Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

Premiered 1977.

Emmet Otter (Jerry Nelson) and his mother Alice (Marilyn Sokol) live on the river in the town of Frogtown Hollow.  They are very poor and rely on odd jobs and doing other people's laundry to get by.  Emmet uses his late father's tools to make repairs, while  Alice sells baked goods and does laundry in her washtub.  But they love each other and love to sing. 

Emmet & Alice sing "The One Bathing Suit."
When Emmet and Alice go shopping in Waterville, they pass a music shop.  Emmet spots a guitar in the window and tells his mother that he wants it for Christmas.  It costs $40, more than Alice has to her name.

The otters observe a group of toughs known as the Riverbottom Gang.  They're led by a bear named Chuck (Frank Oz) and they wreck havoc in the music shop.

The Riverbottom Gang, led by Chuck the Bear.
Emmet's friend Wendell Porcupine (Dave Goelz) tells Emmet of a talent show that will be held on Christmas Eve.  Wendell says Emmet is a good singer and that the winner gets $50.00 in prize money.  Their friends Harvey Beaver (Jim Henson) and Charlie Muskrat (Richard Hunt) suggest that the four of them form a jug-band and ask Emmet to play washtub bass.  Emmet isn't sure about that, because it would require him to put a hole in his mother's washtub, thereby ruining her laundry business.

Charlie, Harvey, Emmet & Wendell talk about forming a jug-band
At the same time, Alice is considering entering the contest.  She'll need a nice outfit to wear onstage and is forced to hock Emmet's tools to pay for it.  Unbeknownst to her, Emmet has put a hole in her washtub so he can join the band.  This means both of their livelihoods have been endangered.

Alice Otter discusses the upcoming talent show with her friend Hetty Muskrat (Eren Ozker).
The competition begins and Emmet's band mates are optimistic.  The other contestants aren't very talented and Harvey is confident that their band will win easily.

"Carrots, the Dancing Horse," one of less successful acts in the talent show.
But they're surprised when they see Alice singing on stage.  It gets worse when another contestant sings the song they were planning to perform.  They hurriedly rehearse a new song for the show.

Alice sings "Our World" at the talent contest.

The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug-Band performs "Brothers."

The talent show seems to be over, but a last-second entry arrives--the Riverbottom Gang, performing as a rock band called The Nightmare.

Riverbottom Nightmare Band!

Will Emmet's band or Alice win the contest?  How will they survive without their washtub and tool chest?

J.A. Morris says:
It's very difficult to be objective about Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.  I first saw it when aired on ABC in 1980 and I've been a big fan ever since.

The band rehearses the song "Barbecue."
The songs are all very catchy and Emmet and Alice are very sweet and sympathetic.  It stands with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas as something I must watch every holiday season.

Emmet brings home the "Christmas Branch."
It's basically a retelling of O. Henry's "The Gift Of The Magi", with washtub and tools standing in for watch and hair.  But unlike that story, Emmet and his mother sell the things that help them make ends meet.

Emmet uses his tool chest to rebuild a fence.
I want to give some kudos to the two leads in this special.  Jerry Nelson gives Emmet an innate sweetness and gives the title otter an endearing speaking and singing voice.

Nelson also performs Stanley Weasel, villainous guitarist for the Nightmare band, who is as nasty as Emmet is nice. It's a tribute to Nelson that it took me years of viewing before I noticed both characters were voiced by the same person.

Marilyn Sokol is also great as the voice of Emmet's mother Alice.

Her lovely singing voice on "Where The River Meets The Sea" and "Our World" has brought tears to my eyes on just about every viewing of this special.  Sokol is a highly accomplished Broadway and TV veteran and has won an Emmy and an Obie award for her work in other shows.

J.A. Morris meets Emmet & his mother at the Smithsonian.
While the Riverbottom Gang are decidedly bad animals, it's to the credit of writer Jerry Juhl that they are funny characters.  Their song at the end of the talent show is a very good rock n roll song.  You'll find yourself tapping your foot and headbanging even you don't really want them to win.

Chuck on stage.
This special is available on DVD and can be streamed on Amazon and iTunes.  The special in its current form is different from the original version in several respects (my co-blogger goes into more detail in her review below).  You can read more about the various edits at the Muppet Wiki.

Alice meets Harrison Fox (Henson), Mayor of Waterville and MC of the talent show.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is one of the greatest productions Henson and his troupe of Muppeteers ever made and is highly recommended.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says:

I also find it impossible to be objective about this special.   Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is one of my all-time favorite holiday programs.   I love it for many reasons - the wonderful puppeteering (which allowed the Henson workshop to practice and develop techniques they would go on to utilize in various feature length Muppet movies),  the beautifully designed naturalistic sets, and the sweet story, for starters.  

The Waterville Town Hall all ready for the Christmas Eve talent contest
This special is based on a (now long out of print) picture book of the same title by Russell and Lillian Hoban. My family had a copy of the book and I have fond memories of my parents reading it to me when I was small.   I was excited when I learned of the Muppets adaptation, which I think I first saw on HBO in the early 1980s.

Here's the cover of the original book  (I still have my battered and be-stickered copy). 
Henson and company do a great job of adapting the Hobans' story and illustrations.   The additions of giving the River Bottom Gang/Band more things to do as well as more personality and dialogue is welcome.

The Riverbottom Nightmare Band wails out their number during the contest.
Also, Kermit the Frog makes an excellent host in the original version of the special.  He both introduces and wraps up the action, tying things together nicely.

Kermit gets harassed by the Riverbottom Gang at the beginning of the original version of the special.
Sadly,  Kermit is not currently allowed to appear in present releases of the special on DVD, due to copyright issues.   (Dear Disney and Henson folks,  please can we get it together enough to make this happen sometime in the not too distant future?)

Kermit would like to be restored to the home video releases of the special, please!
Music is very important in a story that centers on a talent contest and Paul Williams' music and words are spot on.   They are fun, clever and folksy without being twee and the Riverbottom Nightmare Band's self-titled song is an amusing mash-up of 1970s glam rock awesome.

Harvey Beaver plays washboard and kazoo!
The musical highlight of the program for me is "When The River Meets The Sea" a sweet and tender gospel-tinged ballad that is sung twice during the course of the show.     I suspect that Jim Henson rather liked this song as well as it appears on the John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together album, which was released in 1979.    It was also performed by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold during Henson's memorial service in 1990.

Goofy dancing rabbits in the talent show.
Although this special makes no mention whatsoever of either Jesus or Santa Claus,  it has a generous spirit and heart that melds perfectly with the Christmas season.   Emmet and Alice Otter's sacrifices wind up paying off in unexpected and heartwarming ways.

Sadly,  when I mention Emmet Otter to most people, they stare at me blankly. That is a shame since this special is utterly charming and deserves to be much better known, with or without the inclusion of Kermit.

RigbyMel has a moment with Emmet and Alice Otter in a special exhibit at the Smithsonian during 2006. 
If you love Christmas and the Muppets, you owe it to yourself to watch Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and get the songs thoroughly stuck in your head!

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes!!!!


Vickie said...

YAY!!!! Great review--and what a fabulous film!! =)

RigbyMel said...

Thanks, Vickie! :-)

I want to make sure that more people know about Emmet and his friends. This special is truly special and exceptional in many ways!!