Music

Muppet Christmas Carol is now streaming on Disney Plus with a controversial song clip

In 2022, Christmas came a little early for fans The Muppet’s Christmas Carol — at least those who subscribe to Disney Plus. Not only did the streaming service add a 4K restoration of Brian Henson’s 1992 holiday film, but the release came with an extra option for die-hard fans: a version of the film that recreates the song “When Love Is Gone.”

The Paul Williams-penned number was cut from the theatrical version The Muppet Christmas Carol, allegedly at the behest of Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. It was then randomly restored in home video releases. VHS copy? Included. The 86-minute widescreen DVD release? Not included. The 90-minute full-screen version in same DVD set? Included! The original film negatives from the scene were at one point presumed lost, then rediscovered, but not in time for the film’s first streaming release on Disney Plus in 2020. Fans had to wait until the film’s 30th anniversary this year for the addition of “When Love Is Gone” to The Muppet’s Christmas Carol on Disney’s flagship streaming service.

This addition sparked a small holiday war at Polygon, with staffers debating what the song adds and whether it’s a crucial part of the film. (Disney likely had its own internal debate about inclusion: The streamer offers the theatrical version of the film, the “full-length version” with the song included, and a clip that’s just the song by itself, so viewers can pick their poison depending on their preferences.) But what’s a pop culture debate if you don’t invite your entire readership to pick sides? We decided to talk about it publicly.

Tasha Robinson: OK, let’s get one thing straight: I saw The Muppet’s Christmas Carol for the very first time a week ago, thanks to friends who were appalled that I had never seen it before and set up a group viewing online. (They actually found that out last year on our group semi-hate-watch of White Christmas, and insisted on setting up this week’s screening nearly a year in advance. That’s dedication!)

Mostly, that means I don’t come into this conversation with any lingering nostalgia for the film, or any internal yardstick of what constitutes the “real” version. It doesn’t feel strange and out of place to my ears, like e.g. the lost The Wizard of Oz music track”Jitter bug” did when the conservators first found and released the footage. You are much more than one The Muppet Christmas Carol vet than I am, Susana – did that affect your opinion here?

Susan Polo: Oh, on the contrary. Although cut from the theatrical release, “When Love is Gone” was included incidentally on home video releases. All the copies that my family happened to own, from VHS to today, included the scene. It has always been there for me. And yeah, I think it’s suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuture – I mean, um, I think it’s the weakest part of the movie. But how did it strike you, fresh in honor of The Muppet Christmas Carol?

Tasha: As an essential part of the story, honestly! We saw the theatrical cut first, and the scene where Ebenezer Scrooge’s youthful romance ends, setting him on the path of the bitter miser, seemed oddly constricted and confusing to me. I wasn’t quite sure why she dumped him! The cut scene isn’t just the song, it’s the whole explanation of how he keeps postponing their wedding and how she feels he doesn’t love her anymore and continues their plans without really noticing. That’s pretty important context!

Gonzo, Rizzo and Scrooge watch unseen Scrooge's younger self and his fiancée Belle sitting in a park full of snow at sunset.

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

And then I thought the song itself was quite lovely. It’s another one from frequent Muppet songwriter Paul Williams, the guy behind Muppet classics like “Rainbow Connection” and “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” This song is not in that class, but to me it has some of the same flavor of sweet melancholy and sweet harmony. Why do you hate it so much?

Suzanne: See, now this is an interesting flip. I’ve pretty much never seen the movie without that scene when I was in elementary school when it was in theaters. It wasn’t actually clear to me until just now that Katzenberg carved out that whole character beat. It was an extremely stupid thing for him to do. And it makes me doubly happy that Disney Plus has restored it.

As you’d hope for any discrete scene in a movie, “When Love Is Gone” has a lot going for it. The Muppet Christmas Carol, as you say, not least introduces a musical motif that is repeated in the very last moments of the film. If nothing else, it should be included in any release of the film for the sake of preservation. These are things I believe in wholeheartedly.

It’s just also that I object to “When Love Is Gone” because of what makes a good musical. The song itself isn’t that good, performed stiffly and staged uncreatively, but more than that it takes the viewer on a far too long detour with a character we barely know who is about to leave the narrative entirely – marking it as a true outlier in a field of absolute banger musical sequences.

Tasha: It’s only a few minutes! It’s not that long! And that’s just about our last touchpoint for young, emotional Scrooge before his heart hardened. So he’s the focus here, not his minimally developed love interest!

But for the most part, I’ll admit that you’re on the nose here, and that this is a pretty flawed scene, mainly because we have no idea who Belle really is. (Aside from being played by singing stage star Meredith Braun.) So the sudden focus on her emotional pain feels rather odd, especially when she settles down forever immediately afterwards.

