Disney makes digital changes to The Muppet Christmas Carol, with the version now streaming on Disney+ a slightly altered version of the film.

The study of Muppet anatomy is an extremely sophisticated field. Muppets appear to belong to a wide array of both species and genera, somehow all rolled into one super-class. There are some very tall specimens, some incredibly small specimens, some that seem mammalian, others that are proudly amphibian, and they come in all kinds of colours and textures. And then there are… well, apart from ‘weird’, nobody knows what they are. Some are even officially classified as ‘monsters’, reclaiming that title with all the pride of a Guillermo del Toro creation.

One recurring feature, however, is that many Muppets have rods. These are unusual, stiff and straight protrusions that you won’t see in any other creature on earth. These rods usually appear at the Muppet wrist and, like the rainbow, if they actually have another end, we’ve never seen it. It always seems to be curiously off camera.

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Attitudes to these rods have changed over the years. An enormous paradigm shift came in 1999 when digital FX were used to remove all traces of rods from the movie Muppets From Space. Hardly the definitive text on Muppet biology and anthropology to begin with, the censoring of these rods is just another way in which it denies Muppets’ all-round Muppeti-ness.

Much later, in 2011, I spoke to James Bobin, director of The Muppets about the absence of rods in his film. He said:

The rods have been removed as a policy, as far as I’m aware, since 2000 or so. They were in the TV show, they were in early movies and then removed later on, and then the later movies didn’t have them at all, I don’t think.

To me, I came to it thinking I’d love to see the rods, because I love puppetry, I love the art of it, and the film’s going to be quite lo-fi. But then, when you watch it and they make very large gestures and you see gigantic rods, it’s quite distracting. Even though I wanted the film to be very organic, the rods felt a step too far in the way.

This policy he mentions appears to be real. One of the victims of Studio Mandated Rod Deletion (SMRD) is now 1992’s much-loved The Muppet Christmas Carol. Originally released to cinemas and onto disc with the rods intact, the version now streaming on Disney+ has them digitially painted out.

At some expense, of course. The studio believes in this policy to the point that it burns money to uphold it.

I actually conducted the interview with Bobin quoted above on the very same day I first met Kermit the Frog on set. Now, because I met him in person, of course, there was absolutely no chance of the rods being digitally removed. I got to see Kermit in all his glory, controversial appendages and all. And did they distract me? They couldn’t possibly have been any less distracting.

Here’s the truth. Before I went along to meet Kermit, I was warned by my wife and several friends that I might be making a mistake. Did I really want to peek behind the curtain? Did I really want to see how sausage is made? The truth is, this meeting with a Muppet didn’t shatter his magic at all. If anything, it just magnified the enchantment massively.

I have talked and talked and talked about my encounters with Kermit over and over again. If you’d like to hear me wibble on about him on Radio 4, that’s still online, and there’s also an edition of the True Stories podcast in which I stand on stage and tell a live audience a couple of my Kermit stories. The upshot is, I suppose, that while I’ve seen Kermit’s rods – and Piggy’s rods, and Constantine’s rods, and Walter’s rods – they didn’t seem out of place, distracting or in any way distancing.

No more, really, than how the nose on your face will stop me seeing you, or reading your expression.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Does this mean I think rods should be left clearly visible in all future Muppet productions? No, not necessarily. It was Bobin’s choice to erase them during the original making of his  film, and he clearly had the cast on side – the Muppets came back and made another movie with him just a year or so later. But there’s a difference between making certain choices during post production and making them again post-release.

Disney+ has doctored a film that worked just perfectly for many years – I defy anybody to find a review of the film from the time of its original release that calls for rod removal FX. And just like, say, the digital graffiti painted on the original Star Wars trilogy, these edits remind us that big corporations can very easily make the films we know and love, at least in the precise way that we originally knew and loved them, go away.

In the words of Dave Goelz, close personal friend to Gonzo the Great:

The rod removal costs a lot of money. I have to confess, I never even notice whether they’re there or not.

There is hope of a full re-rodding for at least one of the movies, albeit only a tiny, faint glimmer. Next year is the 30th anniversary of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which seems like a very opportune marketing window for the newly-restored version of the film to roll out. Brian Henson saw the full cut of the film over a year ago now, complete with the long-dumped When Love is Gone number, so we know it’s more than ready for release.

But will it be a rod-filled or rod-free version of the film?

Perhaps sadly, I’m thinking Disney is going to stick to their rod-erasing ways. But maybe not. Maybe it’s going to play the ‘How it was originally intended’ angle to the max. Perhaps we’re about to see rods restored, and Bob Cratchit’s gloriously sticky anatomy will be returned to its lovely, roddy glory.

What would Jim Henson have made of digital rod removal? I can imagine he’d have been all for it, in fact, but I don’t know – and I don’t know if anybody does. In any case, even if these rod-lite re-edits would be Jim-approved reversions, I really do still feel weird about old films vanishing from circulation.

Can we not have both rod-positive and rod-negative versions of The Muppet Christmas Carol on Disney+, please? I’m sure they’ve got the server space for it.

 

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