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Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth' holds magical appeal for young and old alike (***)

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Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007 10:00 pm

Everyone has those movies they grew up with, films that may not be particularly well-made but are loved anyway because they represent an important part of one's childhood. For many people between the ages of 20 and 30, "Labyrinth" is one of those films that defy any formal criticism simply because it's so familiar - more like the embodiment of a fond memory than an actual movie subject to scrutiny.

Since I am apparently one of the few 20-somethings who never saw the film as a child, I simply assumed it was one of "those" movies and didn't think it would have anything to offer me as a first-time adult viewer. I was recently forced to watch the movie under duress, "Clockwork Orange"-style, and was pleasantly surprised to find a worthwhile fantasy film filled with real cinematic magic as opposed to an unbearably corny kiddie flick with no real substance, as I had expected.

"Labyrinth" tells the story of Sarah (a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly), a young girl forced to care for her infant brother while her parents are away. The self-centered teen wishes that the mythical Goblin King would come and take the child away, and in grand fairy tale fashion, her wish is granted: Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) shows up to abduct Sarah's brother, and informs the girl that the only way she can rescue the child is by navigating her way through the dangerous and complex labyrinth that leads to his castle.

Most of the movie takes place inside the labyrinth, a visually striking creation wherein traditional rules of rhyme and reason don't apply - it's like a waking nightmare in which Sarah is never quite sure who or what to trust, or even what she's supposed to do next. She faces an array of challenges, including a logic puzzle that is as difficult as it is simple, involving two paths guarded by a pair of creatures, one of whom always lies while the other always tells the truth. One path leads to danger and the other to safety, and Sarah can only ask one question to one of the creatures in order to figure out which path to choose.

Such brain-teasers are engaging, but in the end the real reason to see the film is the creatures themselves. They come courtesy of writer/director Jim Henson's Muppet factory, and serve as a testament to the superiority of live-action puppets over the brand of computer-generated creatures used by most of today's filmmakers. Even when the movie lags - which is quite often during its final act - Henson's creations have no trouble holding the viewer's attention, and inspiring the kid in us all.

"Labyrinth" is rated PG for frightening images.

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