By Robert Dean
As the debate rages on over if Die Hard or Gremlins or Edward Scissorhands are Christmas movies, there’s one definite holiday film that’s gone under the radar far too long. A cinematic gem that is appropriately old school in its themes of love, morality, and having a damned good time, Emmet Otter’s Jug band Christmas is the best Christmas movie you’ve never seen.
Almost like a country-fried Wind in The Willows, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is an early Jim Henson production. Released in 1978 and loosely based on O. Henry’s The Gift of The Magi, Emmet and his mother live on the river performing a litany of odd jobs. Emmet mends fences or fixes stairs while Ma washes clothes for the town rich folks. She even barters to make pies and sell them. The defining element of Emmet and Ma’s relationship is their love of music. Music is everything to them.
Christmas is fast approaching, but because Emmet and Ma both scrape by, they don’t have any money for gifts. Emmet gets wind from his friends that the town hall is putting on a talent show. His friends broach the idea of starting a jug band. They ask Emmet to join, but he declines because he can’t live with the idea of putting a hole in his mother’s washtub.
Back at home, Ma too hears about the talent show and dreams of buying Emmet a guitar with the prize money. However, she needs a new outfit to sing in; the trouble is, she doesn’t have anything left to hock – except Emmet’s tools, which he inherited from his dead father.
A rambling pack of miscreants attacks a local music store. They smoke cigarettes and love rock and roll. They’re a pack of bad dudes. There’s even a fish.
The allure of the prize money is too much for Emmet and his mother. They each go behind one another’s backs in an effort to win the talent show. Emmet joins the jug band, and Ma gets her fabric, washtub and tool kit be damned. The Jug band is pretty good, and Ma is focused. They all arrive at the talent show, ready to do their best, only both acts lose because the rock and roll wild boys are now a band called The Nightmare and whip out some killer late 70’s hard rock. Does losing the talent show ruin Emmet’s Christmas? You’ll need to watch to find out.
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas works because it’s almost like the anti-Christmas movie: the neighbors are all out on the grind, Emmet and Ma have the death of Pa hanging over everything, as they continually bring it up, and the songs are weird but awesome. They even sing about BBQ. The Otter family does get screwed over by some local towns ladies, which doesn’t ruin their days, but indeed sucks.
What’s cool about this movie is that Emmet Otter pre-dates a lot of the tropes found in the later Muppets. The story has darker threads and doesn’t rely on sight gags or inside jokes from the Muppet world; The tale keeps Emmet Otter going, not a cameo from Gonzo.
Unlike The Christmas Toy, which is an easily beloved Christmas classic, Emmet Otter and his furry friends live by their wits and sometimes, by their whiskers.
If you’re looking for a new Christmas flick that’s worth watching, give ol’ Emmet a spin. It’s got everything you could ever need in a Christmas movie: fuzzy little otters secretly making terrible life choices, a bullfrog mayor and a hole in the washtub. This cult classic has heart. The songs are catchy as hell and let’s be honest; The Nightmare deserved to win the talent show, fair and square.