… or Emmet and his buddies are extolling the virtues of jug band music in the peppy “Barbeque”…

… Williams’ music never sounds out of place. Even when Emmet and Ma are challenged at the talent show by the rock ’n’ roll-loving juvenile delinquents in The River Bottom Nightmare Band, Williams produces a credible version of Alice Cooper style shock-rock.

The presence of the River Bottom boys is the most problematic element of Emmet Otter. That urban-versus-rural/rock-versus-country aspect to the River Bottom boys’ villainy is more reductive than Henson tends to be. Plus, it’s hard to believe that The Nightmare Band would win the talent show, given that their song’s not all that impressive, and given that the judges are a bunch of older, refined Frogtown Hollow citizens. (Then again, this plot twist did appeal to every kid who ever thought that the Devil should’ve beaten Charlie Daniels in that fiddle contest.)

Still, for the story to work, both Ma and Emmet have to lose. After all, they couldn’t beat each other; that wouldn’t be a satisfying ending. Instead, they each go onstage with separate songs—Ma’s angelic ballad “Our World” and the jug band’s ebullient “Brothers,” their last-minute substitution for “Barbeque”—and though both are excellent, one of the judges, Ol’ Doc Bullfrog, suggests that they were each missing something. Sure enough, when they combine the songs, the results are both beautiful and relevant, echoing the message that a world that says, “Welcome, stranger,” is the only kind that really works.


In the end, that’s what Emmet Otter is really about. There’s a lot more about money in this story than in the typical children’s Christmas special. Jerry Juhl’s script counts every penny, and takes account of how much it costs to knit a scarf, which can be traded for a pumpkin, which can be made into a pie, which can be sold to buy more wool. The only way to survive in this kind of economy is to pool resources and think creatively.

And yet the beauty of Emmet Otter is that it never treats life in Frogtown Hollow as miserable. Ma and Emmet have their sense of humor, and the ice-slide that Pa built before he died, and their memories of how Pa would always bring home a “Christmas branch” instead of a tree because he couldn’t bring himself to chop a tree down. In other words, these lives have meaning and texture, which Henson and his team emphasize via the depth of detail in their sets, filled with tiny little houses, actual water, actual pine, and even actual pie dough for the Ma puppet to roll. The camera explores this space, giving it a three-dimensionality that no special glasses could replicate.


Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is the kind of Christmas special you could wrap in tissue when the season’s over and store carefully in a box in the attic. Each year at Christmas there are new toys to play with, which is fine. But it’s the handmade ornaments that are always the first to go on the tree, and which lend blessed continuity to the season.

Tomorrow: A holiday classic in triplicate.