It only makes sense, I suppose, that in the final week before we actually land squarely ON Christmas Day, that I get around to reviewing something that has “Christmas” in the title. It also makes perfect sense that I would take the time this week to talk about something that I’ve truly loved since I was a small child, with a love that grew even fonder because, for some time, I was convinced that I’d somehow imagined the whole thing. Turns out, when I was wee, I just happened to have access to just the right programming for me to have been able to catch this, and it’s definitely stuck with me to this day.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Now, depending on which version (yes, there are a few different versions of this special floating around out there) you’re talking about, either there’s an intro and outro performed by none other than Kermit the Frog, or it just jumps into the story. I’ve seen both versions, and, to be honest, Kermit is kind of superfluous here. Sure, he ties the story into the greater Muppet landscape, but that was also covered by plenty of these characters appearing in other Muppet vehicles. While it’s (almost) never a bad thing to see our green friend (the internet keeps wanting to prove me wrong), there are times where he just isn’t necessary, and this is clearly one of those.
The story opens with Emmet and Ma Otter, a couple of down-on-their-luck critters trying to scrounge by. Christmas is approaching, which makes their meager funds even thinner, and both Emmet and Ma really want to help each other out. Music is one of the keystones of their relationship, so Emmet concocts a plan to buy Ma a piano, through the help of the town talent contest. Ma, for her part, wants to get Emmet a guitar, using the same talent contest as the means to an end.
Yes, before you start to wonder, this tale does take the classic Gift of the Magi story as it’s base, but it twists it. Instead of simply making it so that the gift givers are sacrificing the thing that they personally have which would make the gift they’re about to receive have use, Emmet and Ma instead choose to sacrifice each other. Well, not each other, per se, but their ability to work. Ma does laundry for the townsfolk, and Emmet sets about doing small repairs. So, naturally, to prepare for the talent show, Emmet turns Ma’s washtub into a bass for his jug-band, and Ma sells Emmet’s tools to buy dress fabric.
The night of the talent show, Ma sings her song. Emmet and his jug-band also play, after a quick change of song after another entrant performed the one they were planning on. Both do very well, but, in the end, the “villains” of the piece (and I use villains loosely… they’re a rock band who are clearly supposed to be the bad kids from a neighboring town, but they don’t actively sabotage anyone, except by entering the contest), the River Bottom Nightmare Band, takes home the grand prize. Dejected, Ma, Emmet, and his friends start to wander home, each wondering if, in their short-sighted aim towards gifts out of their reach, they’ve potentially ruined more than just the holidays. During the wander home, they start to ponder the words of one of the judges, who had mentioned that each act was missing just a little “something”. Turns out that “something” was each other, as the two acts blend their songs into one cohesive whole. Singing while they head home, the newly-formed supergroup is overheard by Doc Bullfrog (who had given them the advice in the first place), and he proceeds to hire them as the entertainment for his restaurant, and a heartwarming finale.
With music from Paul Williams, appearances by Muppet stalwarts Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jim Henson, and more, the holiday special is one that has resonated with me for years. The music still gets stuck in my head starting somewhere around Halloween, and, thanks to the wonders of DVD releases, I’ve been able to enjoy watching this film year after year, once again. Not only is the story strong (which was adapted from Russel Hoban’s tale), but Henson and company also created new techniques for their craft, all for this film. It was groundbreaking in many ways, and holds up years later.
Plus, if you get an opportunity to check it out, take some time to watch the gag reel as well. There’s just something magical about Muppets tripping over their lines or watching the sets fall down around them,