Seasonal cynics, stop reading now. Even despite the presence of the truly divine Dolly Parton – who at the age of 74 has this year helped fund a COVID-19 vaccine, thrown her sequins behind the Black Lives Matter movement, led her own viral social media challenge and released her first Christmas album in 30 years – it’s likely that you’ll struggle with the incandescently earnest nature of Christmas on the Square. Everybody else, it’s time to put on your festive jumper and eat an entire packet of mince pies in one sitting.
A musical of the old-school MGM variety, Christmas on the Square sometimes seems more suited to the stage than the screen, with sets that could never be mistaken for the real thing, where the singing outweighs the speaking and no opportunity for a flamboyant high kick is ignored. A veritable pick and mix of Christmas movies past, Dolly plays a kindly but firm angel – think Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life if he wore rhinestone cowboy boots and had his shit together. She looms over a small US everytown, the existence of which is threatened by a Scrooge-like character who wants to evict all the shopkeepers on the idyllic ‘square’ so a giant mall can be built there instead.
Enter Mamma Mia’s ever-fabulous Christine Baranski as Regina, coming on like the Wicked Witch of the West in shoulderpads and sunglasses. She’s mean to everyone, including her teenage sweetheart Carl (Treat Williams) who runs an old tat shop “filled with broken dolls and brokens dreams” hums Regina bitterly. Of course, this being a wholesome family movie, what happens next is unsurprisingly predictable. Regina will soften and change her mind with the help of Dolly’s angelic assistance, which, in a nod to pioneering British filmmakers Powell and Pressburger’s seminal A Matter of Life and Death, she will blame on hallucinations caused by a possible brain tumour.
Of course, there’s a reason for Regina’s coldness, a tragedy from her past that is later revealed. A complex film this is not, but rather a film about faith, more specifically, Christianity, the driving force for so much of Dolly Parton’s own charitable work. Local pastor (Josh Segarra) heads up a community uprising against Regina’s efforts to evict the town and works earnestly on delivering a fitting festive sermon while kindliness runs rampant among the church-going residents of the town. But there are neat modern touches too: LGBTQ+ couples and families of all races are readily accepted into this model community – a far cry from the real picture of conflicted Middle America – and songs about fertility treatment sit alongside Dolly’s own opening number, which concisely sums up the following hour and a half, cooing: “It’s all about them, love and compassion/Better to give than receive/And that is the truth and those that don’t know that/Well, they are the poorest indeed.”
- Director: Debbie Allen
- Starring: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Treat Williams
- Release date: November 22 (Netflix)