Thanksgiving is America’s great television holiday, a harvest feast with parade telecasts for an appetizer, presentations of the National Football League as a main course (plus second helpings), and a dessert of some crowd-pleasing blockbuster film or another. In the realm of episodic television, Thanksgiving brings a Cheers food fight and overcommitted Gilmore Girls, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” and the one where Dr. Bob Hartley gets hammered. Unlike Halloween, Christmas, or roasting a turkey to perfection, TV usually gets Thanksgiving just right.
TV specials are where the holiday falls short of its fellow fourth-quarter celebrations. Christmas is when Charlie Brown experiences good will toward men and Halloween is when he gets to go to a real party; Thanksgiving is when Chuck and company inexplicably banish Franklin to the opposite side of the dinner table. The traditions and family dynamics that lend themselves to Thanksgiving installments of ongoing series just don’t play as well in yearly one-offs. Even Jim Henson, who produced half a dozen Christmas specials in his lifetime, was flummoxed by turkey day. In 1968, Henson and longtime collaborator Jerry Juhl developed The Musical Monsters Of Turkey Hollow, a Thanksgiving special about the non-feathered creatures populating the fictional turkey capital of the world. A screenplay was written, puppets were built, and songs were commissioned from Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo (or, depending on the source, jazz maverick-turned-electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott). But The Musical Monsters Of Turkey Hollow went unsold, its script filed away in The Jim Henson Company archives, where it was eventually rediscovered and posthumously adapted into a graphic novel, following a similar treatment for the unrealized Henson-Juhl film project, Tale Of Sand.
A year after Roger Langridge’s book hit the shelves, the musical monsters finally reach their original destination—though their omission from the title of the new Lifetime telefilm is telling. As directed by Henson Company lifer Kirk Thatcher, Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow puts its people before its puppets. The focus here is on Annie and Tim Emmerson (Genevieve Buechner and Graham Verchere), wrested from their usual long-weekend routine by their newly single father, Ron (Jay Harrington). Dad’s taking the kids to Turkey Hollow, where he spent many a holiday when he was their age, soaking up the hospitality of his eccentric Aunt Cly (Mary Steenburgen). Ron really lays on the “newly single” part as the family car pulls into town, the first of many expository tellings of the unhappy situation back home. It only takes a few scenes for his euphemisms to arrive at “conscious uncoupling.”
Still, a modern-day fairy tale starring fantastical creatures who communicate in Mad magazine sound effects (“Burble,” “Zorp,” “Squonk,” and “Thwring”) ought to feel a little more unconventional than Turkey Hollow. The teleplay by Tim Burns and Christopher Baldi follows plenty of established holiday-special patterns, with its strange relatives, a play for family togetherness, squabbling siblings, and exaggerated adversary (Linden Banks) who threatens to ruin the Emmersons’ Thanksgiving (and all their future Thanksgivings) after Tim messes with his prize turkeys. When the film shows some awareness of its place within the seasonal canon, it’s a fun little diversion: Following in the footsteps of Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, and Burl Ives, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges acts as celebrity narrator, speeding the plot along and cracking wise in a wardrobe by Mr. Autumn Man. Because he’s there primarily for kicks, Luda winds up having the most sparkling chemistry with the Turkey Hollow monsters, palling around in fourth-wall-busting segments with the rock-eating fuzzballs, who resemble a hybrid of the original Musical Monsters designs and the namesake stars of the Critters franchise.
But the monster’s cartoonish hijinks (and ultimately timely assistance) fail to mesh with the human story of a father trying to hold his family together or a widow threatened with homelessness. The usually great Harrington has little chance to deploy his Better Off Ted deadpan in this heightened universe; Steenburgen ends a terrific, terrifically active TV year—in which she left her mark on Togetherness, Justified, Orange Is The New Black, and The Last Man On Earth—with a character whose generically crunchy quirks never capture the earthiness Steenburgen naturally exudes. The kids are even more broadly drawn: Buechner every part the eye-rolling teen she wasn’t as UnREAL’s hapless PA Madison, and Verchere’s Tim yearning for the adventure and opportunities to say “Whoa” that are the birthright of all cinematic Tims. Time spent only with the Emmersons makes the heart yearn for the monsters, Ludacris, or Banks’ perfectly named Eldridge Sump, a factory farmer with a mean streak and a Scooby-Doo villain’s grasp on greed-fueled scheming. (Another pop-culture convention that doesn’t escape Turkey Hollow’s notice, to amusing ends.)
These are the signs of the big, bright, imaginative Musical Monsters Of Turkey Hollow that might have been, rather than the modernized version presented here, with its instant-time-capsule jokes about veganism, hashtags, and Honey Boo Boo. The monsters—nailing the blend of grotesque and enchanting that’s been the signature of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop since The Dark Crystal—account for most of the film’s personality, even as the earth tones of their fur set up a dispiritingly bland visual palette. (The lack of autumnal color is lampshaded by a change in regional setting, trading the New England of Henson and Juhl’s screenplay and Langridge’s graphic novel for a lushly green Pacific Northwest.) And although Turkey Hollow’s long journey to the screen has rendered it into run-of-the-mill family fare, it earns a few points for genuine weirdness: There’s certainly something bold about a comedic double act consisting of a blow-dried badger and the guy who recorded “Splash Waterfalls.” The film isn’t going to improve the reputation of the Thanksgiving TV special, but it’s definitely something that can play in the background of a family gathering, piquing someone’s interest every 20 minutes or so. Consider it the marshmallow-sweet-potato casserole congealing to the side of John Madden’s six-legged turkey. Just make sure to check the marshmallow layer for any stray monster hairs.