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Henson's boundless imagination fails to energize 'Labyrinth'

In 1986, I learned that I was the only middle-schooler alive who thought diagramming sentences was fun. Everybody else was at "Labyrinth," watching someone named Jennifer Connelly wend her way through an enchanted maze that David Bowie ruled over. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Jim Henson, the movie brimmed with creations from the latter's Creature Shop and was, in a word, rad. Or so I heard. I didn't see the movie until last week. The occasion for its re-release today at Kendall Square is unclear (aside from a lightly restored print) but nonetheless special for the movie's disciples. A friend claims to watch it every few weeks. She's about to turn 30.

Arriving 21 years late to this party makes you feel guilty for ignoring the invitation in the first place. Still, it's hard not to enjoy Connelly's ripe intelligence (she was 15) and the easy chic of the pirate-peasant blouse she wears over a pair of jeans. (That white vest with gold embroidery remains outside the fashion continuum.) Regardless, I finally get what was driving the boys so crazy. The Teen Bop photos never did her justice.

Connelly plays Sarah, who, in a moment of baby-sitter blues, resentfully wishes goblins would abscond with her newborn brother. Naturally, they do. Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie) gives her about half a day to solve his labyrinth and get to his castle at the center. Otherwise, he keeps the baby. Bowie wears age-inappropriate, somewhat revealing stretch pants and a wig that allows him to become "Private Dancer"-era Tina Turner .

While Sarah perseveres, befriending creatures great and small, Bowie holds down the film's other end, bravely sharing the screen with a collection of Muppets for a handful of musical numbers. One song is called "Magic Dance ," and as he performs Bowie bops and shimmies with trademark soulful stiffness. This is a sublimely ridiculous moment (Bowie wrote the songs himself), just the sort of thing I would've found unforgettable in 1986, right after I put down my 45 of "Modern Love."

Released the same day as "American Anthem ," "Ruthless People ," and "Running Scared ," "Labyrinth" was not a box-office hit. (Critics called it a slog.) With a script credited to Monty Python's Terry Jones , Henson's movie was a cult item waiting for the Internet to happen to it. You can see in this adventure everything from "The Wizard of Oz " and "Alice in Wonderland " to "New Zoo Revue " and Pink Floyd's "The Wall ." At some point, it even occurred to me that Henson is the proto Hayao Miyazaki . This movie and Henson's "Dark Crystal" are in the same solar system as "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle."

Yet in truth "Labyrinth" is a movie you need to see when you're 11 -- or under a heavy narcotic spell. Thinking it's trippy is not the same as feeling its trippiness, although the synthed-out Trevor Jones score does have a trippiness you can feel. There are some nifty sequences -- the movie exists almost exclusively for its neat M.C. Escher -inspired finale, in which the castle stairs run upside down. Still, there are so many scenes of Connelly and the men in Muppet costumes just running around the sets. Henson's imagination is boundless. But his movie has no pep. It's a dream in neutral.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to movies/blog.



Directed by: Jim Henson

Written by: Terry Jones

Starring: Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: PG