A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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December 21, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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