It's only natural that "A Christmas Carol," as performed by the Muppets, is lighter and more cheery, less gritty and dark than Charles Dickens' novel. What is surprising, however, is that the film is still remarkably faithful to Dickens' words.

In fact, the movie's final spoken phrase is a plug for reading Dickens' version. "You ought to read the book," one character says to another after the fadeout. Amen.

In the meantime, however, "The Muppet Christmas Carol," the umpteenth adaptation of the beloved tale of mean old Ebeneezer Scrooge and the visitation he receives from three spirits on Christmas Eve, is a delight.

The story is related by the Great Gonzo, as Charles Dickens, aided by the ever hungry Rizzo the Rat. As the story unfolds, Kermit the Frog takes on the role of Bob Cratchit (with Steve Whitmire doing the voice so well that even Jim Henson would be pleased), working for miserly Scrooge (Michael Caine, the only human character in the cast).

Along the way, other Muppets play various roles, including Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit (their female offspring are all Miss Piggy-like pigs, while the boys — including Tiny Tim — are little Kermits).

As a result, the film plays like an extended episode of the old TV series, "The Muppet Show," where the characters were always putting on stage productions. And it works on that level very well.

Caine is perfect as Scrooge, playing it straight while Muppet madness whirlwinds around him. Fine actor that he is, Caine accentuates Scrooge's personality change in subtle ways. And the songs by Paul Williams, while perhaps less memorable than we might wish, are still enjoyable and complement the action.

There are a lot of obvious elements here that will appeal to children, of course, but one of the things that makes "The Muppet Christmas Carol" so much fun for parents is cameo appearances by all the familiar, beloved characters from the long defunct TV series — Sam Eagle as the headmaster, Rowlf on the piano and Animal on the drums during a party sequence, Beaker, Bunsen, the Swedish chef and many others.

Director Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, has captured his father's vision and carries on the tradition better than anyone could have expected. In addition, considering the amount of razzle-dazzle special effects here, Henson manages a first-rate feature directing debut.

And the screenplay, by Jerry Juhl ("The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper"), is very much in the tradition of Muppet humor, with rapid-fire anachronisms, off-the-wall gags and a few inside jokes.

"The Muppet Christmas Carol" is, of course, rated G.