Introduction: This is one of those Christmas movies that I fear has been all but forgotten. Granted, films such as the original Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the sundry adaptations of A Christmas Carol all deserve to be herald as classics. Yet sometimes it’s worth not forgetting the lesser-known Christmas movies. Such is the case with Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a hidden gem that’s often overlooked thanks to its tendency not to be annually re-aired. I first saw this film as a child and, at the time, I remember loving the puppet characters but little else. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve garnered a deeper appreciation for the film’s artistic endeavors, music, characters, and simple yet tenderly touching tale. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) is a made-for-television Christmas special based on a 1971 children’s book of the same name. In the film, Emmet Otter and his mother, Alice, strive to make ends meet with odd jobs. Yet despite their lack of material possessions, there is no lack of love between them. As Christmas approaches, both Emmet and Alice desire to give the other something special yet their finances are against them. That is until news of a local talent contest reaches both of their ears, and Emmet and his mother make separate plans to try to win the fifty dollar prize.
My Take: This movie was based on a children’s book of the same name published in 1971 and penned by Russell Hoban with illustrations by his then-wife, Lillian Hoban. I actually had no idea the movie was an adaptation, so I did my best to track down a copy of the book after watching the movie. The story itself is a children’s picture book that essentially follows the movie’s plot albeit it’s much shorter, doesn’t have a large cast of characters, and the ending is slightly different. But the heart of the tale is retained in both versions. Oddly enough, I actually like the film better as, due to its medium, it’s given more time to expand upon Emmet’s story by further developing his character and world and more openly touching on the themes of grief and poverty. That’s not to say the book is bad – it’s simply a short picture storybook and, as such, isn’t able to showcase extended scenes of character development or dive deeply into certain issues. But it’s still worth tracking down a copy for curiosity’s sake as the illustrations are delightfully rustic and cute.
Returning to the film, there is so much to love about Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas that it is a shame it hasn’t been as fondly remembered as other holiday films. For starters, the artistic choices made to create the story’s world and its characters are stunning. Rest assured, there are no fancy camera tricks or CGI here – just good old fashioned puppeteer magic. Aside from creating realistic-looking characters, the film’s setting also looks like it’s a real place, complete with a river (of actual water), trees, (faux) snow, and even puppet birds in flight. It’s so seamlessly blended that you almost forget that this was filmed entirely in a studio and not on location somewhere. In the same way, the puppets break conventional molds as many times they’re seen in full body shots, not just from the shoulders up. Watching characters walk across a frozen river or traverse down sidewalks further gives the story a sense of realism as it directly connects them to their environment.
Another aspect of the film’s artistic decisions that’s worth calling attention to is its music. This film delivers a good helping of down-home tunes evocative of classic Americana and bluegrass. By way of comparison, if you enjoyed the music to O Brother, Where Art Thou, then you’ll love what you hear here! Some songs are toe-tapping numbers, such as “There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” and “Bar-B-Que,” while others, like “When the River Meets the Sea” and “Our World,” are quiet and possess a lovely simplicity. Even the raucous “Riverbottom Nightmare Band” stands out as the only rock song that benefits from some trippy visuals. For a children’s holiday special, this film avoids becoming a jukebox musical and doesn’t try to spoon-feed fabricated holiday songs to audiences. It’s a shame no official soundtrack was ever released because I’d love to add it to my music collection. From folk melodies to somber lullabies, the songs are all artfully crafted and sound like they could be actual songs, not merely tracks conceived for a children’s film.
Three standout musical moments are the gospel-inspired “When the River Meets the Sea,” the tender ballad “Our World,” and the delightful mash-up “Brothers in Our World.” Most surprisingly is “When the River Meets the Sea,” which is a gentle hymn-like song about the hope of Heaven and being reunited with loved ones while living life here on earth in the meantime. It’s a somber tune but avoids becoming dark and depressing. Instead, it’s tastefully done – not shoe-horned in for sympathy value – and delivered respectfully. It’s hard not to feel Alice and Emmet Otter’s grief during this song yet they don’t stay stuck in their sorrows: part of what drives their decisions throughout the entire film is hope in each other and a willingness to keep their husband’s and father’s memory alive. While the nuances here regarding how the Otters handle their grief during the holidays might be missed by young audiences, it’s one of many aspects adult viewers can appreciate.
