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Review: ‘Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow’ serves up all the familiar holiday stuffing in a solid, smart way

Burble and Annie (Genevieve Buechner) celebrate a holiday Jim Henson-style in "Turkey Hollow" on Lifetime.

Burble and Annie (Genevieve Buechner) celebrate a holiday Jim Henson-style in “Turkey Hollow” on Lifetime.

(Sergei Bachlakov)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

There is an oblique reference to a well-known cartoon series toward the end of “Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow,” an appealing new holiday film premiering Saturday on Lifetime. Whether it’s there as an act of homage or an admission of guilt, I don’t know, but the movie is very much a variation on a theme by “Scooby-Doo” — if the gang had some light family business to resolve.

Written by Tim Burns (“Crank Yankers,” the Canadian “My Babysitter’s a Vampire”) and Christopher Baldi, the film is based on a story and characters created in 1968 by the late Jim Henson and his also-departed writing partner, Jerry Juhl. Henson, of course, is the man who made the Muppets, who now work for Disney, which has contractually bound them to an underperforming ABC sitcom, while the Jim Henson Co. goes about its other businesses (including Fusion’s great puppet-pundit panel show, “No, You Shut Up!”).

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Notwithstanding some mildly suggestive humor, it is as old-fashioned a piece as its time-capsule origins would suggest. Director Kirk Thatcher, who also made “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” and “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” knows the drill.

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The setup recalls a thousand such seasonal movies, another 600 of which will be made this year by the Hallmark Channel. Jay Harrington plays a recently divorced father who goes to spend Thanksgiving with a favorite oddball aunt (Mary Steenburgen) in a well-remembered place in the back of beyond, off the grid, in the woods.

In tow are his children: a boy, excitable and inquisitive (Graham Verchere), a girl, suspicious and bored (Genevieve Buechner). Like Hansel and Gretel and their many fairy tale siblings, they will go into that forest, where a Bigfoot-type creature is said to lurk.

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The parts are classically apportioned. In addition to the family, there are a greedy villain (Linden Banks), henchmen in assorted sizes, an almost amorous sheriff (Reese Alexander) and — what I suppose might strictly speaking be considered a spoiler, but given the provenance, no less than you should expect — some friendly monsters, played by puppets. (Legally, not Muppets.) Also they’re in the ads.

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And, as in “Our Town” and, oh, lots of things, there is an onstage narrator, played by a very amusing Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in a Mr. Rogers cardigan. He brings the meta (“Am I on? I thought somebody called lunch,” “Does that say ‘tragically slayed’ or ‘magically saved’? I can barely see the cue cards”), and he brings it well.

Everyone hits their marks and pulls their weight, but Steenburgen is the star here. Even in the least promising settings, she’s always worth watching; without changing much about her person, she can go from innocent to villainess with ease and aplomb.

Here, she adds a gray streak to her hair to play a slightly witchy, more than slightly grumpy old hippie, someone who loves the world but is less sure about people. (She would prefer not to be hugged.) Unusually, the film respects this: Aunt Cly is not, in the typical way of these things, a block of ice waiting to be thawed. She’s doing all right, thanks.

On the not very deep downside, it can be a little predictable in its broad lines, based on one’s experience of holiday specials and “Scooby-Doo.” And there is perhaps a little too much whimsicality in the score, which needlessly doubles down on the whimsy already on screen. The film is best at its least sentimental, and it is mostly not sentimental.

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Overall, this is smart, solid whole-family entertainment, modest in its ambitions yet far above the run of made-for-TV holiday yuck you will be offered in the weeks ahead. And it has puppets.

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‘Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow’

Where: Lifetime

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When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-PG L (infrequent coarse language)

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