When I was a kid, every time Christmas rolled around, I’d be glued to the tube watching Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on HBO. I bought the video a while back and I still try to make it a tradition to watch it every Christmas. And every Christmas I do watch it, I always feel like a kid again.
Emmet and his Ma are poor otters who live on the river. Emmet earns money by doing odd jobs and his Ma brings in the dough by washing clothes. All Emmet wants for Christmas is a guitar and Ma would be happy with a nice piano, but since they are both poorer than all get out, those are just pipe dreams. When it’s announced that the town will have a talent contest with the prize being $50, both Emmet and Ma enter to get their ottery hands on the prize money. Emmet is in a jug band and the only way that he can play “washtub bass” is by poking a hole in his mother’s washtub, a valued source of income in the Otter home. Likewise, Ma hocks Emmet’s tools so she can by a dress so she can perform at the concert. Both Otters sing at the show and do a pretty good job, but the contest is won by the single greatest rock group in the history of Christmas specials, The Nightmare. Even though Emmet and Ma didn’t win, Doc Bullfrog offers them a job singing at his restaurant so they can make money without the damn washtub.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, based on the children’s book by Lillian and Russell Hoban is Jim Henson’s best non-Muppet creation. While Kermit the Frog acts as the narrator, he has little impact on the story and the flick’s success largely rests on the shoulders of Emmet and his Ma. Henson and his crew create some of the most dazzling puppetry of their entire career. Each scene is brimming with extra bits of side business (birds, ducks, snowmobiles, etc.) that rely on various forms of puppetry. We get the standard sock puppet routines, but also marionettes and what looks to be animatronics as well. It’s hard to tell exactly because it’s all seamlessly blended together. I still don’t know how they made Emmet sing while paddling his boat in the middle of the river.
Speaking of singing, the truly great songs were provided by none other than Paul Williams. If Williams has only wrote the songs from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and nothing else in his career, I’d still call him a genius. As I sit here and type this I can’t get that damn “Barbeque” song out of my head. And even the sappier songs in the flick are great too because they never get overly saccharine. The fact that they’re being sung by otters probably helps too.
But the song that makes Williams immortal in my book is the “Riverbottom Nightmare Band”. The performance of this song is some of Jim Henson’s best stuff he ever did. Imagine Jim Henson channeling Alice Cooper. That shit is what the true meaning of Christmas is all about.