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EMMET OTTER'S JUG-BAND CHRISTMAS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Jim Henson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Bonus Trailers
Length:  50 Minutes
Release Date:  November 6, 2001

“Our world says welcome, stranger, everybody’s a friend…

Favorite stories don’t end in our world.”

Film ****

There’s the Grinch, there’s Charlie Brown, there’s Rudolph…but one prominent Christmas tradition growing up in my family’s household was Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.  This made-for-television special by Jim Henson, featuring a variety of new Muppet characters (and Kermit the Frog introducing), is a sweet natured, fun family program, with arguably Paul Williams’ best collection of songs since The Muppet Movie.  It’s gift-of-the-magi plot centers around a mother and a son who, out of love for one another, throw caution to the wind and chase after their dreams.

Ma and Emmet Otter are poor but good folks who live in Frogtown Hollow.  Emmet’s Pa died some years earlier, and since then, he and his Ma have been doing what it takes to make ends meet, with Ma doing laundry and baking and Emmet doing odd jobs around the neighborhood.  They are poor in cash, but not in spirit.

Christmas presents, of course, don’t exist in their household…they simply can’t afford them.  But with the holiday only a few days away, an in-town talent contest with a cash prize of $50 gets both of them thinking.  Ma really wants to buy Emmet a guitar he’s been wishing for…but in order to enter the contest, she’ll have to hock the tool chest that belonged to Pa, which Emmet now uses for his odd jobs.  At the same time, Emmet’s friends suggest forming a jug-band for the competition, with Emmet playing washtub bass.  The catch?  He’ll have to put a hole in his Ma’s beloved washtub.

This charming story is peppered by musical numbers that range from simply fun to hauntingly beautiful.  When Emmet and his band first kicks into “Barbecue”, it’s a lively moment that usually saw me rewinding the tape at least once when I was a kid to view again (thank goodness DVD makes that so much easier!).  And songs like “When the River Meets the Sea” and “Our World” are pretty and moving.  A combo of songs near the end proves Paul Williams’ genius once and for all…there are plenty of ditties in this show that you’ll be singing afterward.

I’ve had a VHS copy of this program taped off of HBO for about twenty years now, and while I’m quite thrilled to finally have it on disc, I’m a little puzzled…there are a few distinct differences between this version and the one that originally aired on TV.  Even though the box proclaims the story is narrated by Kermit, the fact is, all of his narration is gone save for his introduction…even his wrap-up appearance at a restaurant near the end has been edited out!  A couple of pieces of dialogue are now gone, as when Ma tells Gretchen Fox “I’d appreciate it if you’d….fall off the dock…” or the introduction to “No Hole in the Washtub” (“That’s what you call one of those keeping warm while rowing home kind of songs!”  “I’m rowing, where’s the singing?”).  On the other hand, a couple of scenes I’d never seen before are included, including a couple of extra talent show numbers.  If you haven’t seen the show in years, you probably won’t notice a thing.  If you’ve seen it every year since it first came out, these changes will call attention to themselves.

Overall, I don’t think the differences either hurt or help the overall presentation…they just puzzle me.  But still, the magic of this wonderful production shines through at every moment.  Jim Henson created a wonderful world for these characters, including many touches that some artists might have considered throwaway, like birds flying across the screen, or a night time shot where you can see an owl in a tree blinking its eyes.  It was little things like those that always made Henson’s creations seem so believable, and why your brain tends to forget that you’re only watching puppets.  Look at the scene where Emmet finally resolves to put a hole in the washtub, and you’ll swear you can see the moral anguish on his face as he does it…that was Jim Henson’s gift.

I’ve always lamented that Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas never seems to get mentioned in the same breath as Sesame Street, The Muppet Show or the Muppet movies as one of the late Henson’s most significant achievements.  I don’t think any Muppet fan could watch it and not consider it amongst his best work.  It’s a sweet, funny, musical offering that has many beautiful things to say about courage, love, and the spirit of giving.  The characters are warm, lovable and instantly memorable, as is the score of terrific songs.  One viewing of this under-appreciated classic special will make Emmet and his Ma permanent fixtures in your family’s holiday, as it has been for me for most of my life.

Video ***

For a television video program that’s a couple of decades old, this DVD presentation is quite satisfactory, with good color rendering and clean images throughout.  There are some nominal analog limitations, as is always the case when videotape is transferred to a digital source…lines aren’t always as sharp and crisp as you’d like, for example…but that’s the only real issue, and it’s certainly not the fault of the transfer.  Overall, it’s a pleasant and colorful offering that serves its material well.

Audio ***

I wasn’t expecting much from the new 5.1 soundtrack…after all, this was just an old television special…but I was wrong.  Although the rear stage isn’t accessed much (an effect here and there), what impressed me was the use of the .1 channel.  Right when the jug-band first kicks in, the bass and the jug light up the subwoofer and give the music a tremendous bottom end.  It was both amusing and appreciated.  Kudos to Columbia Tri Star for a daring new mix!

Features *1/2

There are five bonus trailers, for a couple of Muppet and other family related titles.

Summary:

If you’ve never seen Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, I humbly beg you to do so…now that it’s on DVD, it’s the perfect time for you to introduce this timeless story and these wonderful characters into your family’s holiday celebrations.