In 2022, Christmas came a little early for fans The Muppet Christmas Carol — at least those who subscribe to Disney Plus. Not only did the streaming service add a 4K remake of Brian Henson’s 1992 holiday film, but the release included an extra option for die-hard fans: a version of the film that restores the song “When Love Is Gone.”
The number written by Paul Williams was cut from the theatrical version Muppet Christmas Carol, reportedly at the behest of Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. Then it was haphazardly restored in home video releases. VHS copy? Included. An 86-minute widescreen DVD release? Not included. The 90-minute full-screen version in same DVD set? Included! The original negative of the scene was at one point thought lost, then rediscovered, but not in time for the film’s first streaming release on Disney Plus in 2020. Fans would have to wait until the film’s 30th anniversary this year with the addition of ” When Love Is Gone” to The Muppet Christmas Carol on Disney’s flagship streaming service.
This addition set off a bit of a free war with Polygon, with staffers debating what the song adds and whether it’s an important part of the film. (Disney probably had its own internal debate about the inclusion: The streamer offers a theatrical version of the film, a “full-length version” with the song included, and a clip that’s just the song on its own, so viewers can pick their poison according to their preferences.) But so what is a pop culture debate if you don’t invite all your readers to pick sides? We decided to discuss it publicly.
Tasha Robinson: OK, let’s get one thing straight: I saw The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time a week ago, thanks to friends who were stunned that I’d never watched it before and started an online group review. (Actually, they found out last year during our group’s semi-hate shift White Christmas, and insisted on setting up this week’s show almost a year in advance. It’s dedication!)
Mostly what this means is that I’m not coming into this conversation with a lingering nostalgia for the film, or an internal yardstick of what constitutes the “correct” version. I don’t find it strange and inappropriate to my ears like, for example, the lost ones The Wizard of Oz the musical number “The Jitterbug” did when preservationists first found and released the footage. You are much more of a Muppet Christmas Carol vet than me Susana – did that affect your opinion here?
Susana Polo: Oh, on the contrary. Although cut from the theatrical release, “When Love is Gone” was accidentally included on home video releases. Every copy my family owned, from VHS to the present day, contained the scene. It has always been there for me. And yeah, I think that suuuuuuuuu— I mean, uh, I think that’s the weakest part of the movie. But how did it strike you, fresh to glory Muppet Christmas Carol?
Tasha: As an essential part of the story, honestly! We watched the theatrical cut first, and the scene where Ebenezer Scrooge’s childhood story ends, setting him on a path of bitter wretchedness, felt strangely cut and confusing. I wasn’t quite sure why she was dumping him! The cut scene isn’t just the song, it’s the entire explanation of how he keeps postponing their wedding and how she feels he doesn’t love her anymore and continues their plans without feeling them. That’s pretty important context!
And then I thought the song itself was pretty lovely. It’s another 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 category, but to me it has some of the same flavor of sweet melancholy and sweet harmony. Why do you hate it so much?
Susana: See, now this is an interesting flip. I’ve actually never seen the movie without this scene, considering I was in elementary school when it was in theaters. It wasn’t actually clear to me until now that Katzenberg cut out all that character. This was extremely stupid of him to do. And I’m doubly happy that Disney Plus has brought it back.
As one would hope for any single scene in a movie, “When Love Is Gone” has a lot going for it Muppet Christmas Carol, as you say, not least introducing a musical motif that is repeated in the very last moments of the film. If nothing else, it should be included in any version of the film for safekeeping. These are things I believe wholeheartedly.
It’s just that I object to “When Love Is Gone” on the basis of what constitutes a good musical. The song itself isn’t that good, being stiffly performed and uncreatively staged, but more than that, it takes the viewer on too long a detour with a character we barely know and is about to leave the narrative altogether – marking it as a complete departure from the field of absolute banger music sequences.
