Dolly Parton proves that writing a lot of music doesn’t mean that you have written a film
Starring Dolly Parton, Jenifer Lewis, Josh Segarra, Jeanine Mason, Mary Lane Haskell, Treat Williams, and Christine Baranski
Christmas on the Square – shoot, sorry – Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square to us mere mortals, begins with a staggering 11-minute opening number. It’s the sort of expository number that one would expect from classic Hollywood Christmas movies, something that’s helped by a massive set which has obviously never been touched by genuine sunlight. The number starts with Dolly Parton, as a beggar, though she has to be the prettiest beggar that I have ever seen. Clearly she’s not so destitute that she can’t afford to have at least three layers of makeup on at all times, and also seems to carry around some sort of magical lighting where’er she goes, for she literally glows. Fortunately, this mystery is cleared up fairly quickly, as she turns out to be an angel, and her beseechment of change is more of a personal demand, instead of monetary.
All is well in the land of Fullerville, as it appears, with the happy couples bustling around and engaging in disarmingly acrobatic choreography in the lead up to Christmas. That is, up until Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski) appears, liberally handing out eviction notices to all of the residents, having recently inherited the town from her deceased father and in the process of selling it so it can be turned into a mall.
Clearly inspired by A Christmas Carol, Regina is visited not by visions of her past, future and present, but rather by Dolly Parton, sitting atop a mystical cloud, with boots fittingly decorated with rhinestones. Over the course of the film, Regina learns to hold others closer to her, but this is far from the only thing to happen during the course of the film: there’s also a couple desperate to conceive, but unable to; an uprising against Regina vaguely akin to the villagers storming the Beast’s castle; a possible deadly brain tumour; a terrible accident that, of course, takes place off screen; and a tragic backstory revealed via flashback.
In fact, the plot has so many things going on, and most of them during song, that it begs the question as to whether the songs or the plot were devised first. It almost seems as if the scriptwriters had to adapt as they went along to fit with whatever Ms Parton came up with, resulting in some frankly bizarre moments such as “The Wickedest Witch in the Middle”, in which the villagers come up with bizarre rhymes of how to murder Regina, such as “Throw her on the griddle”. It seems a vaguely un-Christian thing to do in a church, led by your pastor who is literally called Christian, but I won’t tug on that string. With so many songs, there’s little time for decent exploration of any deep emotion, but it keeps the pace bumbling along nicely.
The film is at its best when it’s self aware, such as when Regina turns her nose up at Dolly’s rhinestone boots, or Regina’s pithy remarks when best friend Margeline is singing literally at her, or when background characters are interrupted halfway through a line when they’re clearly about to swear.
Then there’s Christine Baranski’s performance. She acts rings around everybody else, which isn’t saying especially much, since everyone else fails to muster up a single iota of emotion throughout the entire movie. There’s one moment in which a grieving father manages to execute a perfectly unnecessary vocal run to start a song, so that sort of tells you the degree of emotional integrity we’re dealing with here. Throughout, however, Baranski remains a grounding force, performing with nuance and depth, even with limited material to work with. A capable villain, but with enough heart for the audience to root for a redemption, she truly carries the film as much as Dolly’s melodies do.
A throwback to classic Hollywood films, Christmas on the Square is charming in its own way. There are plenty of appealing songs in the mix here, and though there’s little in the way of developed plot lines, but rather a song cycle bouncing from idea to idea, as long as you go into the movie with low expectations and just looking for a fun time, you’re bound to enjoy yourself. A Christmas classic it is not, but frothy, slightly ludicrous insanity it most certainly is. And, of course, a strongly conveyed moral, almost threatened down the camera lens by Dolly Parton, instructing you to “love thy neighbour” is the final act clincher. Yes, this film is real. You didn’t dream it.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is streaming now on Netflix