with unaltered human beings and, in the comparison between creature applications and human characteristics, one finds indisputable proof that the beasties of Henson's imagination are in fact people in animal suits.
The attempt to integrate live-action with "Muppetry" is ambitious, no question, yet it remains a mystery as to why Labyrinth looks so bad, particularly when compared to the enduring triumph of The Muppet Movie and its sequels. But much of the blame, as is the case with most big-budget failures, is attributable to a screenplay (credited to Terry Jones but a patchwork that included rewrites by Elaine May) full of awkward and disjointed pronouncements and to performances that are essentially opportunities to scream inanities and restate the obvious. Add a couple of musical interludes and the result is something thunderously boring and nigh unwatchable.
The cult of personality surrounding Jim Henson is sometimes justified ("The Muppet Show") and sometimes not (Labyrinth); that the whole mess of Labyrinth was entertaining once to a child is a precarious gauge of quality--a blanket statement of good as dangerous here as with a similarly ascribed godhood to the increasingly disappointing George Lucas (Labyrinth's executive producer). What's happened with Labyrinth in the years since its release is similar to the recent resurgence in interest in Peter Yates's bizarrely unpleasant Krull: story inconsistencies, narrative weaknesses, and all manner of special effects atrocities fall before the remembrance of a child's anticipation and subsequent lack of discretion.
It all serves as a warning that for as many people still seduced by the film's remembered charms, there will be those who fulfill Wolfe's dictum that one can't, in fact, go home again. With such accomplished fantasies as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the upcoming completion of The Matrix trilogy, and the continuation of the improving Harry Potter series, though, seeing Labyrinth through un-scaled eyes isn't, perhaps, so much the tragedy.
by Bill Chambers Columbia TriStar's Superbit reissue of Labyrinth remixes* the previous DVD's good-to-begin-with 2.0 surround soundtrack in 5.1 and presents the results in both DTS and Dolby Digital configurations, the latter boasting of a slightly stronger bass channel. (*It's possible this is an authentic six-track mix created for the film's abandoned 70mm engagements.) Discrete effects are almost undetectable but surround usage is clever, while Ludo's rock-summoning groan is something of an aural treat. Also recycled is the good-to-begin-with 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it's less compromised, one supposes, by the Superbit disc's absence of supplementary material. (On the other hand, the magnificence of the old platter's hour-long making-of was a small price to pay.) The image is clear if oversharp in spots and far from blemish-free; Alex Thomson's cinematography remains an overlit disappointment from an undisputed master of the medium. Originally published: March 5, 2003.