Concerning characters, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Bang Christmas sports a fun, likable cast. Emmet, who serves as the movie’s chief protagonist, is immediately admirable for his outpourings of compassion, loyalty, love, determination, and a good work ethic. However, he’s not a goody-two-shoes as sometimes he has to make tough choices that have ramifications for both him and his mother. Without giving too much away, the main reason why Emmet initially doesn’t want to enter the talent contest is that it will cost him something of his father’s and, hence, will also affect his mother. This dilemma isn’t glossed over and, in the end, Emmet makes what is not an easy choice. The same can be said for Alice, who doesn’t allow herself to be browbeaten by some of the townsfolk as she strives to not be an idle woman. Yet she’s not all work and no play, which makes her character an absolute delight. Like Emmet, Alice has tough choices to make, which have consequences for Emmet should her plans fall through. Yet overall, both of their plans come to an agreeable end.
The rest of the cast is filled out nicely with Emmet’s friends, who are loyal and fun-loving, as well as the Riverbottom Gang, who serve as the principle antagonist. While this literal band of misfits are bullies and often disregard the feelings (and property) of others, they aren’t crass or violent. Their level of badness doesn’t exceed that of a slightly more antagonistic Oscar the Grouch, by way of comparison, so the bad attitudes on display here shouldn’t be a concern to parents. Not to mention the bulk of the story focuses on Emmet, his friends, and Alice, so it’s the noble virtues that command the screen time rather than the Gang’s mischievous antics.
Story-wise, this film has drawn comparisons to author O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, and I can certainly see the similarity at play here. Emmet and Alice Otter both sacrifice something of their own to try to make the other’s Christmas a little brighter, but in the end they both receive an unexpected gift. There are excellent messages here about the necessity of hard work; payoff of perseverance; power of love and loyalty to family and friends; and the hope that the people we love the most, even while not physically present, never truly leave us. Hence, a materialistic mindset is not what this movie advocates as it refreshingly focuses on a simple story with simple characters told through simple songs. This isn’t a flashy, big, loud, bold Christmas movie, but it’s a masterpiece thanks to its level of artistry, musical ingenuity, and heart-warming messages about hope and family.
Content Breakdown: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is unrated but certainly falls into the G-rating category:
Language – None.
Violence – None. The Riverbottom Gang causes a stir when they come to town, from wrecking havoc in a musical instrument shop to riding noisy snowmobiles, but no one ever comes to harm from their antics. Again, their brand of “badness” is more akin to the cantankerous ways of Oscar the Grouch than relentless villainy.
Sexual Material – None.
Thematic Material – This film unabashedly touches on the subjects of poverty and the loss of a loved one, both of which might be lost on the youngest of viewers. While Emmet and his mother keep up their spirits, it’s clear that a lack of money and steady work causes stress for the both of them. In the same way, we learn Emmet’s father has passed away (prior to the time of the story), and Emmet and his mother grieve him at times though it’s chiefly through reliving happy memories. As mentioned above, “When the River Meets the Sea” openly addresses the topic of a loved one passing away and going to Heaven with the hope of being reunited someday. Again, both subjects are tastefully handled and presented in a touching way, avoiding moroseness; however, they might not be fully grasped by younger viewers.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Recommended, and I sense most children will enjoy it, especially if they’re fans of Sesame Street, save for only the youngest of children who might not grasp some of the themes at work here. Likewise, this is not a rapidly-paced movie with constant action or jokes, so it’s also possible that very young children might not have the attention span necessary to fully enjoy it. But certainly anyone over the age of 6, I imagine, might be able to enjoy it.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended, as this has far more to offer than the usual fluffy, forgettable holiday fare. Older children and teens, especially those raised on Sesame Street, might enjoy this film for nostalgia’s sake as well as impressive puppetry work.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, as this is one holiday special that’s perfectly balanced. It knows when to be sweet but avoids becoming saccharine. It knows when to speak powerful messages of hope and love but never delivers a sermon. Cinematically, it’s a treat to watch with its fun (and funny) characters and touching story that will draw more than a few well-deserved tears.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is an unsung Christmas classic that deserves to not be forgotten. It’s not the most commercially-recognizable Christmas special out there, but that’s actually a trait in its favor. In place of flashy animation, we’re treated to old fashioned puppetry magic and practical effects. In place of candy cane-encrusted holiday tunes and pop culture references, our ears are treated to folk songs that evoke a simpler time with their classic sound and heartfelt lyrics. And instead of a Christmas tree and gift-infused extravaganza, we’re treated to a simple story about a mother and son who struggle with poverty and grief but have found a way to stay afloat by holding on to each other and to good memories. In the end, this film is a must-see and is guaranteed to make your Christmas holiday a little merrier.