Muppet Christmas Carol, The

Dedicated to the memory of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, The Muppet Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic, is not as enchanting or amusing as the previous pix in the muppet series. There is too much Scrooge and not enough muppets, and pic's tone may be a shade too dark and somber for what is basically a children's entertainment.

However, nothing can really diminish Henson's irresistibly appealing characters, who have become icons in popular culture. The new incarnation will yield solid box-office returns through the holiday season and possibly beyond, making Disney, which already released Aladdin and The Distinguished Gentleman, the sure winner this season.

Closely following the Dickens novel, the narrative of The Muppet Christmas Carol is structured in three parts. In the first and most nostalgic part, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Karen Prell) and is taken back to his childhood. Like It's a Wonderful Life, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Hook, this sequence has universal appeal for viewers wishing to revisit their past or reflect on their first love.

In the second part, Scrooge observes with astonishment his current life under the guidance of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Donald Austen). A visit by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (also played by Austen) makes the film's third and last part as scary, frightening and moralistic as intended.

Accomplished Britisher Michael Caine is perfectly cast as the mean and nasty Scrooge who needs to reform and regain his humanity. Blessed with a strong screen presence, Caine renders an estimable performance, though his role is too dominant for a film whose main characters should be the muppets.

With the exception of Rizzo the Rat, who is cast as himself, the other endearing creatures actually take on roles: Kermit the Frog is cast as the abused bookkeeper Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as his demanding wife Emily, and the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself. Gonzo's narration of the film is often obtrusive, creating unnecessary distance between the viewers and the tale.

Unfortunately, the new muppet film lacks the charm of their first outing, The Muppet Movie (l979), which charted their odyssey from the Georgia swamps to Hollywood, or the fun of Frank Oz's The Muppets Take Manhattan (l984), which featured many star cameos and inventively used New York City locations.

Still, the production values of Muppet Christmas Carol are as proficient as ever. Showing affinity for his material, Brian Henson's direction is fluid, if not spectacular. Working in tandem is lenser John Fenner, who gives the studio-shot film the luminous feel of a holiday celebration, stressing its wintery look. The sight of Scrooge flying over London's rooftops will inevitably be magical for children.

Helmer Henson and editor Michael Jablow effectively contrast mega close-ups of Michael Caine with Kermit the Frog and the other tiny muppets. However, Paul Williams' pedestrian songs are repetitious, failing to endow the tale with the bouncy score that marked the former muppet films.