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Literature / Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

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Our world says "welcome, stranger".

A children's picture book first published in 1971, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by his then-wife Lillian. It tells of the widowed Ma Otter and her son Emmet, who are struggling to make ends meet: she earns a lttle money by taking in laundry while he does odd jobs around town. Christmas is coming, and each wants to get the other something really special – she wants to get him a guitar and he wants to get her a piano. Times are especially tough this year, however, with the townspeople doing their own laundry and adults taking the jobs Emmet used to get.

Then the town announces a talent show with a $50 prize. Emmet and Ma both enter, each without the other's knowledge. Emmet joins a jug band with his friends, even though it means drilling a hole in the bottom of Ma's washtub to turn it into a bass. Ma Otter decides to sing, and has to sell her son's tools to get a dress to wear. Their acts go well, and both seem to have a strong chance of winning, but the flashy River Bottom Band from two towns over sails in and steals the show.

With their hopes and livelihoods gone, Ma, Emmet and his friends head home. On the way, Ma stops to sing her song again with the jug band playing behind her, and the local innkeeper hears them and hires them as the house band.

In 1977, Jim Henson adapted the story (with puppets Muppets, of course) for CBC in Canada. The followng year it debuted in the US on the fledgling HBO and was very well-received, winning a CableACE award and remaining a holiday staple on HBO for over a decade (its success making Fraggle Rock, also made in Canada with many of the same talent, possible a few years later), thereafter syndicated on ABC, Nickelodeon and Freeform. It sticks very true to the story. (The only real difference is that in the special, the Riverbottom Nightmare Band are a gang of mean-spirited bullies, while in the book they were just another band with a flashier, more glamorous act.) Original music was written by Paul Williams; despite positive reviews, a soundtrack was never officially released until November 2018 through Varese Sarabande.note  In 2008–09, the Goodspeed Theater and The Jim Henson Company produced a live stage version of the show, featuring a mixture of Muppets and costumed humans.

A remake is currently in production for HBO, with Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, songwriter for the recent Muppet films,note  taking the helm for the music and script and possibly directing.

Tropes present:

