"Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas" does not loom large on the annals of Muppetology. Jim Henson and associates made the one-hour taped fantasy a few years ago, hoping for a network sale. No one was interested, and the program wound up on HBO last Christmas. Now ABC has finally picked it up, and it airs tonight at 8 on Channel 7.
Alas, this is one of those confounded occasions when it appears a television network was actually right the first time; although admirable and attractive as a piece of craftsmanship, the program suffers from a prosaic sense of illusion and a woebegone scenario.
And it has all the warmth of a commercial for the smokeless ashtray.
Except for an open and close by Kermit the Frog, the program is bereft of the usual muppets; Henson wanted to experiment with slightly more realistic, less stylized characters. Children may find the fuzzy creatures cute, but they are basically inexpressive, and the actors' voices they are given never quite belong. Insipid songs by Paul Williams don't help either.
Anthropomorphism may not be the crime against nature that antiwhimsical forces like to claim, but Henson and writer Jerry Juhl have taken it one step downward by making the animals insufferably cash-conscious and materialistic. It's one thing to give them human attributes and another to have these darned otters carrying on about a lack of money and the high cost of electric guitars.
Salvation comes not as peace on earth or goodwill toward anybody, but is manifested instead in a show-business career that rescues Alice Otter and her son Emmet from rustic anonymity. Obviously "Emmet Otter" was a precursor of "The Muppet Movie," in which making it big becomes the be-all and end-all of existence.
It appears the folks at Henson Associates have awfully limited frames of reference and two abiding values -- money and stardom. The Muppets may be clever, imaginative and sophisticated, but when it comes to theology and moral codes, they can't hold a candle to Lassie, Jiminy Cricket or Kukla, Fran and Ollie.