Tasha: It’s only a few minutes! It’s not that far! And that’s just about our last point of contact 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, mostly because we have no idea who Belle really is. (Besides being played by singing stage star Meredith Braun.) So the sudden focus on her emotional pain feels rather odd, especially when she paddles out forever right after.
But none of this is what I expected for a long time Muppet Christmas Carol fan to object — here I thought most people who wanted this song gone would just feel out of place in a movie full of Muppets to have a dramatic, melancholy, Muppet-less number, where two people cruise around his extremely primitive love story, and not a puppet in sight. Is that in your mind when you think about editing this scene? What is your big objection here?
Susana: Exactly, I think the whole scene needed to be rethought before it was filmed. It’s all about how we’re not invested in Belle and won’t be seeing her again as soon as the music ends on this song. But I have many more questions:
Why is the visual staging of this solo number like this involuntarily boring? She never even takes her hands off 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 ground wasn’t this number designed to be a joint song between Belle, young Scrooge, and older Scrooge from the start? We can still top it off by aligning Belle and Present Scrooge — that’s perfect, and I have no comments.
If I had to make the point with this song, I think the best fix would be to simply smooth it down to the core. Belle explains all the character development here in the first verse and chorus. The second verse is about… how she feels about an adventure that calls her away from a perfect life and worries that she’ll regret it? But then she goes anyway! It doesn’t matter. Cut straight from the end of the first chorus to her and Present Scrooge on the bridge and outro. Short, sweet, it conveys everything we need to know, it introduces a musical motif to call back later, and it makes the best of a clumsy situation.
Tasha: I’ll kick myself for not letting Belle start singing with young Scrooge — mind you, I know it’s the same character, but watching Belle and this random kid interact, I feel like we’re watch two characters we barely know and haven’t connected with in any meaningful way. And again, the scene isn’t really about Young Scrooge, it’s about the old guy watching and remembering this repressed moment in the process of convincing himself that he likes his lonely, bitter, efficient life. Young Scrooge is not feeling anything serious at this moment, and that is what the scene is telling us. (The guy playing him looks more like he’s concentrating on making a convincing Michael Caine face than like he’s watching his planned life fall apart in front of him.)
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 ready to fight for her or argue with her, he’s off to do 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 conversing in a whole new way – is most of what’s beautiful about 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 a song, but as stiff as the staging is and as fake and plasticky as the set is here, Michael Caine stepping into this moment and adding his voice reveals everything.
Susana: I’d honestly never thought of it that way—for a long time, it’s just been the place in the movie that I’d get up to pee or grab another cookie and hot chocolate refill, so I’m really enjoying this choice. point of view.
Perhaps the other half of this situation is just that the Muppets musicians have historically struggled to fit the obligatory romantic song into a Muppet movie. Examples range from the forgettable (“He’ll make me happy,” Muppets take Manhattan) to the uncomfortably saccharine and not really supported by the plot (“Love Led Us Here,” Muppet Treasure Island) to campy bombast (“Never before, never again!” The Muppet Movie; “The first time it’s ever happened,” Muppet Caper). I think the most beautiful romantic song in a Muppet movie might be “Couldn’t We Ride” from Muppet Caperand it’s really just a little joke about how good it is to ride with your sweetheart in the park, plus a complicated feat of puppetry done with sublime ease.
Tasha: Yeah, I’m definitely not going to try to fight you on Muppet love songs in general. I totally agree that the Muppets are at their best when they’re completely honest, and my favorite Muppets songs tend to be the kind of achingly melancholic songs that Williams writes, including the ones I mentioned above and “When the River Meets the Sea,” a sweet celebratory song about death.
But somehow that sincerity just never translates into good Muppet songs about romantic love. Brides can love rainbows, art, nonsense, their own persistent fantasies of belonging somewhere, 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 don’t try to get involved in “When Love Is Gone.” For me, at least, it’s a flawed but charming number that makes some important characters for the film. There is no 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.