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We Still Love: ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 23, 2011

A few years ago, I got my picture taken with the original Ma and Emmet Otter puppets from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. For me, this was roughly equivalent to being a screaming teenage girl in 1967 who got her forehead signed by John Lennon. For as long as I’ve been able to talk, you see, I have loved those little otters with all my holiday heart.

In case you don’t know it, Emmet Otter is a 1977 television special created by Jim Henson and based on the children’s book by Russell and Lillian Hoban. (And for your viewing pleasure, it’s even available on both Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime, if you have either of those options. If you’re going to watch it, do it before you read the rest, because spoilers abound — spoilers from 1977.) It’s set in Frogtown Hollow, a sleepy rural community where poor critters like Ma and her son Emmet make ends meet by washing clothes and doing odd jobs. They’re happy, even if they don’t have much, but darn it, they still wish they could afford nice Christmas gifts this year: Emmet really wants a used guitar, and Ma would love to get her piano out of hock. To scare up Christmas cash, they both decide to perform in the local talent show, but in a “Gift of the Magi” twist, Ma sells Emmet’s tools to buy fabric for a “talent-show appropriate” dress and Emmet punctures Ma’s washtub so he can turn it into an upright bass for his jug band.

This story is charming on its own — especially because of a conclusion that I’ll get to later — but the special magic of this film is apparent long before the plot kicks in.

For one thing, Emmet and Ma Otter are ridiculously cute, and the voice acting by Jerry Nelson and Marilyn Sokol makes them seem like the sweetest otters in the world. Plus, there’s an awkwardness to the puppetry that’s incredibly endearing. You can occasionally see the strings being pulled, and when the Otters and their neighbors stroll down the street, their feet never actually touch the sidewalk. This homemade quality suits the backwoods vibe of Frogtown Hollow, but more importantly, it reminds us that real people made this thing. It’s easy to imagine them hunched under tabletops and crouched behind hand-painted sets, loving the creatures they’re bringing to life.

Joy also shines in Paul Williams’ original songs, which are some seriously toe-tappin’ bluegrass hits. Take a listen to “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” and you’ll probably be singing along by the second chorus:

Dramatically speaking, I’d say the most important song in the show is “River Bottom Nightmare Band,” the theme for the heavy metal outfit that blows into town and wins the talent show, taking the money and leaving the Otters high and dry. This song is objectively awesome, and I think we can agree that the baddest rebel in history is the fish whose entire function in the band is to spit water at the crowd. But it’s also important because it reveals that the band is a group of naive little kids. “We don’t brush our teeth,” they sing, “‘cuz our toothache can help us stay mean.” It speaks to the story’s generous heart that poor dental hygiene is the apex of rebellion.

And that sweetness is ultimately what makes me love this movie so much. I’m really touched by how approachable the villains are. I’m touched that after they lose the prize money, neither Emmet nor Ma seems that upset. Instead, they just start singing with the rest of Emmet’s jug band on the street, happy to be together.

More than anything, I’m touched by the final moments, when a kindly bullfrog hires Ma, Emmet, and the jug band to perform every week at his restaurant. Because they come together after their loss instead of stalking away in anger, they get a steady job, a chance to make music all the time, and limitless access to the restaurant’s mashed potatoes. (This last bit is a sticking point for Emmet’s friend, a pudgy porcupine.)

For me, this is a perfect vision of what Christmas means: A community uniting itself in kindness. A sharing of bounty. A reflection on joy and love and family. All capped with great songs.

Various issues, including the sale of the Muppets to the Disney corporation, have kept Emmet off TV for many years, and even the DVD release doesn’t have the original introduction from Kermit the Frog. Because of that, it’s possible this little film will struggle to reach new generations of fans. But I’ll keep watching it every year… possibly while enjoying a mess of mama’s barbecue.

[Ed. Note: I feel it's only fair to Mark to note that he submitted this piece prior to the publication of Noel Murray's charming remembrance of Emmet Otter yesterday at the A.V. Club. The similarities in some of their sources of fondness — particularly the handmade nature of the special — are striking, but entirely coincidental. — Linda Holmes] [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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