Cinema: What The Dickens!

Three films based on the master's novels crowd into theaters

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Fagin, Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Jellaby -- so many of Charles Dickens' great grotesques lurk in memory with the clarity of caricatures. They seem made not just for the page but for the stage and screen. As the great popular novelist of his or any age, Dickens has always been filched by other media. And as a social reformer who, as George Orwell wrote, "succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody," Dickens ^ invented outsize villains and situations applicable to almost any taste or decade. The endless Broadway and movie adaptations of Dickens stories testify to the vitality of the world he observed and created. That three new films based on his novels are on view this pre-Christmas season would surprise no one but Scrooge.

It would surely not surprise Frank Cross, the sleaze-hearted TV executive played with conniving brio by Bill Murray in Scrooged. Frank has even planned a Christmas Eve broadcast of A Christmas Carol, with an all-star cast (Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim). He is bursting with creative ingenuity: he wants tiny reindeer antlers stapled on the forehead of a Christmas mouse. But Frank is about to get scrooged by the ghost of his old boss (John Forsythe), and three Christmas spirits want to teach him a lesson in generosity. He will hallucinate an eyeball in his highball and be told that "garden slugs get more out of life than you do." Retorts Frank: "Name one!"

The film's writers, Saturday Night Live veterans Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue, know that all a TV skit needs is a likable star and some lunatic vamping. Because of the Dickens frame, this formula works at feature length, even if Richard Donner's close-up and impersonal direction clangs like the chains on Marley's ghost. And because, 4 1/2 years after his last star turn in a movie comedy (Ghostbusters), Murray remains a roguish delight to watch. As sham friendly as the guy who cheated off you in high school, as ersatz hip as a Vegas lounge singer, Murray lets the movie hang agreeably loose. Nobody tried for a masterpiece here; most people should have a good time.

The Walt Disney Co. would seem a natural to do Dickens. Walt was, after all, the Dickens of his day, deviser of a comprehensive world in which humor taught homilies and fantasy purred up against sentimentality. But not until now has the studio based a cartoon musical feature on a Dickens tale. It was worth the wait. Oliver & Company is Dickens with a twist, and Disney with a treat. Turning Fagin's gang into canines, transporting them to modern Manhattan and embroidering the scene with street vendors and Tiffany dog tags, the picture makes for a luscious comic valentine to New York City.

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