Emmet Otter (voiced by Jerry Nelson) is a young river dweller who lives with his widowed mother (Marilyn Sokol), and they eke their way through life doing odd jobs and laundry now that the head of the household has gone, not that Pa ever had much luck with keeping or making money in the first place. The pair of them have recently been doing the laundry for the local animals, but finding that even near to Christmas some are delaying paying their bills till afterwards, meaning their own festive season will be pretty impoverished - they cannot even afford to decorate a pine tree, they have to be content with a branch instead. However, there is a sliver of hope that they might be in luck, as a talent show has been announced in the community hall; think of what they could do with the fifty dollar prize money...
The Muppet Show had been on air for at least a year by the time this seasonal special was created by Jim Henson (who narrated as Kermit in one version) and his team of puppet masters. It was intended as an investigation as to what they could make their characters do with a view to applying those techniques to the more celebrated Muppets themselves in the planned work of two years later, The Muppet Movie, where a film-sized budget would be spent on the most accomplished puppetry they could muster. Therefore you could, if you were familiar with the cinematic incarnation, spot many of the stylings it employed were first attempted here, and it had to be said that the Henson community were on excellent form throughout this project, not least because of the overall effect this had on those who tuned in to watch it.
Not that Emmet Otter, based on Lillian and Russell Hoban's book, was dripping in sentimentality, it used a more melancholy tone instead as, for instance, the lead character was obviously struggling without a father and a lack of funds, which lent the air of sadness he was trying not to dwell upon by distracting himself with various brighter elements he discovered in life, such as the power of music. That was the point of the songs, all penned by Paul Williams who would do such sterling work on The Muppet Movie, and if there was no unforgettable standout such as The Rainbow Connection on this soundtrack, there were catchy tunes and one song performed by Ma Otter that would have many a viewer getting teary-eyed at its heartfelt qualities. Both she and Emmet enter the contest independently of one another, hoping to secure that prize.
For his part, Emmet is coaxed into joining his friends in the jug-band of the title, though he has to suffer the guilt of using Ma's washtub to make the bass, while for her part she sells Pa's beloved toolbox to pay for material to make a dress to perform in. All very pathos-friendly, and it succeeded to a point even if you knew you were being manipulated but as with much of Henson's productions it hailed from a generous, humane place so you were not too bothered about him pulling the heartstrings as surely as the puppet's strings. What this was not was particularly humorous, giving the impression of a bunch of cute, furry toys (and the not so cute rock band named Nightmare who mean to win the competition and demolish their rivals) acting out an achingly sincere plea for the audience to take a few chances and they may pay off. As for Emmet, there is a happy ending, though not what you might have expected, but one which if anything is more satisfying than the alternative that seemed possible, and technically it was both charming and ingenious, brilliant even (the rowing boat sequences must have been a nightmare to stage in themselves!).
American puppeteer and creator of the Muppets whose career took off when his puppets were used on children's show Sesame Street. The Muppets got their own show in the seventies, which was successful enough to make the jump to the big screen with The Muppet Movie and its sequels.
In the eighties, Henson went on to direct The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which both featured his puppets extensively, and on television he came up with Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller.