Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is cheesy, seasonal fun, wrapped up in a little bow

Image Courtesy of Netflix

By Jake Yates-Hart

If Vanessa Hudgens’ return in The Princess Switch: Switched Again didn’t take your fancy, Netflix has spoiled us yet again with another addition to its Christmas Cinematic Universe.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of things wrong with Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. We have some questionable performances, a horrific backstory for our protagonist that doesn’t really get resolved, and there’s no artistic direction to keep the viewer interested visually. That said, I had a lot of fun watching this, and that’s partially due to Dolly’s infectious enthusiasm for the Yuletide.

We open on Dolly as a homeless hermit, asking passers-by for change (and looking fabulous while doing so) as she sings to the camera about all the things that are important at Christmas. We are then introduced to the residents of the fictional town Fullerville, who sing sentimentally about their love for the holiday season; from the fierce and sassy hairdresser Margeline (Jenifer Lewis) to the ridiculously handsome Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) and his wife Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell) who are struggling to conceive a baby.

We are then introduced to the Scrooge of this movie, but a much more glamorous version. Being escorted around the town square is Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski), who is handing out eviction notices to make way for a new mall to be built. We learn through some very clunky exposition that Regina has become distant and cut off from everyone, especially after her father’s death six months ago. Still, Pastor Christian and the rest of Fullerville are furious about the town being sold off and rally against Regina, which only makes her more callous, demanding that everyone must pack their bags by Christmas Eve.

If it isn’t already clear by the film’s title, Dolly Parton had a major role in production, even writing the script, which itself is adapted from a stage play. This is most likely why there’s very blatant religious symbolism intertwined within this Dickensian story of a wealthy executive learning to become more empathetic. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie, but naming the Pastor ‘Christian’ is a bit much, don’t you think? It’s no secret that ‘The Queen of Country Music’ has a close relationship with God, even crediting her success to her faith, but her advocacy for gay rights has demonstrated that the lesson she takes most seriously from the Bible is ‘Love Thy Neighbour’.

So, Dolly becomes a literal angel sent down by God to help Regina choose the right path. Adorned in dazzling rhinestones and floating on a cloud, Dolly (er, I mean ‘Angel’) appears to Regina and sings about an old story of a lamplighter, that Regina’s father used to tell her when she was younger. Dolly’s heavenly voice may be able to pull at the viewers’ heart strings, but it doesn’t quite manage to make Regina change her ways.

Then, in a twist, Angel appears to Felicity (Jeanine Mason), Regina’s assistant who also happens to be an honorary angel hoping to get her wings. Dolly and Jeanine actually have really great chemistry together and duet a fun little number that encourages Felicity to help Regina as well. But then the film takes an upsetting, and quite frankly disturbing turn as Angel escorts Regina to the hospital for some medical tests. While under the cat-scan, Regina reminisces about her relationship with an old flame who wound up getting her pregnant. Without her consent, Regina’s father put the baby up for adoption, leading to the breakdown of their relationship.

Dolly performs an emotional ballad about moving on with life, rather than reliving the past, which helps Regina find some solace. Still, there is a lot to unpack here about Regina’s backstory, and the film has neither the time nor writing talent to let us absorb this information properly. Even the twist at the very end when Regina reunites with her child, doesn’t make up for how terribly executed this plot is. It’s understandable why she let go of her grudge against her father, but the film refuses to highlight that Regina’s consent over her body was taken from her, which is a serious problem. And honestly, if this side-plot was removed from the rest of the film, it wouldn’t have affected the overall narrative that much; we would still be watching a redemption story.

Some of the other shortcomings of Christmas on the Square are pretty common amongst your standard Hallmark seasonal movies - we have the adorable child with questionable acting, whose performance is only propped up in her scene with Baranski, yet a lot of the side characters have little to no personality, or are just plain annoying, and there’s very little artistic visual direction involved. The set designers can’t even convince us that this was filmed in a real town square, let alone actually filmed at Christmas (I know fake snow when I see it!).

Christmas on the Square is definitely underserving of Christine Baranski’s talent, there’s no doubt about it. With that said, it is clear that the entire cast had the most fun putting this film together. Debbie Allen choreographed all 14 original songs, written by Dolly, and each number has a certain electricity that exclaims “Christmas is coming!”. Is it the gold standard we usually expect from the iconic country singer? No, not really. But it’s undeniable that each song is full of heart, with a few catchy lines here and there.

To put it simply, Dolly Parton is by no means a great filmmaker, but at the very least, she put in a lot of effort to create something meaningful. For Dolly, Christmas on the Square represents how the world should be, rather than how it is - entrenched in faith, love, and goodwill. After all, what else should we expect from the same woman who donated $1 million dollars in medical research to find a vaccine for Covid-19? Yes, she really did that.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is available to stream on Netflix.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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