Retro Review Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
While A Muppet Christmas Carol may be Jim Henson’s most well known holiday special, it wasn’t his only foray into the genre. Way back in the 1977 Henson produced a television holiday special featuring an adorable otter and his attempt to win enough money in a talent contest to buy his widowed mother a Christmas present. It was an adaptation of a children’s book and featured an all puppet cast (and while many of the voices are familiar, there are no actual Muppets in this film.) While the quality of the visuals has not aged well, the story is still as memorable as when I saw it as a child, and the musical elements really shine through.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Emmet Otter is a hard scrabble child in a cheerful but chronically poor community of Frogtown Hollow. Emmet performs odd jobs using a set of tools left to him by his deceased father, and his mother cobbles together a sparse living by doing laundry for her neighbors and mending clothes. While both characters habitually refer to Mr. Otter as a dreamer and snake-oil salesman, they both remember him fondly as a caring father and struggling musician who turned to shady schemes in order to provide for his family. His musical legacy still remains, as Mrs. Otter is a powerful singer and Emmet longs to play a proper guitar instead of the home-made instruments common to the poor folk of Frogtown Hollow. When a talent show is announced with a hundred dollar prize, both Ma and Emmet decide to compete, hoping that they can use the money to buy each other a decent present this Christmas.
Down Home Comfort
Part of the charm of this film is the unvarnished look at a struggling town and the people within it. The story opens with Ma and Emmet rowing down the river that connects all of the homes while delivering laundry and attempting to take payments for the various odd jobs each has completed. Each stop shows us a neighborly community where everyone is on a first name basis and welcoming, but nobody has any money. With a string of hard-luck stories, each resident is unable to pay their debt, but they are quick to offer food or trade in place of money. Everyone is just getting by, but there’s no cash anywhere to be found. Despite this, the story doesn’t paint a picture of desperate people or of discontent, just normal folks making the best of a bad situation. Poverty is the backdrop of the movie, but Henson doesn’t beat the audience over the head with a social message. The characters all come away as real people, despite all being animals obviously held up by strings.
Time Worn Visuals
The quality of the production is about on par with an episode of The Muppet Show. This is no Labyrinth…though that film had some janky elements as well! The puppets are cute and well constructed, especially Emmet and his friends, but there isn’t a lot of polish to the presentation. When the characters are out walking, they’re stiff and stilted, and when they play their instruments their hands often end up behind the strings they’re supposed to be plucking. The best visuals are actually of the story’s villains, The Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a group of rock’n’roll loving ruffians from the next town. They cruise around in a smoke belching hot-rod and show up to the talent show with a psychedelic southern rock outfit complete with strobe lights and fog machines. Watching a swamp viper play electric guitar while an evil catfish spits water at the audience is one of the funniest moments of the whole film.
Heart and Soul
The musical element of Emmet Otter is fantastic. The spiritual-inspired songs Ma Otter sings while working blend nicely with the banjo plucking folk music Emmet and his friends play, and even the LSD laden heavy riffs of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band’s performance feel at home and satisfying in the context of the story.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is heartwarming and folksy without being sentimental. The abject poverty of the town isn’t played for sympathy. The hard knocks of life are just represented as how the real world actually works. Emmet’s Pa was not a tragic hero who left his family with a grand legacy, and his death obviously set the family back financially, but it’s not painted up to be a big tragedy…it’s just one of the cards life can deal you and you still have to play your hand. Both Emmet and Ma Otter have to sell something dear to them in order to enter the contest, but when they reveal this secret to each other, they both just laugh about it. The ending itself avoids the cloying Hallmark style holiday wrap-up. There’s no magical resolution where a tree laden with gifts appears, Pa doesn’t suddenly come back, and nobody gets a puppy. Emmet and Ma learn how far each is willing to go to show their love, and that ends up being present enough for both of them.