OtterJugband

For those reared during the late seventies and early eighties, Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas (1977) is as sacrosanct as any Christmas tradition. Its inventive visuals and rollicking songs are etched into a generation’s memory—which, for some, makes the absence of an official, unedited release particularly unsatisfying. Variants of the special appear every couple of years, charming newcomers while fueling online debate over their authenticity. It has joined the first Star Wars trilogy as a compromise between nostalgia and commercial accessibility, leading some to drastic measures to recreate the magic of the original.

“We’re Not Birds, We’re a Jug-band!”

Adapted from the 1971 book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, Emmet Otter is essentially a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” with woodland creatures. In Frogtown Hollow, widow Ma Otter and son Emmet barely make ends meet with odd jobs, keeping their spirits high by singing as they row along the river. In the days before Christmas, news of a talent show inspires both Ma and Emmet to make hard choices in the hopes of winning the fifty dollar prize in order to buy gifts for each other. Emmet joins a jug-band, but in doing so, puts a hole in Ma’s washtub (to make a washtub bass); while Ma hocks Emmet’s tool chest in order to create a dress for the show. Though Ma and the Emmet’s jug-band perform admirably, both lose to a hell-raising rock band from nearby River Bottom. Walking home upon the frozen river, Ma and Emmet reveal the fate of the washtub and tool chest. In a flash of inspiration, Ma suggests that her song and the jug-band’s song might fit together. Doc Bullfrog, owner of the Riverside Rest, overhears their impromptu recital and offers a paying gig. The story closes with Ma, Emmet, and the jug-band devoting a spiritual to the departed Pa Otter.

The material could have been overly earnest and maudlin. Fortunately, the script by The Muppet Show scribe Jerry Juhl is full of wit and surprise, while the score by Paul Williams is equal parts jaunty and solemn. Kermit the Frog appears—riding a bicycle!—as well as provides light narration. The anarchic Muppet sensibility is present but dialed down, allowing the action to unfold at a leisurely pace. That gives the viewer time to soak in the rich, immersive world created by Jim Henson’s team. As the Muppet creator would explain in Jim Henson: The Works,

Emmet Otter was the first time we had gotten into those kind of elaborate sets where we had floors in the interiors and we would take a wide-angle shot with characters coming up through holes in the floor. Or we’d cut into the set and remove the floor and have the characters moving through space in waist shots. That was the most elaborate production we had gotten into at that point.

“Perhaps We’re Long Lost Brothers”

Kids of today might find it hard to fathom, but there was a time that if you missed your favorite Christmas program, you were out of luck. With cable in its infancy and VCRs a luxury, if you wanted to see A Charlie Brown Christmas you made damn sure you weren’t going to the skating rink that night and were stationed in front of the television. Children wishing to watch Emmet Otter faced a different set of obstacles. Households not only needed to receive cable—not a given—but also subscribe to HBO.

However, the lucky few were granted a handful of opportunities to see Emmet Otter during the ramp up to Christmas. The special premiered on HBO in December of 1977, and would return to the cable outlet the next two years. In 1980, ABC obtained the rights and aired the special to a wider national audience.

What new viewers didn’t realize was that the network broadcast premiere differed in numerous ways from the original In addition to adding fades to facilitate commercials, scenes were trimmed, while others were lengthened. Emmet would return to HBO in its original incarnation the following year. Hence, two competing versions of Emmet Otter would spend years in reruns, each vying for the mantle of being the true, authentic special.

In 1996 yet another version was created for VHS. This Emmet not only did away with Kermit’s narration and final appearance, where he enjoys Ma and Emmet’s triumphant performance at the Riverside Rest, but also excises some of the more cherished lines. Fans of the original relish when Ma Otter mutters under her breath that she wishes for mean Gretchen Fox to “fall off the dock.” The line disappears in the 1996 version, perhaps a result of the politically correct climate of the time.

Filtering out the adult frustrations of Ma Otter does a disservice to the spirit of the original. Kids responded to the emotion. Removing it is as foolish as swapping guns for walkie-talkies as Spielberg had for his ET.: Special Edition.

A “Collector’s Edition” promising to restore Emmet to its former glory was released in 2005. Indeed, all the action involving Emmet and the gang is exactly as seen in the HBO version, however, Kermit is completely gone. The Henson Company had sold most the Muppets—but not Emmet—to Disney, who would not permit Kermit to remain in the special. The story is compelling without Kermit, whose presence seemed mostly to vet a new set of Muppets to the audience. But in failing (or not even trying) to reunite narrator and story, the Henson Company and Disney send a message that both are interested in uninitiated viewers over nostalgia.

Speculation continues online as to why certain cuts were made. (Check Amazon’s review section for spirited, and sometimes, misinformed debate.) For one hardcore Emmet Otter fanatic, carping online wasn’t nearly enough.

“Those Two Could Fit Together!”

With the advent of cheap editing software and better source materials, fan edits have attempted to bridge the gap between fan obsession and commercial shortcomings. The most noteworthy recent fan edit to make a splash is Star Wars: Despecialized Edition, which earned raves from Lucas-critic Simon Pegg. Philfrog’s Emmet Otter restoration earns similar praise from longtime fans.

The splintering of a work of art into multiple versions is nothing new, even for Christmas specials. Both A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer have alternate scenes and cues. What makes Emmet Otter stand out is how the varying cuts change the overall feel of the viewing experience. In a similar vein, fans of Blade Runner have several versions to consider when appraising the overall effect of the film. Matt Hills’ Cultographies: Blade Runner examines the relationship between viewer and variation of source material:

… the multiplicity of ‘fan texts’ (that is, texts which provoke fandom and sustain fan attention) allows fandom to shape textual boundaries. Fans can determine for themselves, from the multiple options, exactly what they count as ‘proper’ Blade Runner.

Blade Runner devotees are given the option to pick and choose which version fits their needs. While most critics prefer the cuts missing Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) narration, undoubtedly there are those who might have been first ushered into Blade Runner through that version, and who, when watching the film sans narration, can’t not “hear” Ford’s voice.

The same goes for Emmet Otter: You can’t not “see” and “hear” Kermit; he is inextricably linked to Frogtown Hollow. The special begins with the sight of Kermit riding and falling off a bike. He even has a run-in with the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, who snatch his scarf. His voice guides the tale along, and he appears (in turtleneck) at the end. Emmet without Kermit feels incomplete.

Enter fan editor “Philfrog.” Drawing from numerous VHS recordings and officially released sources, Philfrog has cobbled together the most complete Emmet to date.

Philfrog hews close to the spirit of the original cut, while incorporating extra footage from subsequent releases. The end result is that rare animal: An extended version that does not feel overstuffed with unnecessary fluff. The full effect of Henson’s magic comes through without concessions to over-reaching parental censorship or corporate hang-ups. What’s left is a magical Christmas tale, not only how you remembered it, but, somehow, even better.

— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.