- Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
- Directed by Debbie Allen
- Written by Maria S. Schlatter
- Starring Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski and Treat Williams
- Classification N/A; 98 minutes
Musician, actress, philanthropist and COVID-19 vaccine benefactor Dolly Parton is an angel, so it’s no surprise that she cast herself as one in her new Netflix film, Christmas on the Square. But before Parton reveals herself in the plot as a glittering, majestic force nudging a deeply misguided character toward redemption, she appears as a beggar, sitting in a festive town square, clutching a box marked “Change.”
The word serves a dual purpose in the narrative – she is indeed asking for quarters, nickels and dimes. But it’s also clear that the word, in the acrylic clutches of the enigmatic Parton, has a larger meaning for both the characters and a North American audience stuck firmly at a crossroads at the end of 2020. Parton has delivered this feel-good movie in the dust of a polarizing U.S. election campaign, at the end of a year ravaged by COVID-19, at the gloaming of a period of massive social unrest.
Notably apolitical, Parton stayed out of the election discourse, but did comment in support of Black Lives Matter (“Of course Black Lives Matter – do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”) and donated US$1-million to COVID-19 research efforts at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. Change, Parton urges, is possible if we open our hearts, if we speak up, if we act.
But the same woman who knew not to let Elvis Presley record her song I Will Always Love You in exchange for half the publishing rights is smart enough to see more green than red when it comes to the holidays. It’s all over her decision to release a Christmas movie on Netflix instead of the traditional television networks, where her most recent made-for-TV holiday movies aired. Alongside Christmas on the Square, Parton released A Holly Dolly Christmas this fall, her first Christmas album in 30 years. The two offerings play into one another to generous effect – a classic Parton marketing trick.
Christmas on the Square lets the viewer kick back and indulge in all things Parton. Adapted from a stage play and directed by Debbie Allen, best known for her work with powerhouse producer Shonda Rhimes, the musical features plenty of dancers and a noticeably diverse cast.
It begins with all the cheese you’d expect from Parton, still glamorous even dressed down as a homeless woman trying to rattle some generosity out of Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski), the daughter of the town’s recently deceased owner. But in true Parton fashion, the film’s chintzy exterior belies its depth and heart. Fuller is a modern-day Scrooge in a blow-out and heels, looking to settle her estranged father’s estate by selling the entire Kansas valley town he called home to a multinational corporation that wants to build a mega mall. In order to do so, she has to evict its Whoville-ish residents by Christmas Eve.
The town, informally led by a hot young pastor named Christian (yep) and his wife, Jenna, fights back with urgent community meetings and placards proclaiming “Resist Regina,” a nod to the social unrest of our more recent times. There are enough references to A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and It’s A Wonderful Life to feel festively familiar, and it’s draped in enough romance and schmaltz to satisfy the voracious Hallmark Channel crowd (Treat Williams plays Baranski’s shunned childhood sweetheart).
Parton wisely showcases her songwriting capabilities by casting this as a musical with 14 original songs (two of which appear on her new Christmas record), reminding me of how COVID destroyed live performances for everyone this year. I certainly didn’t anticipate how her motivational message-drenched song Try, from Parton’s 2014 album Blue Smoke, would wreck me each time it was sung. But 2020 has been full of surprises.
The plot follows a predictable journey of the bad getting worse, of good people fighting for what’s right, of personal growth and redemption, of the possibility of miracles during the holidays. But there is plenty of winking wit, and the handful of eye-rolling moments can be excused because a) it’s Parton and b) it’s Christmas.
Can hearts change at Christmas? Can a nation change for the better, too? Parton thinks both are possible, and because I believe in angels who present with plastic surgery and platinum wigs, I suppose I do, too.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 22
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