At this point, the formula for a cheesy Christmas movie is pretty widely known. These movies aren’t always on the Hallmark Channel, but Hallmark certainly makes a lot of them, and helps define the flavor of the rest of them. They almost always take place in a small town where celebrating Christmas is, like, the biggest thing the locals ever do. There’s generally a focus on small businesses and community, which are threatened by a mean land developer who wants to evict the town, foreclose on the family farm, or build a super mega-mall on a beloved piece of land. Usually, there’s a small-town romance involved as well, stemming from a fish-out-of-water city-dweller winding up in the tiny little town, whether it’s someone who left years ago and is now reuniting with their childhood sweetheart, or a land developer charmed by a small town’s bakery owner.
Dolly Parton’s Netflix Christmas movie Christmas on the Square puts every holiday cliché in a blender together. Part cheesy Hallmark movie, part community-theater production, part A Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life, the special is a mosaic of holiday tropes — and that’s a good thing. The acting is over-the-top, and the plotline has as much subtlety as Dolly’s bedazzled platform boots, but its larger-than-life theatrical nature makes it even more enjoyable. If Christmas on the Square was just a mediocre delivery system for these tropes, it would fall flat. But because everything glitters with a white-hot intensity befitting Dolly herself, it shines.
[Ed. note: This post contains slight spoilers for Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.]
Like many corny movies of Christmas past, Christmas on the Square is set in a small town. Rich Regina (Christine Baranski) returns to Fullerville after her father’s death, having inherited most of the land. She resents the town, due to a mysterious unspecified event in her past, and decides to sell it all to a land developer who will soon build a mall on the property. And of course, because all the drama is absolutely the Most, her eviction notices require the townspeople to be out by Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve!
Naturally, everyone is upset, and the town’s minister, Pastor Christian (yes, he is literally named Pastor Christian) organizes a protest against Regina. Viva the power of collective action! Regina’s old friends — and her former flame, general-store owner Carl (Treat Williams) — can’t believe she’d betray them like this. Regina, meanwhile, can’t wait to get out of this small town, especially because this strange homeless woman keeps hounding her. Turns out that homeless woman is Dolly Parton as an angel (named Angel), and she appears in Regina’s fabulous mansion at the end of her first day in Fullerville, beginning Regina’s journey toward looking inward and repenting!
Of course, all this is done with a song every five minutes. Christmas on the Square boasts a full 14 new Dolly Parton songs. Some of them work better musically than others. The opening number is up there with the intro to Into the Woods for the way it sets up the exposition and introduces the setting, plot, and major characters with a catchy earworm and some engaging choreography. But Carl sings a slow piece that basically sounds like the song everyone skips on the official cast soundtrack. Still, the majority of the songs are fun and keep the plot moving. Characters spout lyrics like “Reggenie, you’re such a meanie! Playing queenie! I’ve loved you since we were teeny!” with full-blown emotion.
Out of all the cast, Baranski is by far the most skilled actor. Everyone else struggles along. Some are a bit stiff and feel like they were cast in a community-theater production; others, specifically Jeanine Mason, who plays Regina’s assistant Felicity, perform like they’ve shotgunned half a dozen peppermint mochas. But let’s be real — if you’re tuning in to Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, starring Christine Baranski, you’re there for Dolly and Christine; everyone else just showed up to highlight them. Dolly more or less just plays herself, but as an angel. (Though the real-life Dolly Parton’s possible status as a minor deity is worth considering.) Baranski keeps the cast grounded, managing to be both convincingly ruthless and sympathetic, especially when Regina’s deep, dark past secret comes to light.
Even when the plot feels like it’s headed in one well-worn direction, Christmas on the Square introduces another holiday movie trope. It’s a roller coaster of clichés, each escalating the drama more and more until it finally culminates. Of course, because this is a glittery, feel-good Christmas movie, it all ends with warm fuzzies and a triumphant reprise of the opening number, every lingering plot point tied up neatly with a sparkly bow. But hey, that’s exactly what you want from a movie where Dolly Parton plays an angel named Angel. Anything less wouldn’t live up to expectations. Thank you, Dolly, for injecting some shiny holiday magic into this dreary winter season.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is now streaming on Netflix.