Synopsis: After her father’s death, a cold-hearted woman named tries to sell her hometown’s land to a mall developer, ending the seasonal Christmas cheer in the town.
Stars: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Jenifer Lewis, Treat Williams, Jeanine Mason, Josh Segarra, Mary Lane Haskell, Matthew Johnson, Selah Kimbro Jones
Director: Debbie Allen
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: For many people, Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Florida is the stuff that magical memories are made of and they aren’t wrong in reporting back that a visit there makes them feel like a kid again. I’ve visited the Orlando location several times and returned home with a visible pep in my step so I speak from experience. However, for the longest time my sights were set squarely on another mecca: country singer Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN. It eluded me for decades but several years ago, on the drive back from a Memphis wedding, my partner and I booked a stay at Parton’s new DreamMore Resort which included a day pass right next door to the main event. It was finally time.
Already stunned by the beauty of the majestic Great Smokey Mountains we saw from our bedroom in the impressive resort, I was probably always destined to shed a tear when entering the front gates. Needless to say, I cried upon arrival and just allowed myself to take it all in throughout the day while walking through the pleasant as pie country amusement park. From the entertainment (a number of which featured members of her extended family) to the rides (which seemed to be sized to only fit Dolly herself) to an entire section lovingly devoted to her memorabilia, this was absolutely everything I thought it would be and more. I left the park even more of a fan of Parton’s than I already was…and by that time I’d already seen her several times in concert (once from the front row) so that’s saying something.
I take the time (and two paragraphs) to lay that groundwork for you to emphasize that the Netflix release of Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square was a big deal for me. Big deal. Aside from the Dolly Parton-ness of it all, this was a Christmas musical with 14 new songs written by Parton. Sounds like a certified winner, right? With Parton’s previous Netflix specials and movies faring well and her general tendency to drift toward material that suited her, it felt like an event that was timed right and ready to drop before Thanksgiving. Well, there’s good news and bad news for all of you that, like me, have been waiting for this one for some time. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The bad news is that this is a chintzy, flimsy, mawkish-ly earnest bit of holiday fruitcake that is overperformed and underdeveloped with not one ounce of subtlety to be found. The good news is that for the majority of viewers, none of that will matter in the slightest.
Directed and choreographed by the legendary Debbie Allen in a big Atlanta soundstage decorated (think department store holiday display) to look like, what else, a town square, the film opens on Parton (Joyful Noise) dressed like a beggar singing about the meaning of Christmas and shaking a box asking for “Change”. Never mind Parton’s boasting a full smokey-eye with eyelashes that could shovel snow and enough lipstick to lacquer a red wagon. It all leads to a traditional introductory opening number that Allen stages with full high-kicking, wide-armed, glee by a roster of townspeople that are 75% nubile bodied show dancers and 24% actors that move, with the final 1% consisting of a distracting middle-aged male ensemble member that appears to be having some kind of emotional crisis. You’ve met everyone in the cast within the first five minutes and also know where the film is heading, too. It’s not that different from any number of these holiday themed films but you can’t be faulted for expecting something with a little more creative energy than what Parton, Allen, and screenwriter Maria S. Schlatter cook-up. Parton’s songs have people singing exactly what they’re feeling, almost down to core functions like walking, talking, and breathing.
The gist of it all is that mean ‘ole Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, gamely making her way through a character that feels like it was written by different people from scene to scene) has decided to sell off the tiny town named after her family for a tidy sum to a mall developer. She’s swooped in to give everyone the news days before Christmas and a number of those that live and work on the square unsurprisingly balk at this last-minute yuletide bulletin. The sassy hairdresser and former mayor Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, The Addams Family) is a long-time friend of Regina’s and can’t understand why she’s become so mean…and sings about it. Former flame Carl (Treat Williams, Second Act) specializes in antiques and wishes that things with Regina had ended differently…and sings about it. The young pastor (Josh Segarra, Trainwreck) and his wife (Mary Lane Haskell) are childless but draw strength from their faith and belief that there is a purpose for everything…and sing about it (a few times). Local pub owner and widower Mack (Matthew Johnson) along with his daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones, Hidden Figures) are facing a tough Christmas…and they sing about it, individually. Then there’s Regina’s put-upon assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who takes a lot of guff from her employer but manages to keep smiling, while singing and dancing, maybe it’s because there’s more to her than we are led to believe at first.
