Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow, Lifetime’s charming Thanksgiving film, almost didn’t get made. Jim Henson originally wrote the film’s treatment with longtime writing partner Jerry Juhl over four decades ago, but the project was shelved, and subsequently forgotten, when another of their projects became a huge success. “The original treatment is dated from 1968,” says Henson’s daughter Lisa, CEO of The Jim Henson Company. “By 1969, it was all hands on deck with Sesame Street.”
So that treatment lingered in purgatory until it was recently rediscovered. “We came across this treatment,” Lisa recalls, “and I was so charmed by it. I said, ‘There really isn’t a perennial Thanksgiving special. There’s nothing like this.’” Ironically, another find alongside the treatment was a photo of Lisa and sister Cheryl holding the original Turkey Hollow puppets in the Henson family’s backyard; an image taken by their father. “We were the assistant wranglers holding the puppets up for the photographs. Then I guess he backed the camera up and took a picture of us doing that. Then it all came back to me. I remembered all of that when I looked at the pictures. I remembered him talking about the taxidermy eyes and what an interesting find that was for him, and the idea of giving the puppets a more animal-like quality and a naturalism,” she explains.
The trip down memory lane was the catalysis the project needed; Lisa knew she had to finish the project her father had started. But first, the original puppets needed a modern makeover. “We actually found the original puppets, which were crumbling, as all old puppets do,” she says. The modernized monsters are larger than their predecessors, to make room for animatronic controls that give the puppets’ faces more expressive movement. The story also got a refresher; and while much the same as Jim and Jerry’s whimsical and timeless vision, it needed a few extra plot points to lengthen the work into a feature film.
In the film, a recently divorced dad takes his children to experience a traditional Thanksgiving holiday with his eccentric Aunt Cly (Mary Steenburgen). Cly lives in the charming hamlet of Turkey Hollow, which has neither Wi-Fi nor cable, but boasts a healthy turkey population and a forest-dwelling urban legend called the Howling Hoodoo. The kids get caught up in the search for the mythical beast and along the way they discover magical new friends.
Lisa is thrilled by Steenburgen’s performance and gushes, “Even though this is a small, family movie, I think she is bringing a very big performance to it.” Rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is also delightful as the film’s comically self-aware narrator, but the film’s biggest standouts are its magical, musical monsters.
The film’s furry stars are a testament to the continuing excellence of The Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in preserving Henson’s legacy of genius in the arts of puppeteering, creative design and storytelling. And there is no more perfect tribute to Jim Henson than Turkey Hollow in its ability to entertain and enrapture audiences of all ages. “I’m so proud of the fact that there’s something here for everybody,” Lisa Henson says. “I think this is a project that really fulfills that elusive desire that so many people have for an all-family entertainment, something that parents and kids could enjoy together.”
Growing up Henson…
Although Lisa and her siblings grew up surrounded by puppets, their father’s creations weren’t playthings. “We didn’t really play with them as a child,” she reveals. “Actually, my father was pretty protective of his puppets, and while we always grew up in and around the workshop, they really weren’t toys. People put a lot of care into making the puppets for production, so the toys were at home. The puppets were at work.”
Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow > Lifetime > Nov. 21 at 8pm ET/PT