Sarah Hawkins Miduski On… Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

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It’s that time of year. Time to cut down the Christmas branch, take a trip down Pa’s slide, and grab a little bit of barbecue with Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.

A Person’s Got to Take Some Chances

I wish that I had the dreamy nostalgia of watching this holiday special as a child. My first viewing did not occur until adulthood. It came about through one of those early romantic relationship exchanges where one partner shows the other partner something beloved and prays the admiration will be mutual. Since that winter evening when Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas was pushed into the DVD player, I accepted the movie as my own.

This Jim Henson production is based on a book by Russell Hoban, which in turn is more or less based on The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.

Money is tight at the home of Alice Otter and her son Emmett. Ma does laundry, and implements some savvy bartering in order to make ends meet.  Emmet uses his deceased Pa’s tool chest to earn money as a handyman.

Christmas is coming, but there is no money for gifts, that is until word spreads that a nearby town, Waterville, is having a talent contest. The winner will receive $50.00. Alice Otter dreams of buying Emmet the guitar he has had his eye on, while Emmet dreams of getting Ma a piano. The problem, Alice has no money for a proper stage dress, while Emmet, who has joined a jug band, needs a washtub to make a washtub bass.  Remembering what Pa always said about taking chances, Alice secretly hocks Emmet’s tool chest to buy dress fabric.

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Meanwhile, Emmet pilfers Ma’s washtub, one of her means of income, and puts a hole in it to make his washtub bass.

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Get a Pretty Girl Dancing to Jug Band Music

The music is the best part of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. The songs were written by famous songwriter Paul Williams.  Williams composed The Rainbow Connection, as well as songs for other Muppet films including The Muppet Christmas Carol (I’ll give him a pass for “When Love is Gone”).

I appreciate that the music isn’t dumbed down for the kids. No songs about the North Pole or anthropomorphic snowmen. The music wraps the movie in time and place. I always have to remind myself that the songs were composed specifically for the film as many of them truly feel like old songs passed down from generation to generation. Songs sung by grandmothers on cold winter nights in front of the fire.

I’m surprised that a barbecue restaurant hasn’t adopted the Barbecue song as an advertisement. I always crave ribs after watching Emmet Otter.

Of course there is also The Nightmare’s rocking number that includes one of my favorite lyrics ever,

“We don’t brush our teeth cuz our toothache can help us stay mean.” Though not as soulful as the rest of the music, it is a great tune.

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That Little Something Extra

Everyone has their favorite talent act that isn’t one of the main three.  Some enjoy Carrots the Horse. I know a lot of flying squirrel fans, but I’m partial to Melissa and George Rabbit’s fancy foot work.

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No one likes Yancy Woodchuck.

Emmet’s band is fantastic, despite a last minute song change, and Ma’s song is lovely. Either Otter could win the $50.00.  The story could end here with a cliché tie between mother and son, but it goes in an unexpected direction.  The contest is actually won by a last minute entry, The Nightmare, a rock band composed of obnoxious hoodlums.  Not only do Alice and Emmet lose, now Emmet has no tool chest, and Ma has no washtub. They are now even poorer than they were at the start.

The first time I watched this I started to pick up my mug of hot chocolate to throw at the television. How could fate deliver such a blow to such hard working, cute, lovable otters? How could Henson make such a depressing holiday film?

Of course just as I lifted my mug, Ma has the great idea to combine her song with the jug band’s song. They create a doubly beautiful tune that they just happen to sing in front of Doc Bullfrog’s Riverside Rest.

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Doc Bullfrog is so impressed, he offers the whole lot a nightly gig signing at his restaurant; a happy ending to melt the chilliest of hearts. Meals are even included, and just like porcupine band member Wendell, I might be persuaded to sing for mashed potatoes.

Conclusion

I’ve never watched Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas with a child, so I’m not sure how it holds up with the kids, but I find it absolutely charming, even though sometimes you can see the strings or hand wands, even though Emmet cannot hit a nail to save his life.  It hearkens back to an innocent time.

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Not just the time depicted in the movie with good old fashion fun like sliding down a frozen slide or singing songs together, but also the time of my own childhood; a time when I actually believed that Henson’s creatures were real. A time when it seemed that even if all was lost, good fortune was just around the corner. Okay, I might still believe in that one.

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