'Jim Henson's Turkey Hollow': TV Review

Lifetime's Turkey Hollow Ludacris - H 2015
Courtesy of Lifetime
Neither ludicrous enough, nor enough Ludacris.

This Lifetime movie fulfills a Thanksgiving season need for Mary Steenburgen, but not puppets.

Calling Lifetime's Turkey Hollow a holiday special featuring creatures from the Jim Henson Company is like saying that a recent Saturday Night Live episode was hosted by Donald Trump. Sure, it's factually accurate, but it maybe sets an unfulfillable expectation. The Henson name is all over Turkey Hollow, which is being promoted with wacky and whimsical photos of Ludacris and magical felt monsters, but when all is said and done, you probably get less than 15 minutes of actual screen time from anything puppet-related. That's perhaps still more onscreen time than SNL gave Trump, and at least Bert and Ernie probably aren't going to be filing for equal time.

Instead Turkey Hollow, premiering on Saturday (November 21), ends up being a disappointing conclusion to Mary Steenburgen's 2015 television renaissance, which has included small-screen triumphs on basic cable (award-worthy work on FX's Justified), premium cable (a loopy turn on HBO's Togetherness), streaming (a great arc on Orange Is the New Black) and network (a regular role on FOX's Last Man on Earth).

Directed by longtime Muppet cohort Kirk Thatcher, this is the story of the Emmerson family and their Thanksgiving visit to the Pacific Northwest town of Turkey Hollow, a small community full of flightless birds and a legendary woodland creature known as The Hideous Howling Hoodoo. Workaholic dad Ron (Jay Harrington) is bringing social-media-addicted daughter Annie (Genevieve Buechner) and nerdy son Tim (Graham Verchere) to Turkey Hollow to visit Aunt Cly (Steenburgen), a reclusive hippie whose dearly departed husband had a bit of a Hideous Howling Hoodoo obsession. Soon the kids run afoul — or should I say "afowl"? — of a local turkey farmer who is branded as evil because he has the temerity to feed his birds hormones. This leads to a journey through the forest and, eventually but not fast enough, to puppets.

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Though we think of Lifetime movies as variations either on women-in-peril tales or on semi-prestige biopics, Turkey Hollow hails from the same intellectual corner as last winter's Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever. Written by Christopher Baldi and Tim Burns (from a long-gestating idea by the late legendary Henson-ite Jerry Juhl), it's a holiday special that's very much aware it's a holiday special, right down to the self-aware narration from Ludacris and the daughter's declaration early on, "I'm probably missing some great Internet snark right now. Hashtag boring."

Much of the Internet snark, should people actually watch Turkey Hollow, is going to boil down to variations on, "I was promised creatures. Where are the creatures?" And Annie's suggested hashtag will very likely come into play because it's over 30 minutes before a musical monster shows up, and while it's OK not to show the full shark until late in Jaws if you're expertly ratcheting up tension in the interim, Turkey Hollow spends most of the time laying foundation for a plot that isn't complicated enough to justify the exposition. As with the Grumpy Cat movie, there's a flimsy villain and boring, bumbling henchmen and a real estate-driven story that may lead to Aunt Cly losing her house and a grown-up who doesn't believe in magic, and it's all perfunctory enough that it should have been dispatched within 10 minutes at the most.

People are coming for the monsters, and when Burble, Squonk, Thwring and Zorp actually show up, Turkey Hollow temporarily perks up. The monsters are hairy rock-eaters with bushy eyebrows, distinctive noses and a love for singing. Think Martin Scorsese without the encyclopediac knowledge of Italian cinema. They're expressive and funny, and when you pair them with Ludacris, the result is a guaranteed, if brief, chuckle.

I have no doubt that kids will love Burble, SquonkThwring and Zorp and wish they could watch an entire special that was actually dedicated to the creatures. I wouldn't want to bet on kids (or grown-ups) having the same enthusiasm for Aunt Cly ranting about the evils of meat or for Ron complaining about his divorce settlement or for everybody just accepting a  clause in the town charter that will allow The Evil Turkey Farmer to take Aunt Cly's house in 48 hours if she doesn't pay a debt that coincidentally matches the reward for a picture of The Hideous Howling Hoodoo.

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Ludacris' "What am I doing here?" bemusement makes him the standout in the Turkey Hollow cast, though there's nothing wrong with Steenburgen's loopy sleepwalking unless you're thinking of all of the terrific work she's done this year and what a crime it was that Emmy voters snubbed her for Justified. Harrington needed to recruit a couple Better Off Ted writers to do a polish so that his character was less of a put-upon straight man. And Verchere and Buechner both look believably grateful when the puppets show up. There's a sense that most of the supporting cast may have been plucked at random from shooting locations in Nova Scotia.

While you might look at press stills like the one accompanying this review and think, "Luda fist-bumping a monster equals appointment viewing" — I made this mistake -- I'd advise caution. However, if you want to watch two amiable but unremarkable child actors meander Muppet-less through the woods while their father does paperwork and Ludacris reads cue cards in a shawl-collar sweater I can only describe as glorious, you may have found a new Thanksgiving tradition.