Director: Debbie Allen, y'all
I don't know if you guys know this, but the past few years Dolly Parton has been producing a variety of movies - including a few which appeared on Netflix last year. My memory is that prior movies were basically using ideas from one of her more popular tunes (I actually watched a good chunk of Jolene, but think I forgot to write it up). But I think Christmas on the Square (2020) is based on a new song from her recently released album (a solid Christmas record, if you're so inclined).
This was very much a movie musical - relentlessly so - and intended to give everyone's mother something to watch this Christmas that they could casually mention that they had seen - and then recommend. Directed and produced by the great Debbie Allen, it's not really a surprise the movie features singers and dancers trying their hearts out, and the film is packed with folks with plenty of talent madly dancing and singing around our leads.
The movie takes place in a small town in Kansas which is apparently owned entirely by a single family. At least, the entire business district seems to be owned by the one family, but the movie is a bit fuzzy about if the homes are also part of this deal. It is also not clear why anyone would move into a pre-fab company town where ownership of your own land is not an option. Well, the family in question was really just one old man who has recently died and left the town to his daughter, Christine Baranski. Baranski has decided to cash out and sell the entire town to a company with the amazing name of "Cheetah Mall".
I mean, at least the producers know what they're making, and they know you know what they're making.
Dolly Parton appears as first a weirdly glamorous hobo (her wrap has to be $3000, and she's in astonishing makeup), and then - of course - we learn she's an angel here to set Baranski straight. She partners with a girl I remember vaguely from a dancing show Jamie used to watch - who is a junior angel who is supposed to help Baranski become not whatever she is.
A LOT of this is conveyed through aggressively choreographed singing and dancing (but not by Baranski, who mostly just looks great in clothes and gets to be a grinch). Treat Williams plays her high school boyfriend who is still in town and at age 69 is still very weirdly hung up on his high school sweetheart. Like: did not move on. And he sings about it! It's kinda easy to forget Williams started off in Hair and did this for a living once upon a time.
There's a subplot about a pastor and his wife trying to get pregnant - and she, ironically, owns a baby goods boutique. Anyway - pastor has to fight evil Christine Baranski by... being upset about what is happening. Baranski hits a bar with a 9 year old bartender. Parton keeps showing up as an angel floating on a goofy CGI cloud and wearing so many spangles and rhinestones...
The bartender gets into a car-wreck which may or may not have been caused by Capricious God Dolly Parton - and so we have something people need to pray for on Christmas Eve. It's sweet, I suppose.
The whole Treat Williams/ Baranski subplot is kind of weird for a number of reasons, mostly because he looks like he's not sure what's going on. But these two people completely based their lives around their bad high school break up, and if you're over 65 and still mulling that over... wow.
But, look, these days I sort of pretend to watch those Hallmark movies, but I've gotten generally bored by them now that they have their formula and won't even throw me a b-list actor slumming as the lead. It's a bunch of bland-o's these days who bring nothing to the table, and the scripts are so devoid of any actual conflict or thought, there's not even anything to laugh at with the exception that the movies REFUSE to acknowledge sex exists. Which is funny, because the movies are all about moderately good looking people circling each other and you can guess they're heading to the boneyard about ten minutes after the movies end (with the eager approval of at least one elderly relative).
Make fun of Dolly's movies, but they at least acknowledge humans as biological entities.
Eventually we learn that the pastor is the bastard son of Baranski and some dude she slept with in high school after she thought Junior Treat Williams was going after another girl (he wasn't). Like, I don't know if any Hallmark movie has featured an unwanted pregnancy and the sense of betrayal and shame as driving forces for a character, like, ever. Mostly they're mad at each other because someone wanted to leave Bumfuck, Indiana or whatever.
I'm not saying it's the best storytelling, but it's more a reflection of - hey, it's okay to tell that story in a family friendly Christmas story. The world will not split open. I should mention the TV movie of Jolene got very real and very weird for a TV movie about middle-age ennui. So this is sort of Dolly's corner of the TV movie landscape - cheerful stuff with homespun wisdom and acknowledging the basic shit that stresses people out in middle-America.
Some of the songs are pretty okay! I think Dolly wrote a lot of them, and she's as solid on screen as ever - and I appreciate her saying "I'm playing an angel so I can be a special effect".
The dancing is A LOT. Like, I think they could have dialed it back 30% and we wouldn't have missed anything. And, hey, everyone in this thing can sing like mad. So, good for them. The form and format of the film are pretty solid, and your mom will really appreciate you recommending the movie to her.