A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 296 – Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas / A Muppet Family Christmas

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas / A Muppet Family Christmas – December 21st, 2010

When we started this project we had to decide what we were going to include and what we would exclude. We had to look through our collection and see what we had and figure out the rules and guidelines and we finally decided that an hour and fifteen minutes was long enough over a television special to make for a real movie. But there were a couple of exceptions. The Ranma ½ movies are on the short side, MST3K: The Movie comes in a minute under our guideline, and then there are these. They’re both under 1 hour specials made for television, but we really wanted to keep them in for Christmas. So we decided on a one hour cut off for a single night and put these two together. I think this is the only time we’ll be doing this, but it’s Christmas and it’s our project. We can make exceptions.

Our first movie, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, is based on a children’s book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, who both do fantastic books. Oddly, I’ve never read this one in particular. My workplace doesn’t own it and it’s just never crossed my desk at a time when I could pull it aside and read it. I really should, because it’s a sweet story that’s sort of a twisted version of the Gift of the Magi.

Emmet Otter and his mother, Alice, live in the tiny town of Frogtown Hollow. They don’t have much, getting by on the money Alice makes doing laundry and some extras every so often from Emmet using his father’s old tools to do repairs for their neighbors. Things are hard and money is tight, but they’re happy together and they do their best. When both Emmet and Alice find out about an upcoming talent show in the next town over they each separately decide to enter to try and win the $50 prize to buy a gift for the other. The trouble is that entering will mean making sacrifices. Emmet and his friends for a jug band, but Emmet will have to put a hole in his mother’s washtub to make a washtub bass. Alice is going to sing, but she needs a new dress to go on stage in and the only thing left to sell for the money to make the dress is the tool box. So each sacrifices something the other relies on in the hopes of giving them a gift they’ll love.

It’s a beautifully realized special, done with fantastic immersive sets where the puppets come up out of holes so you can see the floors or ground they’re standing on. There are whole buildings and a river that eventually freezes over. The puppet work is amazing, with a wide variety of styles used to make this whole community come to life. I think the only thing I felt jarred by was Alice Otter, who’s voiced by Marilyn Sokol but controlled by Frank Oz. Sokol does a lovely job with the vocals, and Oz does his usual awesome puppeteering, but there’s something that doesn’t quite fit as well as some of the others. It’s a little thing, but in something as sweet and well done as this little things are all I can find to mention. Really, that’s my only negative. This is otherwise a thoroughly sweet story with a lot of attention to detail and fantastic voice acting and puppeteering. It’s not so much a Muppet production as a Henson production, but that’s fine, because it is thoroughly wonderful as it is. I would encourage people to check out the Muppet Wiki article on the movie for some additional making-of stuff, and if you get the HiT release of it on DVD, watch the bloopers. They’re hilarious.

Our second movie tonight is the last Christmas special Jim Henson worked on. A Muppet Family Christmas is a short but packed Christmas special featuring an astounding number of Muppets from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies (as puppets instead of cartoons). The Muppet Babies bit is a little truncated and the Fraggles are more of a cameo appearance, but the Sesame Street characters and Muppet Show characters mingle freely. The premise is that Fozzie has invited all his friends up to his mother’s farmhouse in the country for Christmas. And all his friends mean the entire Muppet Show cast. The Sesame Street crew shows up caroling and are invited in and soon Animal’s hitting it off with Cookie Monster and Big Bird’s singing with the Swedish Chef. Piggy is somewhere out in the blizzard, trying to get to the house, and everyone’s singing and cooking and chatting.

It’s one big feel-good sort of thing. The plot is incidental, to be honest. It’s about being together for the holidays and family and friends and the spirit of sharing. But of course, being Muppet-based, it’s got plenty of jokes. I’m especially delighted by the Sesame Street humor, which has things like Ernie and Bert talking about what letter different words start with, then explaining that this is small talk where they’re from. The Count counts off every time someone mentions a number. It’s some great self-aware humor on the part of the Henson crew and none of it is mean spirited. It’s meant to make people who love or loved Sesame Street chuckle knowingly at the reminder of their childhoods.

At the end of A Muppet Family Christmas when the house is full of Muppets of all shapes and sizes and origins, Jim Henson shows up in the kitchen. He’s watching the Muppets sing and smiling because he likes when they’re enjoying themselves. And then he gets to work on the huge mound of dishes. And we go back to the Muppets singing, because it’s Christmas. This right here is a true Muppet Christmas. It’s full of all the wonderful characters I love and it’s got humor a-plenty as well as some sweet and touching moments. And the amazing thing is that it all takes place in and around Fozzie’s mother’s farmhouse (except a few little moments with Piggy on her way there). There’s only two humans, Doc from Fraggle Rock and then Jim Henson himself at the end. It’s not a remake of anything, though the songs are mostly classics of the season, and it’s really wonderfully simple. It’s not trying any harder than it should be. It simply is what it is. And it is fantastic.

