Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square (2020) Haunts My Dreams

Part 2 of the Christmas Movie Watchstravaganza

Almost Christmas
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
It’s a Wonderful Life

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
The Polar Express

In this film, Dolly Parton fertilizes a woman by pointing at her skirt and making it glow.

Warning! This film contains content you might find either objectionable or inappropriate for your given Christmas gathering, including:

  • Brain tumor
  • Homeless person who’s actually an angel
  • Bitter old grinch/scrooge/Grooge who’s foreclosing THE WHOLE TOWN
  • Forced separation of mother and child
  • Mom killed in offscreen car accident years ago
  • Child critically injured in offscreen car accident

I didn’t add Dolly Parton’s “fertile finger” to this list because I don’t know who would find that objectionable.

The Corny Intro Terrified Me

I have a low tolerance for things that strike me as “twee.” “Upbeat” is one thing, but “twee” is of another order. I have a hard time getting into cheerful musicals, even when they’re witty. Actually, especially when they’re witty. The more smirking and self-satisfied the musical seems to be, the harder it is for me to get into. And the happier everyone onstage is, the more I frown.

So am I the Grooge to this movie’s Santa? Well, the intro certainly gave me that impression. It downright scared me how cheerful this soundstage-town-square was, how much mid-song banter they exchanged, and how many additional wacky songs they worked into the opening number (whose official name is “Christmas Is / Christmas on the Square / Gotta Get Out / Maybe, Just Maybe / So Sorry”).

Yes, this is a musical. Yes, it’s peppy, it’s self-aware, it’s got two dozen songs, it looks like everything I hate. I didn’t hate it.

I’m fully aware that “didn’t hate it” is not high praise, but try this: it kept me surprisingly entertained.

One of the first people we see on this soundstage-square is none other than Dolly Parton. She’s a homeless person holding a box for change. Compared to the homeless woman from Fluke, her clothes are pristine. And she’s so saintly and angelic she’s literally sparkling. Either that, or this is tragic radiation that allows her to determine stem cell growth by directing it laser-beam-style at others’ wombs. Sorry, I can’t get over that, and now neither can you.

Dolly tells us that it’s better to give than to receive. Meanwhile, all the dancing townspeople are talking about typical Christmas doodads and receiving gifts and junk!

One woman tells another, “I gotta get me some mistletoe!” I was hoping that at that moment someone would raise some mistletoe above her head, prompting the two of them to kiss, but it didn’t happen. Don’t worry, though; there are some actual gay side characters in this film, albeit more conventional-television sorts.

Asking because I have no idea when else I’ll get the chance: wasn’t The Simpsons trying to make Carl and Lenny a couple at some point? Or at least imply it heavily by making them ride tandem bikes and shit? But then they quietly broke up offscreen because the writers had no idea what to do with that? Or am I just having an extended fever dream???

I’ve gotta give this film some credit in its casting, though. Not because I know that these actors are top-notch (I am bad at knowing whether actors are OK or not), but because of some of the casting choices. Specifically the higher age range of the main cast and the prominence of female over male characters.

Move over, spring chickens. It’s summer chickens’ time to shine.

I like to assume that Dolly Parton is a good person because I like to assume that any person I know basically nothing about has the potential to be a good person. I would like to assume that Dolly, or some thoughtful writing staff, had a deliberate hand in guaranteeing, for example, that the plot revolved around an older woman with some dimension to her character (AKA the Grooge, Regina Fuller). And that’s the assumption I’m going with.

Anyway, here’s a basic rundown of the cast we get in this opening:

  • The shiny homeless woman
  • Regina Fuller, former mayor of the town of Fullerville (which is named after her father, who by the way was way nicer and cooler than her)
  • Regina’s beleaguered assistant, Felicity. As Regina hands out foreclosure notices letting all the dancing townspeople know that their homes are about to be bulldozed for the Cheetah Mall (which is a pun) (which makes them dance more frantically), Felicity follows behind and says, “Sorry!”
  • Pastor Christian (yes) and his wife Jenna, who is eager to have a baby ASAP and says, “Fertility will be a greater gift than anything that comes in a box.” Lucky for her, whatever baby she has is going to have great genes for country singing.
And check out these festive Dogs

But you see, there’s another wrinkle here. Regina’s not merely destroying this whole town square for money. She sings that she’s “gotta get out of this town” and resolve HER personal demons by screwing over everyone else shortly before Christmas. This is as subtle as this movie will get about her character arc and motivations.

She goes around foreclosing on people. Jenna’s baby nursery: FORECLOSED! Hair place with Margeline and the two hairdresser gay men in it: FORECLOSED! Waiting room: FORECLOSED! And Regina has bitter words for everyone.

As Regina leaves, the whole melody of the town has soured. And Dolly (who, as is now clear to viewers, can’t be seen by any of the townspeople) tries, and fails, to get her attention before she drives off. Well, actually Regina does note that Dolly is the first homeless person ever spotted in Fullerville. I would call this “extremely unlikely” given what we learn of Regina’s reign of mass foreclosure later on, but given that this is a soundstage…probably right.

Resist Regina!