Scrooge (Michael Cain) cries as he shares a final verse

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

But none of this is what I expected for a long time The Muppet Christmas Carol fan to object to – here I thought most people who wanted this song gone would just feel that it was out of place in a movie full of Muppets to have a dramatic, melancholic, Muppet-free number, with two people , navigating their extremely rudimentary love story, and not a puppet in sight. Does that factor into your calculation at all when you think about cutting this scene? What are your major objections here?

Suzanne: Honestly, I think the whole scene should have been rethought before it was ever filmed. There’s the whole thing about us not being invested in Belle and not wanting to see her again the minute the music ends on this song. But I have many more questions:

Why is the visual staging of this solo number like that ineffable boring? She never even takes her hands out of her cute little Victorian muff. [Ed. note: While gathering images to lay out this post I discovered that Belle is actually not wearing a muff at all, she just keeps her hands so still and pinned to her stomach for the whole song that I Mandela Effect-ed one into existence. I am noting this in case you too believed that Belle was a muff-wearer.] Why on the earth wasn’t this track designed to be a joint song between Belle, young Scrooge, and older Scrooge from the start? We can still culminate with Belle and Present Scrooge harmonizing — it’s perfect and I have no notes.

If I had to make the scene with this song, I think the best solution would be to simply slim it down to its essence. Belle explains the entire character development here in the first verse and chorus. The second verse is about… how she feels that adventure is calling her away from a perfect life and worries that she might regret it? But then she goes anyway! It doesn’t jibe. Cut directly from the end of the first chorus to her and introduce Scrooge on the bridge and the outro. In short, it communicates everything we need to know, it introduces the musical motif for recall later, and it makes the best of a clumsy situation.

Tasha: I’m going to bat for not having Belle start singing with young Scrooge – deliberately, I know it’s the same character, but watching Belle and this random youngster interact makes me feel like we looking at thaw characters we barely know and haven’t connected meaningfully with. And again, the scene isn’t really about Young Scrooge, it’s about the old guy watching and remembering this moment, he’s been repressed in the process of convincing himself that he like his lonely, bitter, efficient life. Young Scrooge feels nothing greater at this moment, and that is what the scene tells us. (The guy playing him looks more like he’s concentrating on making a convincing Michael Caine face than watching his planned life fall apart in front of him.)

A young version of Scrooge and his fiancée Belle standing in a snowy park in The Muppets Christmas Carol.

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

That staging is part of what makes the song so great! Young Scrooge literally just walks away from her in the background, out of focus, while she’s still singing about leaving him! He proves her point in that moment – he’s not willing to fight for her or argue with her, he’s off doing his own thing. He isn’t full of regret, so it’s up to Present Scrooge to step in and express that regret—and maybe even understand and acknowledge it for the first time in his life. Their duet – past and present in conversation in a whole new way – is most of the beauty of this scene for me. The ghost of an old man who realized for the first time that he didn’t know everything when he was young, arrogant and sure of himself? It’s a lot to pack into one song, but as stiff as the staging is and as fake and plastic as the set is here, Michael Caine steps in at this moment and adds his voice that really brings it all through.

Suzanne: I honestly never really thought about it that way – for a long time it’s just been the place in the movie where I’d get up to pee or grab another cookie and a hot chocolate refill, so I’m really enjoying this alternative perspective .

Perhaps the other half of this situation is just that Muppets musicians have historically struggled to fit the genre-obligatory serious romance song into a Muppet movie. The examples range from the forgettable (“He wants to make me happyThe Muppets Take Manhattan) to the cloyingly saccharine and not really supported by the plot (“Love brought us hereMuppet Treasure Island) to campy bombast (“Never before, never again!The Muppets movie; “First time it happensThe Great Muppet Capers). I think the best romance song in a Muppet movie might be “Couldn’t we ride” from The Great Muppet Capersand it’s really just a bit about how nice it is to cycle with your partner in the park, as well as a complicated puppet show performed with sublime ease.

Tasha: Yeah, I’m definitely not going to try to fight you on Muppet love songs in general. I totally agree with that The Muppets are at their best when they’re completely sincereand my favorite Muppets songs tend to be the kind of tender melancholy Williams writes, including the ones I mentioned above and “When the River Meets the Sea,” a sweet holiday song about death.

But somehow that sincerity just never really translates into good Muppet songs about romantic love. Mups may love rainbows, art, nonsense, their own longing fantasies of belonging, or (I’ll say it again) the sweet embrace of death, but when they try to love each other, the alchemy doesn’t work and it just falls flat. It’s probably a good thing Gonzo and Rizzo aren’t trying to get involved in “When Love Is Gone.” For me anyway, it’s a flawed but charming number that provides some important character points for the film. It’s not a love song for the ages. But the way it works, it probably works best because it puts the Muppets aside for a moment and appeals directly to the audience’s humanity.

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