  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The River Bottom kids are a gang of thugs in the Jim Henson special, and appear in a number of scenes before they show up at the talent show as the Nightmare.
    • "Downstream Where the River Meets the Sea" is a hymn in the story (the late Pa Otter's favorite song), but the music and lyrics are never mentioned. The special worked it up into a full song.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the book, the River Bottom Nightmare Band are just a more professional act. In the special, however, they're a bunch of bullies.
  • All There in the Script: Out of all the River Bottom members, only Chuck and Howard were referred to by name.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Emmet's Disappeared Dad lost his money selling snake oil. In the film, this is interpreted as oil for snakes (for which, surprisingly, there wasn't much of a market).
  • Bad Butt: The River Bottom Nightmare Band's song is a boast about how tough and scary they are and what evil things they are willing to do - which include spoiling parties, laughing in people's faces and not brushing their teeth.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In the TV version, the River Bottom kids - portrayed as bullying delinquents throughout the show - wins the talent show fair and square.
  • Bittersweet Ending: See Earn Your Happy Ending below.
  • Bumbling Dad: Pa Otter was, by all indications, an incredibly poor decision maker. He "took a chance on snake oil", which didn't leave his family much after he was gone, and Ma and Emmet's ultimate motivation to gamble with their only means of feeding themselves is that it's what Pa would have done. But he was gentle, thoughtful, and loving, and they remember him fondly.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Doc Bullfrog, seen relatively briefly early in the show greeting Ma and Emmet. Seen briefly again at the talent contest, where he's identified as the owner of the local inn. He saves Emmet and Ma at the end by offering them jobs as the house band.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Early on, the River Bottom gang is shown entering a music store and jamming out... and they're good. This comes back to haunt our heroes at the end.
  • Christmas Special
  • Color-Coded Characters: Blue for Emmet, vermilion for Ma, red for Wendell, green for Harvey, yellow for Charlie.
  • Counterpoint Duet: "Brothers in Our World". On the 2005 DVD, Paul Williams revealed that "Our World" and "Brothers" were actually both written as the counterpoint reprise, with the latter song being written as a streamline to the former.
  • Concert Climax: The talent show.
  • Crappy Holidays: Because of their poverty, neither Emmet nor his mother have ever had a really nice Christmas, and this winter is particularly bad.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Played straight with Gretchen Fox, who stiffs Ma and Emmet on payment by claiming there was a scorch mark, but averted with her husband Harrison.
  • Didn't Think This Through: The River Bottom Nightmare Band puts on a big, flashy, professional-level musical act... and wins the talent contest. Emmett and Ma's incredibly poor decision to gamble with each other's livelihoods nearly ruins them. It all works out serendipitously, but there's a substantial period where it looks like it didn't.
  • Digital Destruction: The 2015 airings on ("Freeform, the new name for") ABC Family give this special (along with The Bells of Fraggle Rock, which were both originally videotaped) a horrible faux film looknote .
  • Disappeared Dad: Ma Otter is a widow struggling to get by and support Emmet. His father was a traveling snake oil salesman who died well before the book took place.
  • Drives Like Crazy: The River Bottom gang.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After all that trouble neither Ma nor Emmet's band win the contest — but they do get steady jobs working for Doc Bullfrog, so presumably they'll be able to afford the guitar and the piano. Plus they can put their hated day jobs away for good.
  • Eye-Obscuring Hat: Wendell and Stanley Weasel wear these.
  • Foreshadowing: While boating back home, Emmet and Ma pass by Doc Bullfrog, who compliments their singing.
  • Friendship Song: "Brothers", the song that Emmet and his friends practice last-minute after another act steals their song "Barbecue". It's about how much they're together and could be a family.
  • Fruit Cart: The River Bottom gang knock over a fruit stand as they barrel through town.
  • Gift of the Magi Plot: Inverted; they sacrifice each other's possessions for a shot at the prize money, which they plan to use to buy an extravagant gift and replace the stolen item with what's left over.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Talented jerks usually win over good-hearted amateurs, as demonstrated by the River Bottom gang walking away with the show.
  • Hope Spot: Ma and Emmet's band both put in good performances at the talent show, and for a moment it looks like the worst they'll have to face is one of them beating the other. Then the Nightmare Band show up.
  • "I Am" Song: The Nightmare's song "River Bottom Nightmare Band" is this for the River Bottom gang.
  • Informed Species: Invokes a touch of this.
    • Emmet and his ma look everything like otters... they just bear more of a resemblance to sea otters than the river otters they're intended to be.
    • Chuck Stoat looks more like a bear than a stoat, which is a close relative of the weasel.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Doc Bullfrog's assurance that Ma and Emmett's acts "just needed a little something extra" and that they should "keep working on it" comes across as a bit tactless, but he has no way of knowing that they just sacrificed their only means of supporting themselves to enter the contest.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener: Emmet and his ma are introduced singing a folk song about "The one bathing suit that your Grandma Otter wore" as they row down the river.
