Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 5

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

It seemed right to follow-up yesterdays viewing of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with another holiday special featuring muppets. Despite my affection for Jim Henson and his critters, I had never even heard of “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” until a few years back. A seventies TV Christmas special, created with muppet creatures, and featuring music from Paul Williams? That should be right up my alley. The reason “Emmet Otter” remains obscure among all but hardcore muppet aficionados is probably because it doesn’t get aired much anymore. A blue-grass inspired Christmas special about otters probably has a limited appeal, now that I think about it.

Emmet Otter and his mother live a simple life in near poverty along the river. Mother barely makes enough to put food on the table by washing clothes. Emmet, meanwhile, does odd jobs to make what money he can. Christmas is approaching and neither have much to spend on gifts. That’s when both Emmet and mom find out about a talent contest, the prize money being fifty dollars. Both secretly enter the competition, in hopes of winning the prize money so they can buy the other a gift.

Despite that descriptive title, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is a relatively low key affair. There’s very little in way of wacky antics here. The special, running only 49 minutes, is mostly focused on the quiet lives of these characters. (Who just happen to be puppet otters and other woodland animals.) Emmet and his mom sing songs as they row up the river. They reminisce about his deceased father. They consider the life style they would have if they could only afford it. The most action in the special occurs when Emmet and friends ride a sled on the frozen river. The special invokes a down home, country feel with its sets. The puppets, a combination of traditional muppets and unconvincing marionettes, hang out on earthy miniature sets, of small wooden homes in a snowy countryside. It definitely captures a certain look and feel. Kind of like a Thomas Kinkade painting that doesn’t suck.

I’m not afraid to call myself a Paul Williams fan either. When I saw his name in the opening credits, it definitely set up certain expectations. Disappointingly, most of the songs in “Emmet Ottter’s Jug-Band Christmas” aren’t that memorable. “The Old Bathing Suit” and “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub” have fairly forgettable lyrics and wobbling melodies. “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” the bad guy’s big rock number, doesn’t even have that going for it. Of the songs, only three really stick out. “Barbecue” is a catchy, up-beat number. “Our World/Brothers” ties in nicely with the story’s conclusion. The only straight-up classic song is “When the River Meets the Sea,” a melancholy number about accepting death. The song would later crop up in one of the John Denver/Muppets specials, where it would gain wider exposure.

Maybe the best attribute of “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is the surprising moral it carries. Emmet’s band and his mom both perform well in the talent show. However, the hooligan bad guys – with their lumbering hard rock number – still win the competition. This is the exact opposite conclusion you’d expect for a Christmas special. Instead, Emmet and his friends wind up getting a job singing at a local restaurant, where they finally start to make some okay money. The message seems to be that some people are always going to succeed, even if they don’t deserve it. Others are going to struggle their whole lives to earn a living. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth celebrating. It’s the kind of mature, fair, but honestly touching message you expect from a Jim Henson production. It’s an unconventional Christmas message but an appropriate one.

Truthfully, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is probably too slow paced for kids. I imagine ADHD-afflicted modern youths will wander off fairly quickly. The muppet effects are pretty interesting. The special looks good, if nothing else. While a few of the songs are decent, too many are forgettable. Maybe that’s why, unlike so many Jim Henson productions, this one has slipped into obscurity. [6/10]

The Venture Bros.: A Very Venture Christmas

Ah, I remember when I first discovered “The Venture Bros.” The show’s nerdy, layered, and neurotic humor hit all my sweet spots. The later seasons, while still pretty good, haven’t held my attention as much. The long production times between seasons don’t help either. But I still adore those first two years. Airing between seasons one and two, “A Very Venture Christmas” only runs eleven minutes.

In it, Dr. Venture prepares his annual Christmas party. Brock prepares his Santa costume, Dr. Orpheus tries to protect his daughter’s virginity, Hank tries to find his Christmas presents, and Dean spends a fortune on a Christmas story phone line. While the boys search for a seasonal story, they accidentally summon the Krampus. Meanwhile, the Monarch has his own plans to ruin Dr. Venture’s party.

For such a compressed run time, “A Very Venture Christmas” really packs in the laughs. It begins with a hilarious piss-take on multiple Christmas specials, combining “A Christmas Carol,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and probably a few others into one. It moves on to the expected Venture shenanigans, the neurotic characters trading razor-sharp, absurd dialogue. My favorite moment is probably Pete White’s unsuccessful attempts to hit on Triana. The Monarch’s plot, which involves a very specialized agent named Tiny Joseph, is equally amusing in its absurdity. The appearance from the Krampus – a much more obscure figure back in 2004 – moves the episode into chaotic madness. There’s whipping and fighting, ending in a huge explosion. If you’ve never seen an episode of “The Venture Bros.,” a lot of the jokes about established characters will probably go over your head. At the same time, the jokes come so fast and furious that I can also see this turning newcomers into fans. Either way, it’s a good anecdote to the typical Christmas special cheer. [8/10]

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