In the early going, “Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow” creates a queasy feeling roughly equivalent to the aftermath of Thanksgiving overindulgence, built as it is around dredging up a rather flimsy idea dreamt up by the Muppets mastermind nearly 50 years ago. Stick with it, though, and this Lifetime movie turns into a passable family adventure, showcasing the Henson Co.’s trademark creature designs while inoffensively building a new holiday-friendly legend around them. High art it’s not, but unlike most overstuffed Lifetime movies, the whole family can watch together, and nobody winds up a chalk outline.
Of course, reaching the heartwarming filling requires chewing through the clunky setup, which involves the newly divorced Ron Emmerson (Jay Harrington) — who won’t actually say that word — dragging his young son Tim (Graham Verchere) and predictably surly teenage daughter Annie (Genevieve Buechner) into the sticks to visit his Aunt Cyd (Mary Steenburgen).
Seemingly determined to prove they have updated a long-dormant story conjured by Henson and collaborator Jerry Juhl back in 1968 (both are now deceased), writers Christopher Baldi and Tim Burns have the kids fret a lot about being off the grid and getting lousy cellphone reception. They also include Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as an onscreen narrator, a fun idea that ultimately falls pretty flat.
Soon enough, fortunately, the kids plunge into a longstanding mystery surrounding the quaint little berg of Turkey Hollow — namely, the rumored existence of a giant creature called the Howling Hoodoo. And wonder of wonders, Tim stumbles into a mess that could cost his hippy-dippy aunt thousands of dollars, providing an extra incentive to go traipsing into the forest to try earning the $10,000 reward that goes with nabbing a photograph of the elusive beast.
Naturally, something does live in those woods, but it’s not exactly what the legends say. And while the search becomes a trifle predictable — complete with the cartoon villains that help tease out the plot, and some mildly rude dialogue aimed at older kids — there are universal and familiar qualities in the underlying messages, which require both embracing magic and getting adults to see the world through a child’s eyes. (In that regard, there’s more than a dollop of “Harry and the Hendersons” baked into the pie, down to the setting’s leafy environs.)
Directed by Kirk Thatcher (a veteran of the Henson machinery, and in the interest of critical disclosure, a fleeting college classmate), “Turkey Hollow” clearly trades on the Henson name, given how generic this story is. Nevertheless, it’s in keeping with the spirit of its namesake’s work, and represents a kind of gooey throwback to the days when networks regularly churned out such holiday specials — when, indeed, gathering around to watch Hallmark movies was still a big deal.
Approaching “Turkey Hollow” that way diffuses some of the cynicism it might otherwise engender. And for those who regularly complain that in this age of family members scattering to individual screens there’s not enough on that’s aimed at a broad target, at least this flightless effort isn’t a complete turkey.