Popping in and out at key points is Parton who is undoubtedly the best thing about the 98-minute film. Maybe it’s because she wrote the songs, maybe it’s because she’s just a natural at selling this kind of phony-baloney sort of schmaltz, but whenever she’s onscreen the movie takes on a glow that just isn’t present when she’s away. It goes to show you the power of star quality and that magic “It” factor so many celebrities struggle with. Parton has always had it effortlessly and it shows here, almost undeniably so. Decked out in a number of beaded, fringed, bangled, and spangled white outfits (she’s an angel, by the way), her songs are spunky and fun and unlike some of the other actors she seems to truly believe in what she’s singing about. Corny as it all may be, that unfettered sincerity goes a long way in improving what grows cold in the hands of others.
That’s evident in people like Segarra who is an unfortunate quasi-leading man. As the town’s pastor, Segarra is the exact opposite in the sincerity department and could learn a thing or two from his composer and central star. Though Haskell (a veteran of Parton projects according to her IMDb page) attempts to bring their relationship to a more realistic plane, Segarra wants to employ far too much pathos to a not that complex part and in doing so makes it, frankly, a bit creepy. He also has a strange speech pattern that feels like he’s taking Schlatter’s dialogue and putting them into couplets – a perfunctory cherry on an all-around bizarre performance. Williams is his usual dashing self and sings well, though his relationship with Baranski is not exactly deep. If anything, it’s young Jones that steals things away from her older scene partners with her natural screen presence. Though it’s one of the most inexplicable numbers in the film, her duet with Baranski was solid.
I’d almost watch the film again because in the larger numbers I found that I solely focused on the ensemble…but only because they are so uniformly distracting. Never have I seen so many odd moments of pulling focus not just caught on film but kept throughout the editing process. The one ensemble member I mentioned above you can actually tell they tried to cut away from at times but even then you can’t totally excise his peculiar reactions and wacko dancing. In several scenes set in a church, keep your eyes on the children who are visibly bored and must have worked long hours. Near the end, one of the young candle holders visibly yawns not once but twice…right around the time you’re probably doing the same thing. It doesn’t help Parton’s strangely tuneless songs have key ensemble members stepping out to deliver lyrics that are unequivocal jaw-droppers. For example, when throwing out ideas how to keep Regina from selling the town, one female square dweller sings out with a big toothy smile “Strip her!”. ‘Strip her’? Like, naked? Ok, then. Don’t even get me started on the wince-inducing vogue-ing gay men that pop up to deliver all the zingers Lewis deemed too trite for even her to say.
So…with all of the negatives, why do I think none of this makes a heap of a difference? The same reason why Hallmark and Lifetime keep churning out an endless supply of mediocre to poor holiday films each year, it’s not the quality that matters it’s the intent and Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square has it’s heart in the right place. It’s absolutely not the movie I thought it would be and totally not close to the type of intelligent and stylish output I know the people involved are capable of…but I think it will provide some form of warmth to a large number of people during this strange holiday season that lies before us. I’d be foolish to underestimate the power of Parton’s fanbase or not consider how starved audiences are right now for this sort of goofy distraction so while I personally found this to be not up to snuff when taking into consideration who was behind it all and rated it accordingly, I wouldn’t fault any of you for loving the ever-lovin’ heck out of it. I’d still beg of you to watch Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey first because that film wound up being the sort of intelligent and heartfelt event I was hoping Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square would be. There’s room for both films in your queue so watch them both and determine for yourself which speaks to you more.