The first full-length Muppet feature since the tragic death of Jim Henson in 1990, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL is a mixed bag of mixed moods. The somberness of Dickens's oft-filmed seasonal cautionary fable works at cross purposes with the Muppets, keeping their usual gentle anarchy at


Despite the participation of Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit, this retelling does not significantly deviate from the outlines of the well-known and well-worn Charles Dickens original. In Dickens's l9th-century London, miserly financier Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) prepares to spend Christmas

alone--having given his long-suffering but loyal head clerk Crachit a rare day off to spend with his wife and family, including his crippled son Tiny Tim (Jerry Nelson)--despite an invitation from his equally long-suffering and loyal nephew Fred (Steven Mackintosh) to spend the holiday with him

and his wife Clara (Robin Weaver). Preparing for bed on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley (also Jerry Nelson), who is in death bound by chains he forged during his own selfish life that now prevent him from rising into heaven.

Affording Scrooge a second chance denied to him, Marley informs his ex-partner that he will be visited by three other spirits, those of Christmases past, present and future. The three spirits take Scrooge through his life, showing how he turned his back on his fellow man while he was still young

to arrive old, alone and embittered in his present to face a bleak future and die alone. Seeing the error of his ways come Christmas morning, Scrooge buys the biggest goose in town as a gift for the Crachits, with whom he spends the holiday capped by a raise for Crachit and an offer to help with

Tiny Tim's medical care without which, the ghost of Christmas future reveals, the youngster will die.

Besides Caine and a few others, most notably Meredith Braun in a poignant performance as Belle, Scrooge's lost love, the remainder of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL's cast is filled by either the Muppets or creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, now under the supervision of the film's director,

Henson's son Brian. Kermit (now voiced by Steve Whitmire) headlines the non-human cast as Crachit, with Kermit's longtime amour, Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), of course cast as Crachit's wife Emily. The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) frames the story as Dickens with sidekick Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire). Of the

non-Muppet characters, the Ghost of Christmas Past, an ethereal, angel-like spirit, is the film's most memorable creation.

On the upside, the Muppets have survived the loss of Jim Henson in fine fettle. In the film's lighter moments they are as funny and feisty as ever and Michael Caine gives a surprisingly touching and thoughtful performance as Scrooge. However, instead of either a send-up or a straightforward

rendition of the tale (which worked for Mr. Magoo), Brian Henson opts for a bit of both. The most telling result is a happy ending that feels forced, rushed and unearned along with a decided uncertainty in the Muppets' dramatic performances. It's easy to imagine Caine as Scrooge, who's so good

here it's easy to hope that he will one day star in a "straight" version of The Christmas Carol. However, Miss Piggy winds up looking more than a little uncomfortable as the righteously vindictive Mrs. Crachit.

Still, parents understandably wishing to pass on the cartoonish ultra-violence of other such seasonal favorites as HOME ALONE 2 could do far worse than this kinder and gentler alternative.