There is no better year for Dolly Parton to play a literal angel. Between her new Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, the Netflix special we’re going to talk about today, and her million-dollar donation to research what became Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, it’s led to a resurgence in her popularity and has reminded everyone why they love her so much. And I would like to start here by saying how much I love Parton because I’m about to get mean.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square follows Regina (Christine Baranski), an embittered businesswoman who returns to her hometown to notify the residents that she’s selling the town to a conglomerate that will force the townsfolk to move and turn the land into a mall. Our Scrooge stand-in is visited by an angel (Parton) who will force her to confront her past and beg her to change her cruel ways.
Christmas on the Square feels like the bad community theatre production that you begrudgingly attend because your friend is in it and you don’t want to disappoint them. You sit near the back where the lights are so dim that no one will notice when you leave early. It looks and acts like a Hallmark Christmas movie – this small town which is apparently in poor enough financial shape that it can just be bought out to become a shopping mall (in 2020, where malls barely even exist anymore) is fully decked out for the holidays. Everyone in this town owns their own small business in the town square and everyone is gratingly happy. And yet the actors always look exhausted, probably because they’re working 17-hour days to not go over budget. Also, there are scenes between Parton and Baranski where the two actresses are not in the same room, and one is green-screened in.
Christmas on the Square is based on a stage production that is performed at Parton’s Dollywood, and I’m sure it’s a lovely 45-minute experience. But this is over 90 minutes, and it becomes exhausting after about minute 20. The film can’t seem to make up its mind between being a filmed stage production and an actual film adaptation. Lots of scenes are filmed on what is a stage, and so much of it looks like stage set design. But, we’ll later follow Baranski to her house and Parton visits her and she’s floating on an awful-looking CGI cloud singing a song about how everybody needs an angel.
This brings me to the songs – Baranski is such a fantastic singer, and she can sell even the dumbest possible music – go look at Mamma Mia! for more on this. And she seems to understand what a stupid movie this is, and she’s making the most out of the campy nature of this entire endeavor. This is a 90-minute film that contains over 25 songs, and none of them are good. So many of them are painfully on-the-nose exposition dump songs with the most cringe-worthy lyrics that comment on what’s happening onscreen – Lookin’ at life in the rear-view mirror reveals your destiny! It’s a full-on musical that bombards you with reprise after reprise, and you walk away with none of these songs stuck in your head.
One particularly terrible song arrives pretty early on – at a church meeting organized to protest Regina’s decision, the townsfolk sing Wickedest Witch of the Middle, where they name all of the different ways they could bludgeon and brutally murder their antagonist. And we’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward these terrible people, who are canonically no better than the story’s villain. This is a Christmas movie designed to be fun for the whole family, and these people are monsters!
The people of this town could not be less engaging to watch, either.
Treat Williams plays Regina’s one-who-got-away, and he owns the town’s general store and he’s boring. Josh Segarra plays the local pastor, and Mary Lane Haskell plays his wife, and they’re a couple that so badly wants to have a baby and they suck too. Jenifer Lewis plays Margeline, an old friend of Regina’s who is the town hairdresser, and she seems to be having fun with the campiness of all this, and she’s on the less grating side of things.
Directed by Debbie Allen, Christmas on the Square feels like a labor of love, but it’s also an excruciatingly painful viewing experience. It didn’t give me the warm-and-fuzzies you want from a Christmas movie, and even though Parton looks right into the camera in the final scene and asks the viewer to be kind to their fellow human beings or something like that, I don’t think this film will convince anyone to truly make a positive change in their life. I would say, go out into the world and do good things, just like Dolly Parton does in her own life. Because in reality, you will have probably will turned off this movie by the time you get to that point.