Picks and Pans Review: Labyrinth

updated 07/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The best children's movies—and this is certainly one of them—challenge kids. The Wizard of Oz, Bambi, The Black Stallion all in their way show respect for children's courage, imagination and intelligence, and so does this film about a self-absorbed 13- or 14-year-old girl, who one day gets her wish that the goblins would take away her infant stepbrother. There's plenty of talent involved. George Lucas was executive producer. The director is Muppet mogul Jim Henson. The writer—with uncredited help from Elaine May—is Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, whose affection for the perverse removes any danger that this film will turn treacly. (The Bog of Eternal Stench seems a particularly Pythonesque touch.) The chronically enigmatic David Bowie plays the vainglorious villain, king of the goblins. Jennifer Connelly, 15, comely and determined, is the girl who instantly regrets wishing her sibling away and pursues him into the multilevel maze of the goblins' world. As the baby, Toby Froud, the infant son of conceptual designer Brian Froud, supplies the cuteness that is wisely left out of Connelly's performance. Henson explicitly acknowledges the inspiration of children's author Maurice Sendak, whose Where the Wild Things Are this film resembles. There are also references to, among other things, Snow White, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Lone Ranger and the comedian Senor Wences. All these citations occur in the course of a journey in which Connelly meets a succession of clever Henson creatures. When she falls into a bottomless pit, for instance, she is caught by arms growing out of the pit's walls. "Who are you?" she asks. "The helping hands, of course," they answer huffily. Even Bowie's steadfastly evil allies have an appealing side. When one remarkably inefficient cannonlike device is smashed by a boulder, it lies there in a million pieces, muttering, "No problem." What children will make of the grim music Bowie wrote and performs is a question. But his final confrontation with Connelly, shot using disorienting effects that add to the tension, is scary enough to make the resolution all the more satisfying. The subtext of the movie seems embodied in a line spoken by a number of characters: "Don't take anything for granted." That lesson is taught in the most unself-conscious way, letting the wisdom work its way into the fun as best it can. Imagine a blend of Sesame Street and Hamlet. And for those of us who can't manage that kind of imagining on our own, Henson and company do it for us beautifully. (PG)

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