Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) — Muppet Gift of the Magi

“A person’s got to take some chances or life will never come to nothin’.”

Justin’s rating: The most wholesome jugs you’ll ever see on network television

Justin’s review: Like many people who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, I have a particular allegiance to Jim Henson, Sesame Street, and The Muppets. On the surface, it seems silly that puppeteers could actually be so good at their craft to make us believe and relate to these gussied-up socks as “people,” but that’s exactly what this crew did. Yet even though I watched The Muppet Show religiously, there was one Henson special that escaped the orbit of my childhood — Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.

Apparently, I missed out. Or so say all of the people who, to this day, lavish heapings of praise and love for this 47-minute TV special. I kept seeing it pop up in a lot of people’s “favorite Christmas specials” lists, so I figured I needed to see what the fuss was about. So during Christmas season 2022, I gathered my own four kids around the telly and put on this show so that we could all take it in for the first time.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas regales us with a sad but sweet tale of a boy otter and his mother who are both absolutely dirt-poor and making the best of it. They’re super nice folks, they scrape by with various odd jobs, and they clearly love each other self-sacrificially. So much so, in fact, that when a talent show announces a $50 first prize, both Emmet and Ma Otter vow to win it so that they can buy a present (piano, guitar) for the other. However, to do this they sacrifice some of the only possessions they have left in the home.

My expectations, coming from a Muppet perspective, was more laughs and gags. But that’s not what we get here. Instead, it’s a special that’s defined more by the words “charming” and “quaint” and “you’re going to listen to 30 minutes of very slow folk music.” The plot isn’t that complicated at all; the biggest twist is that a group of rabble-rousers come into town and bring psychedelic rock to the show. I occasionally found my patience tested by the laid-back pacing and frequent songs.

Yet there’s something quaintly charming to Jug-Band Christmas. My kids and I were most fascinated by how the puppeteers pulled off a number of seemingly impossible scenes, such as the otters rowing a boat, a frog swimming in a water tank, and a theater full of very active puppets. Past that, I was slightly touched by the uncomplicated, unironic love that the mother and son share, especially in light of Pa Otter’s death a few years prior. It’s almost too pure for 2022 standards, where everything we watch is self-referential, cynical, and smug.

While I liked the overall atmosphere of the special and its river-town holiday vibes, I can’t in good conscience propel it to a personal list of Christmas favorites. Maybe if it was something I grew up with, perhaps, but not coming to it fresh as a middle-aged adult.

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