The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of those films whose repeated childhood viewings left it burned into my cerebral cortex, buried as deep as instinct but still never far from the surface. Released in theaters when I was 10 years old, it’s a decent family musical and entertaining retelling of the Dickens story with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge and the standard Muppet gang filling out the supporting roles, though new puppets were created to play the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. It’s a family mainstay and holiday staple: My parents and sister each own the film and soundtrack. My sister gathers us around to watch it annually. My father cries at least three times during the film.
Anyway: Repeated home video viewings as a child cemented the film and its songs in my brain, but it turns out that one song originally cut from the theatrical release — “When Love Is Gone” — was put back for VHS and TV. I saw the film so many times on tape that that’s what feels to me to be the “official” version, even though the anniversary DVD again deletes the song. (Weirdly, only the widescreen version skips the tune. The full-frame version, though clearly aesthetically not what was shot or planned, keeps the song.) I didn’t even know any of this until watching the DVD recently and wondering where the hell the missing song had gone. It’s not just that cutting the number makes the film a little too short: It wrecks the pacing, screws with the finale, and completely undermines the protagonist’s emotional journey.
The song comes at the end of Scrooge’s visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a doll-like figure that’s taken him back in time to relive the psychic trauma of his childhood failures as a means of breaking him down to the point where he can begin to rebuild himself into a more giving and less generally douchey old man. The elder Scrooge has already had to watch his boyhood self suffer winter after winter with no friends and extra homework, then had to stand there as the twentysomething Scrooge meets what will apparently be the only love of his life, Belle (Meredith Braun). Scrooge knows where all this is heading, and he begs the spirit not to show him his final Christmas with Belle, the one where everything ended. But he has no choice in the matter: Soon enough he’s standing in the snow, watching his young self walk away from a chance at happiness.
In the edited version of the film, that’s all the happens: Scrooge watches a pretty brief breakup and is transported back to his home, where he’s soon visited by the next ghost, etc., etc. But without Belle’s song — which eventually turns into a duet with the elder Scrooge — the scene lacks the emotional power that would be needed to adequately move Scrooge from a place of sorrow to the kind of genuine regret that inspires change. The key to the film, and to Scrooge’s willingness to reconsider his life, is the sadness he begins to feel when forced to physically relive the worst day of his younger life, expressed in song. The young Scrooge doesn’t respond to the song, and even walks away halfway through, leaving just Belle and the older man. Her song to him is a bittersweet one about what it means to be completely in love and know you have to walk away from it; she laments repeatedly that “the love is gone,” and says, “Yes, some dreams come true … and now the time has come for us to say goodbye.” And she walks away. The scene is thoroughly moving, and exactly what needs to happen. There’s no way to get to the root of what began to plague Scrooge, and the resurrected pain that might possibly force him to become better, without including that song in the film. It’s absence moves the plot too quickly along. What’s more, cutting it gets rid of most of the emotional risk for Scrooge, without which it’s harder for him to legitimately come to care about others.
Additionally, the finale reprises the song as “When Love Is Found,” during which Scrooge and everyone just hug and sing and have a pretty happy little Christmas morning, but that juxtaposition makes no sense at all if the earlier song is killed, not to mention that the sudden melodic shift into the reprise doesn’t register unless someone has seen the earlier song. Killing the breakup song throws the rest of the film off kilter. Basically, we need to see this guy get dumped. Without that, it just doesn’t work.