Every moment is Dolly Parton’s moment, but it’s never been more true than this week. She’s not only funding the development of a new COVID-19 vaccine, she’s dropping a Christmas movie musical ― which she co-produced, composed, and performs in ― on Netflix to keep us all entertained through a lonely, cold holiday season. Dolly, thank you.
But is “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” any good? Three HuffPost reporters are here to tell you all about it.
The Bottom Line
Premiering Sunday, “Christmas on the Square” tests whether the holiday-TV-movie industrial complex can handle maximal musical-theater cheesiness. The results are mixed, to say the least.
Claire Fallon: Dolly Parton is no newcomer to holiday flicks, and last year released a Hallmark film called “Christmas at Dollywood,” so I thought I knew what to expect from her latest, “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.” Matt, Erin, I was wrong. From the opening number, a jaunty ensemble performance set in the titular square, I quickly realized that what I was in for was a little bit Hallmark, sure, but also a little bit “Schitt’s Creek”-meets-Broadway.
The basic plot: Cold-hearted Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski) has recently inherited this charming town from her father and is serving eviction notices at Christmas so that she can sell it to a mall conglomerate. The town’s pastor spearheads a resistance campaign, while Dolly ― an angel who walks among the townspeople disguised as a glamorously made-up panhandler ― tries to change Regina’s heart. What were your initial impressions?
Matthew Jacobs: I realized “Christmas on the Square” would defy all assumptions at the first sight of Dolly’s mildly smeared eyeliner, tattered gray outerwear and stringy bangs. Singing a ballad about the haves and have-nots, she appears to be green-screened into the aforementioned square, possibly because Dolly Parton does not go anywhere without flattering lighting equipment — even when she is supposed to look homeless. It’s the first of many, many, many things in this movie that make little sense. The next is Regina, a Trumpian spin on Ebenezer Scrooge, distributing eviction notices to children.
Erin Evans: Before hitting play, I knew I was gonna be in for a ride. Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski and Jenifer Lewis? Then, I found out Debbie Allen, one of my faves, was directing. So I was IN for all the hijinks.
Now there’s a lot going on in Fullerville, so I had to sit for a second to reorient myself while watching this because it very much gives you over-the-top TV-movie-musical vibes. And the storyline — a mean lady coming to a town to evict everybody in the dead of winter in Fullerville because the Cheetah Mall conglomerate wanted to build a mall — just was ... a lot to digest. A mall, really? In this economy? Evictions, really? I couldn’t help but think about the measly $1,200 Americans received in the last eight months. You gotta push that all away to try to enjoy a bit of the quirkiness of this.
CF: Quirky is right. I have never really appreciated the movie musical, and “Christmas on the Square” exemplifies the primary reason: The camera brings the viewer right onstage, where we end up staring closely at broad emoting and ensemble dance numbers from a much closer vantage point than the genre was designed for. It’s ... a lot?
MJ: It seems like none of the performers (aside from Baranski and Lewis, who are seasoned enough to survive the script’s silliest impulses) realized they were making a movie and not a stage production. Everyone is operating at an 11 when a 6 would have sufficed.
I think what really got me is how much story gets crammed into 98 minutes, mostly explained via painfully expository song lyrics. Allen and Parton clearly want this town to be a quaint “Gilmore GIrls”-esque snow globe, but instead, it just feels like a bunch of playacting, which makes subplots about infertility, unrequited high school sweethearts, sassy child bartenders, a cancer scare, teen pregnancy and something about a very important lantern all the more awkward.
EE: RIGHT. It is definitely not the kind of musical that works as background noise while you’re, say, washing the dishes. You really have to pay attention because ... there are so many twists and turns.
Giddy Up, Giddy Up, Let’s Go
EE: The pregnancy story, in particular, really came out of nowhere for me. I will say there were a couple lines in it that made me laugh out loud, like Dolly’s delivery of, “First of all, that’s not an emergency button. It’s a Sucret.” Where did y’all find joy, if at all, in this musical?
CF: Any joy I found came in the first half of the movie, before the narrative took a running dive off a cliff, trailing broken plot threads behind it. Erin, that was one of the few effective jokes in the script. Baranski is a chilly queen (“Regina” could not be a more fitting name for her and her Antoinette-esque character), and Lewis matches her with a fiery turn as her betrayed best friend from childhood. Early on, the high-volume zaniness of the predictable made-for-TV holiday movie tropes offered an undeniable camp factor.
