Jim Henson has been gone for 25 years, but the company bearing his name lives on. Still, it has become somewhat rare to actually see anything come out under the Jim Henson Studios label itself. Shortly before Henson died, he parceled out his most famous properties to companies he felt would take care of them. Children’s Television Workshop got Sesame Street (and is now called Sesame Workshop). Disney got the Muppets. The Jim Henson Company retained ownership of Fraggle Rock, but that property has lain fallow, and there have been very few side-projects.
So when I saw that a new Jim Henson Company production was going to be airing on Lifetime, I broke from my usual rule of “no Lifetime made-for-TV movies” in order to check out Turkey Hollow, which debuted this Saturday, November 21st, and has some repeat airings tonight.
The story is a small family affair. A divorced dad (Jay Harrington) takes his two kids out to join his aunt Cly for Thanksgiving in the small town of Turkey Hollow. Cly, played by Mary Steenburgen, is an old hippie type, with an organic flower farm, a penchant for beet-based vegan meals, and no connections to the outside world save for an old rotary telephone. Naturally the kids aren’t terribly impressed at first, particularly the teenaged daughter (Genevieve Buechner, whose facial expressions really sell the personality). Of course, it’s soon time for the family to pull together, as an error by young Tim (Graham Verchere) puts Cly’s farm at risk.
The story was apparently based on an idea Jim Henson himself had. The fact that it didn’t make it out during his lifetime is a little telling, and the fact that it laid dormant for an additional two and a half decades is more so. It was apparently reworked a bit by director Kirk R. Thatcher — who also directed the made-for-TV Muppet specials It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, and The Muppets: Letters to Santa. Those three specials all felt like they were a little lacking in the old Muppet magic, and the story of Turkey Hollow shares the same feeling of hollowness. The crux of the problem is that the threat to the farm is absolutely ridiculous, dependent on both a peculiar and specific town law (and a misreading of it obvious to even a casual viewer), and a villain of the sort that is more at home in Captain Planet. Linden Banks as Eldridge Sump is a conniving, corrupt turkey farmer who’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on Cly’s lands, and who secretly practices steroid-doping on his supposedly-organic turkeys. The characters aren’t badly acted… they’re just badly written. Good guys or bad, they’re all pretty flat.
That’s not to say the movie is all bad. There are a few flashes of humor here and there. Nothing too strong, but the occasional bits of narration from Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are worth a laugh here and there, and I cracked a smile at the awkward Freudian slips the sheriff (Reese Alexander) had when talking to Cly. But the real reason to watch is just to once again see Jim Henson’s Creature Shop at work. Yes, there are creatures in Turkey Hollow, and what charm the movie has comes almost entirely from them. As Harrington’s character says, they straddle the line between ugly and adorable, and the skill of the puppeteers is on full display. Even if the plot and humor are a little on the thin side, it’s still worth taking a look just for the craftsmanship of the critters, at least if one appreciates the medium of puppetry.
Otherwise… well, Thanksgiving has always been a little light on movies and specials, so it’s hard to say no to a new one. But I don’t think a movie in which the bad guy is a turkey farmer and the good guy is a vegan is going to fly for a lot of traditional Thanksgiving-dinner families even if it were a more engaging story than this.