Grade: B+/B
Entire family: Yes
1977, 53 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

You know the old expression, “They don’t make them like they used to?”

With Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas that’s absolutely true. Jim Henson and his Muppeteers used traditional hand-operated puppets, string-manipulated marionettes, and remote controlled Muppetry to make this 1977 TV Christmas special. It’s hard not to have some reaction when you watch Emmet rowing his mother across real water while Ma sings about the good old days. But it could seem so totally new to today’s youngsters that they may not even be sure how to react. What they’re watching is a lost art, with such detailed sets and models and characters that you have to feel charmed by the whole process. And that rowing scene? It’s the equivalent of watching a ventriloquist work his dummy while drinking a glass of water. Such technical wizardry abounds in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.

Henson enlisted composer Paul Williams to create the songs for this 48-minute film, which he told Williams was a “trial run” before he went all-out to make a full-length feature film. That means fans of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie will find this especially fascinating. You can see what Henson thought worked and what he thought needed to be juiced up a bit in order to be effective in the theaters.

Emmet Otter looks a bit like an Ewok, and he’s cute as the Dickens. He and his Ma are both good singers, but, like everyone else in their watery corner of the world, poor as can be. When they see signs for a talent show featuring a $50 prize, they both decide to enter because, shades of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” each wants to buy a Christmas present for the other. While Ma practices her solo, Emmet gets his musical friends together to form a jug band. But while they all are performing old-time music, that prize money starts to look like a pipe dream when a bunch of kids with electric guitars are cranking out tough-to-beat rock music.

Whether Emmet and his Ma win or lose is almost irrelevant. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and models of behavior and life attitudes that have almost become as “old timey” as some of the early songs in this musical family film. The tone of the film is like a story told around a pot-belly stove, a warm-your-hands (and heart) affair that’s played pretty straight. Missing is the irreverence of The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies, no doubt because Henson and Co. were aiming for a wholesome family Christmas show that evokes the “good old days.”

My guess is that Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will be most appreciated by children who aren’t focused solely on Disney and animation, as well as children old enough to appreciate the fact that humans are operating these characters every step of the way. Those in between might be a tougher sell. For them, I might suggest that the family watch the excellent making-of feature before seeing the film.

Will it be enough to crack your family’s line-up of Christmas favorites? That’s not for me to say. I can only tell you that for our family, it’s the kind of film you watch from time to time in order to remember and celebrate what seems like a lost art.

Jerry Nelson gives voice to Emmet, while Marilyn Sokol is Ma Otter, Frank Oz is rock-band leader Chuck, Jim Henson gives voice to Kermit the Frog (who introduces the story) and Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Nelson, and Henson provide the voices for the minor characters.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas feels both forward-looking, as it pushed into new areas of puppetry wizardry that would follow in a succession of Muppet movies, but also nostalgic for a time when puppeteers were one of the driving entertainment forces behinds early television programming—a time when The Howdy Doody Show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Garfield Goose and Friends, and The Shari Lewis Show were kid favorites.