Sunday, December 16, 2012

Take It Out or Leave It In: Questions of the Muppet Christmas Carol

Back way back (or maybe way back way back--when the blog shifted from a course assignment to whatever it is now) I did a post on my favorite X-Mas specials.  And at the top of the non-ranked list, is Muppet Christmas Carol.  I watched it again with friends last night, and it still stands up.  The comedy and adventure is a little less than Muppet Treasure Island, but the story is much stronger.  It's a hard one for a Muppet adaptation, because the plot really doesn't leave much for them to do; Kermit as Bob Cratchett is an obvious one, but the rest of the cast, from Fozzie to Miss Piggy, don't come so naturally.  But they did it, and it works.  Frankly, I think the sets for their dilapidated 19th century England hold up a lot better than that other Victorian musical movie, Sweeney Todd

One of the things I notice--and I notice this every time--is that they cut out the song "When Love is Gone."  And that led to a debate with my friends whether the song ever existed to begin with.  Some of us (including me) remember it being there, and some of us do not. A bit of Wikipedia research revealed the mystery: studio execs had cut it out of the first theatrical release of the film, over Brian Henson's protests.  It got reinserted into the 2002 video release, and taken out again in the 2005.  What clip could possibly inspire such controversy? 
See for yourself:

(Technically, this is the song, plus some extra bits before it; the extra bits provide some context.) Now, the really surprising thing, once I did some digging, was that I found that this wasn't the only song that failed to make the theatrical version. There were two more that were written, sang, but never filmed. We're going to look at both of theme quickly too. Beeker and Bunson, in "Room in Your Heart." Well, this one being cut is no mystery. It's... not very good. It's no "Feels Like Christmas," or "God Bless Us All," and it's sure as heck no "Marley and Marley." At under two minutes, it still manages to feel too long. Plus, the character mapping didn't work very well; Bunson's not really known for his love and caring. It's just a little too preachy, in a movie where the "good model" characters tend to show more by example than telling. Sam the Eagle, in "Chairman of the Board." This one's slightly better. It fails more in terms of plot, in that it muddies the waters a bit too much for a children's flick. Sam's gung ho capitalist, patriotic spirit was often used in the show to poke a bit of fun at a certain type of American overblown self-importance. In the film, then, he demonstrates overblown faith in capitalism and the education system. That's pretty heavy stuff, given the audience and goal of the film, which is more an individual story than a systematic critique. And that brings us to "When Love is Gone." Like "Room in Your Heart," it's edging more towards preaching than most of the film, as Scrooge basically gets sang at for a few minutes. Like "Chairman of the Board," it's getting into issues beyond the purview of little felt puppets--romantic love doesn't really fit with the themes of the film. And, more importantly, it falls into the big problem with the Christmas Carol story: there's nothing for Muppets to do here. I can see why execs looked at it, and decided that people would find it boring. But honestly, I think it's the big turn of the film--the narrative crux. It's the moment when Scrooge the Younger solidifies into the bitter man he'll become, and the moment when Scrooge the Older starts to remember what he gave up. Neither Cain nor the actress are great singers, but when present Scrooge starts singing a duet with his past love... that moment gets to me. It's the perfect counterpoint to the exchange at the beginning of the scene: "I love you, Belle." "...You did, once." You can convey so much through those words. I'll admit: I had a version of the Christmas Carol with "When Love is Gone" in it. And every time, I'd skip over that scene. But to know it's there, to know that the characters went through it... that's important, I think. One line to go out on: Ebenezer Scrooge: You're a little absent-minded, spirit. Ghost of Christmas Present: No, I'm a LARGE absent-minded spirit! BaDUM-bum. Later Days.

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