MJ: It’s one of those things that is so well-intentioned and harmless you sort of feel bad dinging it. Who wouldn’t love Dolly singing about Christmas? The Sucret line is cute! I suppose I found joy in a song called “Wicked Witch of the Middle,” in which the townsfolk gather in a church to do a round-robin ditty about Regina being the wicked witch of Middle America.
CF: You’re right. I feel like the wickedest witch of the middle of my apartment for daring to have critiques. But I do want to talk about the music. Dolly needs no defense of her songwriting chops; this woman wrote “Jolene” and “And I Will Always Love You” in one day! I feel embarrassed to even be evaluating her work! But everyone has ups and downs in their oeuvre, and I have to admit that most of the songs felt pretty flat to me ― warbling ballads and energetic choruses that chugged along dutifully until enough exposition had been laid out and the scene could end.
Jingle Bell Rockin’ — Or Nah?
EE: I didn’t love any of the songs. The duet between Baranski and Lewis in the hair salon definitely did catch my attention though and is at least memorable. Perhaps because both of them could do no wrong in my book. Their little ditty felt vampy in a way that I can appreciate. Lewis really took out her frustration on Baranski’s wig. Imagine someone singing to you at a salon while you’re trying to relax with cucumbers on your eyes. “Don’t be the queen of mean!!”
CF: My hair follicles flinched in sympathy. Imagine evicting your hairdresser right before she’s about to go at you with a comb and a straightening iron.
MJ: And not just any old hairdresser, but your childhood friend, as we are told first in a line of dialogue and again 10 minutes later in song. You’re right, Claire, that nothing can rob Dolly of her songwriting credentials; she’s one of the best in the business. But she’s nothing if not earnest, and I wonder if the too-muchness of “Square” risks trying the patience of even the most open-minded Christmas junkie. Dolly’s whole brand is designed around appealing to everyone. In this case, that relentless inoffensiveness gets stretched to its breaking point.
CF: Yes, this movie seems engineered to test whether a Christmas musical can be too corny. Regrettably, I think it can. But it’s also dark! Regina, a modern-day Scrooge, has to explore the horrific consequences of her selfishness and revisit the tragedy that closed her heart. The latter twist was, I thought, just as ill-timed as ― and much more ill-considered than ― the eviction theme.
It’s so jarring that it feels impossible not to discuss, so, SPOILER ALERT: Late in the movie, we learn that Regina became pregnant as a teenager and was forced to give up her infant. Yes: It’s a child separation subplot, complete with a heartbroken young mother crying out in anguish as her baby is taken away forever. This scene brought me to tears, and not in a good way; the framing, in fact, is that this crime should be forgiven and forgotten because it was committed with good intentions.
EE: So the first time I watched this, I fell asleep in the middle and woke up at the end very confused about Regina talking about “my son.” I was too exhausted to fully accept that this is where the movie had veered off into yet another storyline. Even on the second watch, I found myself asking, “HOW DID WE GET HERE?”
CF: This truly signals the collapse of plot coherency. Once the halfway point of the movie arrives, dramatic reveal follows dramatic reveal, with crucial details left unexplained.
MJ: There’s even a gauzy “Christmas Carol”-style flashback in which Regina watches her father give the baby up for adoption, finally understanding that he did so in her best interest. All of her pessimism and corporate ruthlessness is apparently rooted in that moment. Oh, and the flashback happens while she’s getting a CT scan to see if she has a tumor. Have we described this movie as “a lot” yet?
EE: I have tried my best to keep from repeating it in every paragraph.
CJ: It’s a testament to the sheer overstuffedness of this movie that I forgot about the “possibly fatal tumor” subplot.
EE: I also must have blinked when the storyline with the little Black girl and her father. I don’t want to go into it too much here so people can just watch for themselves. But man, Fullerville was just full of drama.
CF: It’s nonstop entertainment! Plus, an elementary schooler can bartend without a license. No wonder they all want to stay. For me, the forced adoption scene was rock bottom ― any other lowlights for you two?
MJ: The pastor named Christian.
So, Should You Watch It?
EE: If you want a cute Christmas musical, go watch Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle” instead.
CF: Funding the COVID vaccine will remain Dolly’s greatest contribution to my holiday cheer. I’d skip this one.
MJ: Can’t vouch for this one, sorry.