FILM / 'Tis the season to be green and furry: The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) Brian Henson (UK); The Princess and the Goblin (U) Josef Gemes (UK / Hungary); Cool World (12) Ralph Bakshi (US); Mo' Money Peter MacDonald (US)

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The Independent Culture
Oh no, you groan, not another Brit-lit adaptation of Charles Dickens' seasonal morality tale. But stay: The Muppet Christmas Carol is a potentially ideal marriage between his Victorian classic and a cast who must be, let's see, very nearly as venerable. Jim Henson's furry flora and fauna seem perfectly compatible with Dickens' weakness for broad caricature; the rodents toiling away in Scrooge's sweatshop are perfect to play an oppressed, but irrepressible Victorian underclass.

And for the first 15 minutes or so, the film shapes up very nicely as a (fairly) faithful but brash adaptation. The familiar contours of the story are embellished with such echt-period touches as a rubber chicken factory, and a running stream of sardonic wisecracks from the Great Gonzo as our author and narrator. 'Nice story Mr Dickens,' concludes his sidekick, Rizzo the Rat. 'Aw, thanks,' mutters Gonzo modestly. 'If you like this you should read the book.' Even a literary purist couldn't argue with that.

Alas, the project is blighted by the miscasting of one of the leading and best-loved thespians in showbiz: I refer, of course, to Miss Piggy, whose dramatic range and immaculate dress sense are wasted in a meagre role as Mrs Cratchit (Kermit plays her spouse). Her co-star Michael Caine, by contrast, cuts a fine Scrooge who cracks the occasional joke and even, for one memorable moment near the end, bursts into splendidly tuneless song. Gradually, though, the film sinks into a quagmire of sentimentality; the Muppets withdraw discreetly during Scrooge's ghostly visitations and the dominant flavour is more saccharine than humbug. Nice try, though.

Victoriana is invariably in vogue at Christmas: there's more in the other new children's film, The Princess and the Goblin, based on George MacDonald's fantasy. To call this an animated feature would be misleading: it is a dull, cheap-looking affair. One may grumble at the efficiency with which Disney has colonised the cartoon fairy-tale, but, with The Little Princess, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin the studio has set standards of draughtsmanship and wit for classical animation that Europe has yet to match. This Welsh-Hungarian effort, with its crude drawings and Mogadon dialogue ('It's a pigeon]' trill the characters, 'It's a magic door]') was made for television and is miles out of its league on the large screen.

Cool World also pits itself against a modern milestone of animation: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Gabriel Byrne plays an underground artist who keeps catapulting into his own grotesque-comic world. Here he is ineluctably drawn to the voluptuous Holli Would who, however, aspires to take on human form (Kim Basinger). Some 20 years ago the director, Ralph Bakshi, animated Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat, and his teemingly populated Cool World has something of the same lewd delirium (its wet- dream, adolescent sexuality also has a quaint Sixties feel - the pneumatic cartoon women come from the same cobwebbed cupboard as the Bondmaidens or Barbarella). But the film's graphic inventiveness isn't matched by its story-telling skills or technical proficiency: the interaction of flesh and ink never looks in the least convincing - more Mary Poppins than Roger Rabbit.

Mo' Money, a disappointing piece by the talented writer and performer Damon Wayans, extracts few laughs from its yarn about credit card scamming. Maybe it's that the director, Peter MacDonald, comes from an action background (second-unit filming and Rambo III); maybe it's that the comedy is, in truth, pretty feeble - rancid without the redeeming virtue of wit. A buppie who has the nerve to prefer opera to rap is a pompous bore, and you can also enjoy jokes at the expense of people in wheelchairs, with nervous tics or bulimia, and, in a turn ripped off from Eddie Murphy, homosexual men with Aids (the film believes in equal opportunity prejudice) - cheap laughs indeed.

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