Dolly Parton's "Christmas on the Square," the newest addition to Netflix's Christmas library, tests the limits of what one can reasonably categorize as a film. There is nothing cinematic in this 98-minute musical that sounds much more fun than it is. In fact, it has the feeling and production quality of the recent spate of the live musicals that air on broadcast television and usually have an exclamation point somewhere in the title. This project is simply something else, but at least most of the people involved seem to know it.
Directed by Debbie Allen, "Christmas on the Square" is an extremely earnest endeavor with utterly sincere holiday messaging wrapped in an Old Navy scarf and soundtracked by Parton's 14 original songs. There will be people who wince at its sincerity and schmaltz and people who love it (and trust me, you already know which camp you fall in). How can a movie where Parton spends most of her scenes bedecked in sparkly white wares and floating atop a CG cloud be all that bad? She's an angel after all!
Unfortunately, this Scrooge found herself in the former camp.
The story follows Christine Baranski's Regina Fuller who has inherited the small Midwestern town she grew up in and wants to sell it to a mall developer. She walks through the titular square in stilettos and a sleek big city bob gleefully handing out paper notices to the townspeople as they sing and dance around. They have to be out by Christmas Eve, which comes as a huge blow. As diverse as this town is, it is also uniformly Christian and wholly consumed by the Christmas spirit. So as soon as she drives off, Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) rallies his congregation to protest.
But Regina is undeterred and neither her best friend/hairdresser Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, who has a showstopper of a song) nor her high school love/antique store owner Carl (Treat Williams) can convince her otherwise. There was an incident that happened years ago that made Regina hate and leave the town that'll be revealed in due time. Dolly is there, though, to help nudge Regina to mercy with a few songs.
"Christmas on the Square" is pure, studio-lot fantasy and not really trying to be anything else. There is some fun choreography and a few toe-tapping tunes. It's strongest during songs and whenever Dolly graces the screen with her messages of fair rent and forgiveness and not evicting people on Christmas Eve. But the entire endeavor feels rather slapdash. It's not an uncommon sight to glimpse a bored, distracted or out of sync extra. At certain times you might feel like you're watching hour two of a local Christmas pageant. And then there will be other times where you're caught off guard by a joke, a fun Baranski moment or a disarmingly cute scene, like one with Regina and a child (Selah Kimbro Jones) serving her whiskey at a bar. It's explained (sort of).
Ultimately, it's simply hard to judge too harshly or even hate. It's not an infectious camp fest like "Mamma Mia" or an all-out disaster like "Cats." It's just Dolly's sweet and innocent Christmas tale with sequins and revelations and it probably would have been more comfortably at home on cable. Besides, we don't need a movie to convince us she's an angel.
"Christmas on the Square," a Netflix release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America but should be suitable for all ages. Running time: 98 minutes. One star out of four.