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Yeah, I know. More friggin' Muppets.
Look, I told you all many years ago that I love the Muppets, and there ain't a goddamn thing you can do about it. And my love for Muppets goes far beyond the Kermits and Fozzies and Piggys that appeared on The Muppet Show. I loved Fraggle Rock, was a devout Sesame Street follower, and every single Christmas growing up, I wasn't content until I'd seen the HBO special Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas.
Last year, when I was counting down the Retarded Christmas Top Ten, I mentioned a few items that missed the mark. One of these was the special I'm reviewing here. I mentioned that the only reason that it was omitted was due to the fact that ti wasn't a feature film. But at a mere 48 minutes, Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas is still one of the best things to ever be filmed relating to the yuletide season.
And surprisingly enough, it's still pretty obscure. It seems particularly unusual to me to encounter people who have never seen the special, but it's almost unthinkable that a lot of people have never even heard of the thing. I guess that I was a bit spoiled, considering that my parents subscribed to HBO back in the day, and non-HBOers probably missed it altogether. But since we've evolved into the technologically convenient 21st century, Emmett Otter's exploits are now readily available on DVD at a very low price. Of course, you could also save that money and just read along here, as I recount the major happenings of this fine piece of puppeteering.
To ease us in to the world of Emmett Otter, Kermit the Frog begins with the opening narration. And just because they know how to do it, the Henson gang repeats the remarkable feat they accomplished in THE MUPPET MOVIE by showing Kermit riding a bicycle. The fact that Kermit looks more natural riding a bike than I do still scares the hell out of me, and either says wonders for their abilities as puppeteers or mine as a bike rider. I'm not positive which, but I'm thinking a little of both while leaning toward the former. Anyway, as Kermit introduces us to this wintry backdrop, we meet the Riverbottom Gang. They're led by a big angry bear named Chuck, travel around in an old backfiring jalopy, and include a rattlesnake, a lizard, a fish, and a weasel. They're kind of like an equal opportunity Muppet equivalent of the Hell's Angels. I wonder what kind of blackmail the fish has on the bear to keep him from becoming lunch, especially since Chuck is often hungry. And just to show you just how devious this gang of miscreants is, they steal Kermit's scarf.
Next, we meet Emmett and Ma Otter. And if it weren't enough that they had to go off and show off Kermit bicycling, they go and top themself by showing the Otter family rowing a boat. In real water. These are puppets, this is before Computer Generated images, and they are rowing a boat in real water. It still blows me away. Emmett and his Ma live modestly, having lost Emmett's father some time ago, but they have good hearts and make the best out of life. They sing some songs and deliver some laundry to the neighbors along the river for money, working their way into the town of Waterville to run some errands. While in town, Emmett gets a glimpse of a lovely guitar he'd like to get for Christmas that year (that costs forty whole dollars!) and they witness those Riverbottom hoodlums trashing the music shop and playing the devil's music: Rock and Roll.
As an aside, I think the best part about watching this special in my adult days is noticing the voices that I didn't notice as a kid. Chuck the Bear, who's supposed to sound all gruff and intimidating, really sounds just like Fozzie. Emmett Otter is Robin the Frog with fur and beady eyes. Wendell the porcupine is a smaller and pricklier version of Beauregard. It's so much easier to pick out the main voices when you're not eight years old.
Pretty soon, Winter has turned the river into a sheet of ice and the ground is covered in snow. Emmett runs off to do some odd jobs with Wendell, while Ma gets a visit from her friend Heddy Muskrat. While doing their things, both Otters get a tip about an upcoming talent contest in Waterville with a fifty dollar prize. As we've seen already, these Otters love them some singin', and they'd both love to have the prize so they can afford a nice present for their loved one. Ma realizes that in order to afford a nice costume for the contest, though, she'd have to hock Emmett's toolchest, his primary means of income. Emmett realizes that in order to participate in the event, he'd have to put a hole in Ma's washtub, her primary source of income. Both of them have quite a dilemma, and ultimately, they both decide to enter the contest, each unbeknownst to the other.
Emmett and his buddies Wendell, Charlie, and Harvey put together a haphazard little jugband that could have claimed the name Super Furry Animals before some indie band stole the name in recent years. As they wrap up their jam session, they again run in to those hooligans from Riverbottom, who have traded in their jalopy for a set of snowmobiles. The Riverbottom boys taunt the good-natured band of mammals as they prepare to make their way to the big talent show. But just moments into the contest, a banjo-playing redneck woodchuck plays "Barbecue", the song that the jugband has been rehearsing, so Emmett and the gang have to learn a new one at the zero hour. Dumbasses shoulda had a backup song anyway.
Emmett is shocked to find out that Ma has entered the contest, as she sings a lovely little song to the audience, and practically concedes victory to her then and there. But they go through with their new song, "Brothers". Ma compliments her boy and his buddies, who seem like a lock to win at this point. But at the last minute, a final entry is added to the contest: Those nasty boys from Riverbottom! They have a band they call "The Nightmare", and play a hard-rocking ditty that serves as an autobiography of the band. The crowd eats it up, and in a shocking turn of events, the Nightmare winds up winning the contest in a landslide. Emmett's jugband and Ma are predictably disappointed. On their walk home, Ma and the jugband decide to combine their forces, and put together a medley of the two songs they performed in the talent contest. They manage to attract a crowd, and Doc Bullfrog invites the gang to play at a local restaurant for regular pay. So it all works out for everyone even better than any of them expected.
The songs in Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas are fun and catchy, and they don't get played ad infinitum. They also work themselves into the story in a way that they don't seem forced at all. The whole thing is a message of sacrifice and taking chances and it's a real heartwarmer for kids and adults alike. There, I said it. I still well up a little when the reprise of "The River Meets the Sea" is performed by Ma and Emmett's jugband over the closing credits.
For these reasons, Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas is about as good as it gets when it comes to Christmas Specials, and it's the type of masterwork that we'll likely never see again. Thankfully, Jim Henson left behind this as well as many other timeless treasures. Like I said, if this were a feature film, It'd be hard to keep it far from the top spot on my top ten. I guess it gets a slot all its own. In the world of Television Christmas specials, this tops any list that's worth a damn.
As a wee lad, it used to upset me that the Nightmare won the talent contest. I really wanted Emmett and his Ma to overcome the odds and pull out the victory. Looking back, I can honestly say that the Nightmare totally kicked their asses and deserved the award. It's kind of like how when you listen to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and realize that in actuality, Satan totally kicked little Johnny's ass even though the song says he lost.
I mean, c'mon...dude had a band of demons!
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