  • Karma Houdini: The River Bottom gang are generally mean to everyone and cause a fair bit of damage and trouble. Then they win the contest (although by all appearances they win fair and square, aside from entering at the last minute and the talent show being extended in consideration of the distance they'd traveled to do so from River Bottom).
  • Medium Blending: This is really unlike a typical Jim Henson production as it didn't just use hand puppets. It also used marionettes for long shots of the characters walking, and kabuki puppetry for some of the talent show acts.
  • Mood Whiplash: At first we hear rather somber music during the sultry scene where Emmet nails a hole in the washtub, then it cuts to the cheerful music of the jug band practicing in the treehouse.
  • Musical World Hypothesis: All of the songs are diegetical, though about half the time the background music isn't.
  • Narrator: Kermit the Frog, depending on which version (see Re-Cut below).
  • Pantomime Animal: The first act in the talent contest is a couple tap-dancing in a two-person horse costume, unfortunately the costume gets accidentally torn in half during setup and they end up just looking ridiculous.
  • Playful Otter: One of the cuter scenes is Ma and Emmet sliding down a slide Emmet's Pa built on an icy river bank. You know, like real otters do.
  • Re-Cut: The special has a checkered history.
    • The original 1977 version broadcast on HBO, featuring Kermit the Frog acting as host.
    • A 1980 commercial television/home video edit that has various little bits added and taken out, like more narration from Kermit, some additional dialogue when Ma and Emmet are wondering what to do about Christmas presents, and fadeouts added for commercial breaks.
    • A 1996 home video/broadcast edit removed Kermit's narration and brief appearance at the end. This was further tweaked in 2005 in another edit that restored the original 1977 broadcast version, but removed Kermit completely as the rights to the Muppets had been sold to Disney.
    • A 2015 television edit for ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" series reinstated Kermit's scenes for the first time in 20 years. But the film was matted from its 1977 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen, the frame rate was changed from 60 fps to 30 fps to make it look more like a movie, and there were other major edits, like removing "Ain't No Hole in the Washtub".note 
    • The 2017 40th Anniversary DVD release took the ABC Family cut, removed the faux film look and restored a lot of the deleted scenes (namely, the scene with Alice telling Gretchen Fox to fall off the dock once she's out of earshot, "Ain't No Hole in the Washtub", and the snow sliding scene), but still contains the other issues of said broadcast (i.e. it's still matted to 16:9, with no vertical panning in the scenes that needed it; it's also still 30fps, but see the above note about conversion to progressive scan).
    • The 2018 Blu-ray release is about as perfect as it gets without destroying the image quality- they took the 2017 DVD release's time sheet and applied it to a fresh transfer, which thus restored the 4:3 aspect ratio while retaining every scene present in the 2017 DVD. However given that the media is Progressive Scan (trust me, you do not want to upscale an interlaced video source to 1080p without first deinterlacing it), it's a given that the video is still at 30fps unless they throw in motion smoothing to drag the frame rate back up to 60fps.note 
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The special plays the trope straight with two members of the River Bottom Gang. The book doesn't use it.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size:
    • The muskrat in Emmet's jug band isn't any smaller than the otter, porcupine, or beaver.
    • Two rabbits that have a dance in the contest are about twice as tall as Emmet, his friends and mothernote 
  • Scenery Porn: The sets and models are gorgeous, with an incredible amount of detail. Even forty years later, they still look great.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Ma Otter's deceased husband was one. When times were tough and sales were low, he'd joke that nobody wanted to oil a snake.
  • Species Surname: All of the characters are named like this.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: At first the mood seems somber since both Alice and Emmet lose the contest to the River Bottom gang, but then when they combine the songs they performed, this prompts Doc Bullfrog and the patrons of his restaurant to hire them as the house band and get regular pay, plus meals, which they happily accept.
  • Talent Contest: With a prize of $50 (roughly $215 today) attached.
  • They Stole Our Act: Emmet and his bandmates have to change plans in a hurry after another act performs "Barbecue", the song they had rehearsed.
  • Triumphant Reprise:
    • “When the River Meets the Sea” returns at the end, when Alice and Emmet and the jug band all sing for Pa after their first regular performance at the Riverside Rest. They segue into an up-tempo version as the credits roll.
    • "Our World" and "Brothers" are blended together into one song by Alice and Emmet's jug band.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: The River Bottom Nightmare Gang acts like a group of troublemakers and competes in the talent show, but they never do anything truly villainous, and they don't appear to cheat to win the talent show; as noted, their act is genuinely impressive.
    • The lizard drummer in particular tends to clean up after the others, even apologizing for a knocked-over sign.
  • Villain Song: "River Bottom Nightmare Band" — a boastful tune about what delinquents the River Bottom kids are.
  • Wicked Weasel:
    • In the special and stage adaptation, the River Bottom gang includes Chuck Stoat and Stanley Weasel.
    • Averted with the Otters, and several side characters who look like other members of the weasel family, like minks and ferrets.

Alternative Title(s): Emmet Otters Jug Band Christmas