`Labyrinth': puppet-show appeal. David Bowie heads cast as goblin-in-chief

We may be at the tail end of the tired film-fantasy boom, but some big names have teamed up for an ambitious effort to keep the genre in business. Although the result of their labor doesn't add up to much, its good humor and lack of pretension is refreshing -- especially in the wake of ``Legend'' and other losers that have hit the screen recently. ``Labyrinth'' starts on a mystical note, with a young woman chanting her demand for the return of a stolen child. A few shots later, it turns out we're no place more exotic than the suburbs. And our heroine is just a fantasy-struck kid (who's seen too many movies like this one, probably) learning a role for a school play.

This part of the picture is awfully trite, and it grows worse as mom and dad get on their daughter's case, telling her she ought to go on dates instead of daydreaming all the time. No sooner do they leave the house than she vents her irritation on her little brother, wishing ``the goblins'' would take him away so at least she wouldn't have to babysit.

The goblins are listening in, of course, and take her at her word. Now there is a stolen baby, and if she can't retrieve him from the goblin-king's castle -- at the center of a treacherous maze -- mom and dad will be more peeved than ever when they get home.

The story picks up a little steam as this quest begins, taking us into a netherworld of mysterious creatures, unearthly settings, and nonstop camera tricks. True, most of it has a familiar ring, recalling the work of Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak, among other sources. (Sendak's influence is so strong that it's noted in the credits.) Yet the film is involving, up to a point, largely because of its empathy with the heroine -- who's always at the center of the tale, giving it a human focus that outweighs the show-offy gimmicks and crazy costumes. Compared with most recent fantasies, this one is casual and friendly, closer in mood to a puppet show than a high-tech epic.

Much credit for this goes to director Jim Henson, the ``Muppet'' master, whose love of puppet-type entertainment gives the movie a lot of its flavor, edging out the proudly technological effects usually favored by George Lucas, the ``Star Wars'' mogul who served as executive producer here.

Other assets of ``Labyrinth'' include its sense of humor, contributed in part by screenwriter Terry Jones, and amiable performances (if not inspired ones) by Jennifer Connelly as the heroine and David Bowie as her nemesis, the goblin-in-chief. John Grover was the film editor, Alex Thomson did the cinematography, and Brian Froud is credited with the ``conceptual design.''

The movie's rating is PG, reflecting a few moments of antic violence that may be too strong for the youngest viewers.

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