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Feisty Muppets Top Dull `Toys'

THERE are two possible ways to make sense of "Toys," the new Robin Williams comedy.

You can see it as some kind of surrealistic, avant-garde experiment that requires us to suspend the usual standards for watching and judging movies. Or you can see it as a Hollywood epic that desperately wants to be loved and enjoyed, but went hopelessly berserk on the first day of production and never recovered its wits.

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I'm afraid the second of these scenarios is the more appropriate one. "Toys" is big, ambitious, and crammed with more primary colors than I've run into since "Dick Tracy" hit the screen. But its story is dull, its rhythms are clumsy, and its jokes aren't funny. There's also a comic sex scene that is fairly mild by current standards but seems weirdly out of place in what's largely a family-type film.

Even the energetic Mr. Williams fails to bring the picture alive for more than a moment at a time - not that he gets much of a chance, since director Barry Levinson seems determined to expunge anything that might interfere with the picture's artistic pretensions. The casualties include Williams's talents for mimicry, improvisation, and exuberance.

The main setting of "Toys" is an enormous toy factory that needs new management when its kindly old founder dies. The logical candidate for toymaker-in-chief is the founder's son, Leslie, who has the necessary sense of silliness and warmth.

But the job goes to his uncle, a military man who decides to convert the operation to aggressive war toys, violent video games, and a scheme to train unsuspecting kids in combat skills through the playthings they buy. Leslie catches on and mounts a counterattack. The climax is a noisy battle between high-tech gadgetry and old-fashioned windup toys, fighting for a moral as well as a physical victory.

This could have made for an amusing movie with a constructive message, if Mr. Levinson had directed it with the whimsical attitude that his story calls for. Instead, he treats it as an ungainly combination of Christmas fantasy and art-film hallucination, with a dash of heavy-handed philosophizing for good measure.

It's inventive and surprising, all right, and Levinson deserves credit for carrying his bizarre vision to its logical conclusion. But it's not one-tenth the fun it ought to be, and that's a pity, especially with so many popular performers, from Joan Cusack to rap singer LL Cool J, involved.

ANOTHER major entry in the holiday-film sweepstakes, "The Muppet Christmas Carol," brought me memories as soon as it started. My children grew up watching the Muppets on TV, and I grew - well, older, watching right alongside them. Like the best Walt Disney animations, the best Muppet routines blend childlike fun with enough grown-up sophistication to satisfy everyone who tunes in. So a new Muppet picture is always welcome.

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Something else I've shared with my children is one of the most charming and ingenious novels I know: "A Christmas Carol in Prose," by the great Charles Dickens, who deserves all the praise he ever received for this nearly perfect little book.

Among its numerous screen adaptations, the best is definitely the 1951 version with Alistaire Sim, although the 1938 version with Reginald Owen has some merit, and Albert Finney made a good Scrooge in the 1970 musical of that name.

It's debatable whether we need more movie versions at this late date, but the combination of Muppet fun and Dickens warmth sounds unbeatable, so "The Muppet Christmas Carol" was high on my anticipation list. And a nice little movie it turns out to be - although, I'm sorry to report, it's not the sure-fire winner I'd hoped for.

As expected, the story takes place in Dickensian England and is narrated by Charles Dickens - played by the Great Gonzo, with support from Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit and Rizzo the Rat as himself. The human cast is headed by Michael Caine, who plays Scrooge with such energy and feeling you'd think he was sharing the screen with other people instead of fuzzy little creatures.

Also on hand are Fozzie Bear as Fozziwig, the inimitable Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit, and some excellent special effects, especially when the yarn turns spooky and fantastic. The dialogue is simple enough for fairly young spectators to understand, and there's some patented Muppet humor. When one of the ghostly spirits is due to arrive, for instance, a character wonders if the scene is too scary for kids in the audience. "It's all right," says another. "This is culture!"

Although there's much in "The Muppet Christmas Carol" that I enjoyed, I have to add that parts of it are slow and unexciting, and the youngest viewers may not be able to follow all of the plot. Some of the musical numbers are dull, too. Don't be surprised if certain songs have children squirming in their seats, while the grown-ups next to them glance furtively at their watches.

Still and all, G-rated entertainments are hard to find, and "The Muppet Christmas Carol" is great fun during its feistier moments. It's also certain that you won't find more Christmas spirit in any movie this year. Two-and-a-half cheers for the Muppets, their muppeteers, and Jim Henson's elder son, Brian, who directed the picture. And a rousing hurrah for Charles Dickens, whose brilliance lives on to inspire us all.

* "Toys" is rated PG-13 for vulgar language and sensuality; in addition to a partly off-camera sex scene, it contains bathroom humor and a lot of cartoonish violence. "The Muppet Christmas Carol" has a G rating.

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