In 2022, Christmas came a little early for fans of The Muppet Christmas Carol — at least, the ones who subscribe to Disney Plus. Not only did the streaming service add a 4K restoration of Brian Henson’s 1992 holiday movie, but the release came with an extra option for deep-cut fans: a version of the film that restores the song “When Love Is Gone.”
The Paul Williams-penned number was cut from the theatrical version of Muppet Christmas Carol, reportedly on the orders of Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. Then it was restored haphazardly in home video editions. VHS copy? Included. The 86-minute widescreen DVD release? Not included. The 90-minute fullscreen version in the same DVD set? Included! The original film negatives of 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 movie’s 30th anniversary this year for the addition of “When Love Is Gone” to The Muppet Christmas Carol on Disney’s flagship streaming service.
That addition set off a tiny 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 the 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 on its own, 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 it out in public.
Tasha Robinson: OK, let’s clarify one thing: I saw The Muppet Christmas Carol for the very first time a week ago, thanks to friends who were appalled that I’d never watched it before and set up a group viewing online. (They actually found out last year at 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 what this means is that I’m not coming into this conversation with any long-standing nostalgia for the movie, or any internal meter about what constitutes the “right” version. It doesn’t feel weird and out of place to my ears the way, say, the lost Wizard of Oz musical number “The Jitterbug” did when the preservationists first found and released the footage. You’re much more of a Muppet Christmas Carol vet than I am, Susana — did that affect your opinion here?
Susana Polo: Oh, to the contrary. Though it was cut from the theatrical version, “When Love is Gone” was included haphazardly in home video versions. All the copies my family happened to own, from VHS to modern day, included the scene. It’s always been there for me. And yeah, I think it suuuuuuuuu— I mean, uh, I think it’s the weakest part of the film. But how did it hit you, fresh to the glory of Muppet Christmas Carol?
Tasha: As an essential part of the story, honestly! We watched the theatrical cut first, and that scene, where Ebenezer Scrooge’s youthful romance ends, setting him on the path of the bitter miser, seemed weirdly curtailed and confusing to me. I wasn’t really sure why she was dumping 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 is continuing their plans without really feeling them. It’s pretty important context!
And then I thought the song itself was pretty 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 isn’t in that class, but for 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 basically never seen the movie without that scene, given that I was in elementary school when it was in theaters. It was not actually clear to me until just now that Katzenberg excised the entirety of that character beat. That was an extremely dumbass thing of him to do. And it makes me doubly glad that Disney Plus has restored it.
As one would hope for any discrete scene in a movie, there are a lot of things that “When Love Is Gone” does for Muppet Christmas Carol, as you say, not least introducing a musical motif that is reprised in the very final moments of the film. If nothing else, it should be included in any release of the movie for the sake of preservation. These are things I believe wholeheartedly.
It’s just also that I object to “When Love Is Gone” on the grounds of what makes a good musical. The song itself isn’t all that good, is performed stiffly, and is staged uncreatively, but more than that, it takes the viewer on an overlong detour with a character we barely know and who is about to leave the narrative entirely — marking it as a real outlier in a field of absolute banger musical sequences.
Tasha: It’s only a few minutes! It isn’t that long! And it’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 concede that you’re on-the-nose-correct here, and that this is a pretty flawed scene, largely because we have no idea who Belle really is. (Apart from being played by singing stage star Meredith Braun.) So the sudden focus on her emotional pain does feel pretty odd, especially when she peaces out forever immediately afterward.
But none of this is what I was expecting a longtime Muppet Christmas Carol fan to object to — here I thought most people who wanted this song gone would just feel like it was out of place in a movie full of Muppets to have a dramatic, melancholy, Muppet-less number, with two humans navigating their extremely rudimentary love story, and not a puppet in sight. Is that in your calculus at all when you think about cutting this scene? What are your big objections here?
Susana: Bluntly, I think the whole scene needed to have been rethought before it was ever filmed. There’s the whole thing about how we are not invested in Belle and will not see her again the very moment the music ends on this song. But I have a lot more questions:
Why is the visual staging of this solo number so unutterably 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 earth wasn’t this number designed to be a shared song between Belle, young Scrooge, and older Scrooge from the get-go? We can still culminate with Belle and Present Scrooge harmonizing — that’s perfect and I have no notes.
If I had to do the scene with this song, I think the best fix would be to simply slim it to its essence. Belle spells out the entirety of the character development here in the first verse and chorus. The second verse is about… how she feels adventure calling her away from a perfect life and worries she may regret it? But then she leaves anyway! It does not jibe. Cut straight from the end of the first chorus to her and Present Scrooge on the bridge and the outro. Short, sweet, it communicates all we need to know, it introduces the musical motif for callback later, and it makes the best of a clumsy situation.
Tasha: I’ll go to bat for not letting Belle start off by singing with young Scrooge — consciously, I know it’s the same character, but watching Belle and this random young’un interact, it feels to me like we’re watching two characters we barely know and haven’t meaningfully connected with. And again, the scene isn’t really about Young Scrooge, it’s about the old guy looking on and remembering this moment he’s suppressed in the process of convincing himself that he likes his solitary, bitter, efficient life. Young Scrooge isn’t feeling anything major in this moment, and that’s 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 isn’t willing 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 — the past and present in conversation in a wholly new way — is most of what’s beautiful about this scene for me. The specter of an old man realizing 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 fakey and plastic as the set is here, Michael Caine stepping into this moment and adding his voice really brings it all across.
Susana: I’d honestly never really thought about 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 a hot chocolate refill, so I’m really enjoying this alternative perspective.
Maybe the other half of this situation is just that Muppets musicians have historically struggled to fit the genre-mandatory earnest romance song into a Muppet movie. The examples range from the forgettable (“He’ll Make Me Happy,” The Muppets Take Manhattan) to the cloyingly 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 Happens,” The Great Muppet Caper). I think the nicest romance song in a Muppet movie might be “Couldn’t We Ride” from The Great Muppet Caper, and it’s really just a little ditty about how nice it is to ride a bike with your sweetie in the park, as well as a complicated feat of puppeteering pulled off with sublime ease.
Tasha: Yeah, I’m sure not going to try to fight you on Muppet love songs in general. I’m entirely on board with the take that the Muppets are at their best when they’re wholly sincere, and my favorite Muppets songs tend to be the kind of achy melancholy songs 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. Muppets can love rainbows, art, nonsense, their own wistful 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 that 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 character points for the movie. It’s no love song for the ages. But in the ways it does work, it probably works best because it sets the Muppets aside for a moment and appeals directly to the audience’s humanity.