MOVIE REVIEW : Muppets Take On Dickens' 'Carol'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It must have sounded good at story conferences. Star the Muppets in a movie version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Call it "The Muppet Christmas Carol." Cast Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit and Miss Piggy as his wife, Emily. The Great Gonzo can play Charles Dickens, who is given the job of narrating the story. As Scrooge, get Michael Caine.

Die-hard Muppet fans may get a boost from the film (citywide) but Dickens lovers will fare less well. Somewhere along the way--'round about the Ghost of Christmas Past stuff--the magic has fallen out of the story. The treacly score by Miles Goodman, with songs by Paul Williams, doesn't help. The Muppets are at their best when they're anarchic, without all this soggy whimsy.

Caine is such a consummate actor that he actually manages to work up some real rapport with these puppets. He understands the comic virtue in underplaying Scrooge's meanness; if he was more outsized and Gothic he'd clash with the Muppets' whiz-bang jokiness. Still, it's a strange experience watching Caine give a heartfelt rendering of Scrooge amid all the felt and foam and burlap.

If Caine is first-rate, the Muppets fare less well. The problem may be that, for the first time in their movie careers, they are playing characters, and the Muppets have always been sui generis. Kermit, for example, is irreducibly Kermit; as Bob Cratchit, we can sense him straining to erase his own personality and blend Method-style into the part. But at least he's trying. As Emily Cratchit, Miss Piggy doesn't even bother to pretend she's playing a part. It's a self-indulgent piece of work that completely loses sight of Emily's selfless, poignant love for her husband and Tiny Tim. It's a piggy performance.

There are a few choice moments, as when Scrooge's Muppet minions, complaining about the chilliness in their office, break into a tropical dance to placate their boss's bark. The production design is sometimes ingenious, with skewed angles and storybook stylizations meant to accommodate both the Muppets and the occasional human. Caine even gets to sing a number, and he's pleasantly winning. He stays in character when he's warbling, he doesn't belt out the words Broadway-style, and that gives the film some grace.

As family films go these days, "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (rated G) is perfectly tolerable. It doesn't have a very high magic quotient, though, and it's unlikely that kids are going to be asking their parents afterward to read them the Dickens story. They'll be missing out on a great gift.

'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Michael Caine: Ebenezer Scrooge

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation from Jim Henson Productions. Director Brian Henson. Producers Brian Henson and Martin G. Baker. Executive producer Frank Oz. Screenplay by Jerry Juhl. Cinematographer John Fenner. Editor Michael Jablow. Costumes Polly Smith. Music Miles Goodman. Songs by Paul Williams. Production design Val Strazovec. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

MPAA-rated G.

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