It was wonderful to see both of these specials tonight. They’re exactly what I think of when I think of Jim Henson and Christmas together. Not that I don’t enjoy The Muppet Christmas Carol, and It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie had its moments. But you can tell Jim Henson was involved with these. You can see it and hear it and feel it and it’s so wonderfully perfect.

December 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas/A Muppet Family Christmas

December 21, 2010

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas/A Muppet Family Christmas

For tonight’s viewing we’re doing something unusual. We have two short movies that didn’t qualify by themselves for our project because they weren’t long enough but which we didn’t want to lose, so we’re reviewing them both in one night as a single unit. They work well as a pair being as they are one of the first Christmas specials Jim Henson did and the last one.

Emmet Otter is like a distillation of everything that was wonderful about Jim Henson. It is full of fantastic puppetry. Jim really experiments here – expanding beyond the usual hand puppetry of the Muppets to include a lot of marionette work for wide shots. From the opening song as Emmet and his mother float down the river delivering laundry it is clear that this movie will be filled with clever tricks. How did Jerry and Frank operate the two from under water in the close up shots? I can speculate but ultimately that’s just part of the magic of the movie.

The entire world of Emmet Otter is a beautifully designed wonderland. It has the look of a storybook illustration – which is probably because it is based on a picture book. I’m curious to know how closely Henson’s vision matches with the illustrations in Lillian and Russel Hoban’s book. It’s a peaceful and serene riverside land with wheeling birds overhead and marionette ducks below. (Another of the clever touches in this movie is the series of birds that inhabit the river and have a more realistic look to them than the usual Muppet.) There’s also a subtle environmental message here. The nasty riverbottom hooligans that cause trouble in Emmet’s town drive a loud car and later ride around in smoke-belching backfiring snow mobiles, while the rest of the peaceful animals living along the river are much more rustic and rural. It’s not necessarily saying that technology is dangerous or destructive, but it does seem to be disruptive and annoying in the wrong hands.

The story of Emmet Otter is also something that feels like it would resonate strongly with Jim’s sensibilities. It’s a simple, homespun tale about risking everything for a dream, and about the power of music. Emmet Otter and his mother Alice have almost nothing to their name. About all they have is a tool chest that once belonged to Emmet’s father and which Emmet uses do do various odd jobs around the neighbourhood and the washtub that his mother uses to do laundry for a meager living. One Christmas their town holds a talent show/competition with the princely prize of $50 going to the winner. Emmet wants to enter with his buddies as part of a jug band, but that would mean putting a hole in his mother’s washtub to make a washtub base. Alice wants to enter so she can sing, but to make a new costume she will need money for the material, and the only way she can think of to get the money is to hock the tool box. So to follow their dreams they would need to give up everything.

And there’s the music. Paul Williams delivers a host of wonderful and catchy songs. In particular the hauntingly lovely “When the River Meets the Sea” brings tears to my eyes (and was later covered by John Denver for his Muppet Christmas special.) These songs are simple, beautiful, vibrant and elegant. They’re perfect for the whole wistful mood of the movie, and they actually make me want to find other jug band music to listen to. This is a charming, beautiful and inspiring movie and absolutely screams Jim Henson in every way.

The perfect companion piece for this movie is the warm, comforting, Muppet Family Christmas. This light-hearted, almost hokey gathering of every popular Muppet show is just what it says on the tin. It is the Muppet family. Kermit and all the crazy denizens of the Muppet show invade the peaceful farmhouse where Fozzie’s mother lives. Then the Muppets from Sesame Street show up. The Muppet babies are very briefly shown in the form of a film clip one of the Muppets finds in the attic. Kermit and Robin find a Fraggle hole in the basement and have a visit with the Fraggles (who don’t celebrate Christmas but do love giving gifts – and re-giving them.)

There’s a lot of silliness in this Christmas special. The intersection of all these different Muppet worlds is charming but fun. Oh, sure, Big Bird had appeared on the Muppet Show before, but this was absolutely everybody from Cookie Monster to Gonzo to Red all gathered together in one place. They joke, they argue, the Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird for dinner. But ultimately they are family, and they end up singing Christmas carols together as one huge happy group.

I’m frustrated by the DVD release of this movie since it has some obvious and clumsy edits. Apparently due to problems getting the rights to a couple songs the Muppet Babies clip is severely truncated, and there’s a duet between Fozzie and his snowman sidekick that is alluded to but is not present.

Still, the spirit of the piece is there even though not the entire special is present. Maybe someday in the future the whole thing will be reassembled and re-released. In the mean time this is what we have, and I do love it so. Most especially because it features Jim Henson himself at the end watching all the Muppets together. “I do like it when they’re having fun” he says. Oh, Jim, I like it too. It brightens my Christmas to see the whole happy band together one last time. And I weep every time I watch this to think that without their creator and guide they can never quite be together this way again.

December 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment