Monday, December 19, 2011

Otter Sincerity

At what point does pleasant tradition become rigid obligation?  With every Christmas story and holiday advertisement that is repeated ad nauseam throughout this festive season, we are reminded that the true meaning of Christmas is family togetherness so spend, spend, spend!  That conflicting moral is not as contradictory as it may seem.

As a culture, we understand that monetary values and moral values should not be intertwined.  But as the poor Otter family learns in Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, to maintain pleasure and stability at Christmastime, money is a necessity.  Having lost patriarch and the sole earner in the family, Alice Otter and her son Emmet take up odd jobs in order to stay afloat.  Alice tends to her neighbors' laundry while Emmet puts his carpentry skills to use around town.  The quaint community along the river houses critters from all walks of life, but it is the folks in the small Frogtown Hollow that suffer the most in the freezing cold winter.

The river, stretching from Waterville to Riverbottom

When it is discovered that a talent contest will be held in the town center boasting a prize of $50, both Alice and Emmet Otter dream of using their musical abilities to win the competition.  However, instead of using that much needed cash to help them continue living during their economic hardships, each otter plans on using the money to buy an expensive-yet-morale-boosting Christmas gift for the other.  For a holiday that tries to disassociate from over-commercialism, Christmas can't help but inspire us to give to one another.  Happiness comes first.

Emmet Otter, cutting off a Christmas branch, so that the tree may continue to grow.

Taking a page from The Gift of the Magi, both Alice and Emmet eliminate a valuable possession from their lives to make sure they can succeed in giving their gifts.  Unfortunately, Alice chooses to sell Emmet's tools to purchase a presentable outfit to sing in while Emmet punctures Alice's washtub to make a bass for his band.  Both have destroyed the only sources of income they have left.  Even if one of them won, they are both ruined financially.  That they are unknowingly competing against each other makes this scenario unbearably tragic.  These poor souls sacrifice everything just for a sliver of joy, which instantly becomes impossible to obtain by their selfless acts.

When music is all you have, share it with the world.

With certain failure set up so early in the story, the joyful antics and songs of the characters become very difficult to enjoy.  It is as if we are forced to watch a train wreck in slow motion.  But, with no chance of avoiding their demise, one can only enjoy the fun while it lasts.  Emmet and his friends form the Frogtown Jubilee Jug Band and practice their sure-fire hit "Barbeque."  This little ditty sums up the laid-back world that these critters inhabit.  Purely of the woods, these animals enjoy simple pleasantries and old-fashioned fun.


These rodents are the most pure creatures to ever grace the Earth.  If anyone deserved a Christmas miracle, it would be them.  But, alas, they hit their first major snag when one of the early acts at the talent show ends up singing "Barbeque" first.  The band must quickly scramble to create a new song called "Brothers."  Meanwhile, Alice Otter takes the stage, singing "Our World," by herself.

So innocent and sweet.

Each song is decent, but they lack a certain spark.  Although, each act that preceded them were awful to mediocre at best, so they still have a chance of winning this competition.  But as horrible as the outcome of the Otter family will be after this contest, I shudder to imagine what the other contestants potentially had riding on this one chance to win big.

The Rabbits' static dance routine may have been their last chance at keeping their children from being taken away.

As if the circumstances could not get any worse, one final act comes in and blows away the rest of the competition.  The Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a team of self centered, low-life hooligans take the stage with their fancy equipment and put on a show that rivals that of the Electric Mayhem.

Jug-bands don't hold a candle to rock and roll!

Christmas specials are notorious for being predictable in their schmaltziness.  In any other hands, this story would have ended with the Riverbottom Gang being booed offstage while Alice and Emmet Otter somehow both win first prize and everyone lives happily ever after.  But this is a Jim Henson Christmas special.  The miracles don't flow so easily.  Instead, the Nightmare Band wins and the Otters must walk home empty handed.

As our heroes walk along the frozen river back home, ready to face the dismal reality that awaits them, they discover that their two songs compliment each other perfectly.  Although they lost, at least they are able to keep the music alive in their hearts with "Brothers in Our World."  They have each other, and with that, a new opportunity arises.

I could not find the original, but this cover by My Morning Jacket captures it beautifully.

This is a Christmas special unlike any other.  While it may not have received the same recognition as other specials that are repeated on an annual basis, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas becomes an instant classic to all who see it.  The original story was adapted into a musical in recent years, with the help of the Henson Company who allowed the original puppets and Paul Williams soundtrack to be used in the production.  The purpose of its creation was to allow a group of people to share this story they loved with a new generation.

How much alike we are.  Perhaps we're almost brothers.

The large scale and the many risks that were taken by producing this special allow it to remain just that: special.  These backwoods creatures are truly the salt of the earth, and they represent the ideal version of humanity.  If the word "wholesome" makes you sick to your stomach, remember that there is a spectrum.  "Family-friendliness" has become a manufactured process that forgets that there is more to Christmas than selling trinkets.  Emmet Otter produced no ornaments, no toys, no cards or decorations.  There is no franchise.  It exists as a single entity.  And, by word of mouth, people can discover it and love it.

How rare the Christmas special that actually follows the message it promotes.

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