Jim Henson’s work has been an important part of my life, from Sesame Street to the Fraggles and beyond. It’s no surprise, then, that he also created my favorite holiday movie of all time — Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.
The movie was released as a television special in 1977 based on an illustrated children’s book by Russell and Lilian Hoban (the same Russell Hoban who wrote the postapocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker and who recently passed away).
Though introduced by Kermit the Frog in the original version (rights issues prevented Kermit from appearing in later years) the movie, unlike later adaptations, doesn’t include any of the traditional Muppets. Instead a whole cast of new characters was created for the film.
The story centers on the titular Emmet Otter and his mother, Alice. They live in near-poverty after the death of Emmet’s father, with both Emmet and Alice taking on odd jobs and bartering to make ends meet. But they are happy, for the most part.
Christmas is approaching and neither of them have the ability to buy a gift for the other. But then they catch wind of a talent competition, with a grand prize of $50 (this was 1977, remember), they both get the idea to enter for a chance at the prize money.
What follows takes inspiration from the story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Alice is a singer, but in order to make a decent dress for the show, she has to hock the tool chest that Emmet uses to do odd jobs. Emmet bands with some friends to form a jugband, but he is forced to put a hole in his mother’s washtub in order to make a washtub bass.
They perform at the competition, and, well, it doesn’t necessarily end up the way you’d expect. I would give it a watch if you haven’t seen it already. It’s currently available on DVD and on Netflix Instant Watch.
The music in the film is excellent, written by Paul Williams who later went on to do the music for the first Muppet Movie. Highlights include “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” “Brothers,” and “When the River Meets the Sea.”
Here’s Emmet and the Jugband doing “Barbecue”:
I will admit that despite my love for the film, there is one element that gives me pause. I’m all for small-town values and folk music, but there’s a seemingly anti-rock bias that permeates the movie. True, the Riverbottom Nightmare Band (the hard rockers) are hooligans, but there’s often a conflation between their personalities and the music they play.
Still, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas is charming and endearing and will likely make you smile. I highly recommend it.