Things cool off, but only so much. Pastor Christian spearheads a “Resist Regina” movement and will host a meeting at the only religious institution in town: his church. He also has a musical number of witty back-and-forth (eugh!) with his wifey Jenna. She calls him his “rock,” he calls her his “pillow.” Weird stringent gender norms but let the straights have their fun, I guess.

Incidentally, while this film supposedly takes place in Kansas, it was actually filmed in Georgia (I assume for those sweet sweet tax breaks)! I can’t believe I was actually born mere miles from the famous Fullerville!!! What a thing to tell my grandkids. The DVD I watched this movie on contains a special feature about how the crew chose locations in Georgia for filming certain shots. It definitely feels like it was intended for somebody’s production staff, because it sure feels like a shameless ad for filmmakers to come to Georgia.

Georgia: It’s Not Just The Walking Dead.™ (Even If They Keep Finding Ways To Keep Filming The Walking Dead.™)

Why Margeline’s Character Is Fundamentally Broken

Okay, here comes the first scene I liked. Regina parks her shit in her huge mansion (sponsored by Historic Inman Park in Atlanta, GA) and has her hairdresser come over. But Margeline’s not just doing her hair. She’s doing it ANGRY and she uses the whole song to not-so-passive-aggressively tell Regina what a relentless asshole she is. “And you feel good about it!” she sings incredulously.

And Margeline’s not just her hairdresser. She’s been her old friend since the high-school before-times, which adds more weight and interest to the song.

Where the song is corny, it is a corny that I appreciate. Instead of having Regina fire back at Margeline, the songwriter/s had her give her deadpan, exhausted, bone-dry responses, like, “I don’t need needles to get my ears pierced.”

Yes, I DID just grab these screenshots from random YouTube videos after I’d already watched it, thank you for asking

But there is something awkward about this scene, and it makes Margeline’s character fall apart for me. To find out what it is, we have to back up and think about optics.

Margeline is Black. Regina is white. Yes, Margeline is upsetting the power dynamic by serving as the voice of reason and by ultimately leaving Regina’s hair in total disarray, but if I put my film-scholar hat on, that doesn’t make her much more subversive than Hattie McDaniel’s character Mammy in Gone with the Wind shaking her head and tugging Scarlett O’Hara’s corset too tight.

I’m sure the creators of this film noticed that and started to sweat. Their first move, I suspect, was to change Margeline from just “hairdresser who knows how much she sucks” to her truest friend, thus making her more important and putting them on SOME sort of plane of equality. This change does give their exchanges more weight, but Margeline still feels pretty subservient. Also, it slots her into the oh-so-common role of the Black Best Friend.

So…I think the filmmakers looked at this and went, “Shit! We already have Jennifer Lewis signed up for this part! We can’t change her now!” So they leveled their playing field further by making Margeline not a former mayor, but a former candidate for mayor.

And they make this a reveal at the end of the song…but the reveal is so strange that I wasn’t sure it even happened until many, many scenes later when we saw a photo of her shaking hands with the departed Mr. Fuller. Because it just doesn’t work.

Because how did she go from a politician to a hairdresser?! I’m not even talking economic downturns. I’m talking about her skillset. Was she really that dedicated to hair, as opposed to public speaking, smaller-scale activism, legal careers, fundraising, the civil service, teaching, public works, generalized advocacy, or, hell, clerical work? And could she really find no positions under any of that? I believe that by making Margeline a former mayoral candidate, they retroactively made her more stereotypical by acting like hairdressing was her natural fallback. Black women are “all about that hair.” They would throw away years of costly training that gear them towards many other career paths because apparently that’s just how much they are about the hair.

I’m not angry, I just find it easy to talk about these things. Margeline’s character is so fucked up it almost becomes kind of hilarious.

Regina’s Gotta Get Her Man Back

Okay, so after Margeline leaves with Regina’s hair still in disarray (sadly she will fix it herself off-camera), Regina gets two texts. One is from a balding doctor about her brain tumor (she doesn’t know it’s a brain tumor yet, though). The other is from her old flame, who left her jilted at prom. Notably, this already happened in Almost Christmas, which I reviewed super recently!

Incidentally, I used my prom solely as an excuse to chat with friends and dance until my sweat was sloughing off onto the floor. I dunno what’s up with these movie broads.

Regina usually rejects Carl’s calls because she Is Mean, but today she goes into his general store. Gee, there’s a Santa figure on the counter…it almost looks like Santa’s workshop…

But this is no warm reunion because no one has stopped hating her. It’s not long before Regina points out what seems like an oversight in the script that they caught after test screenings (sigh…just when then movie was getting a little heartfelt, it becomes self-aware again): why is this place called a general store when it just has random old crap in it? Clearly it should be called a secondhand store, or Used Goods, or something.

Well, that gets Carl to launch into a song, a song which I actually like about how memories are important and they’re sometimes all we’ve got. It doesn’t solve much, though.

This song makes me realize: the movie has shed a LOT of its early self-awareness by now. It’s like they frontloaded it, dumped it at the junk heap where in my mind it belongs, and then drove down the highway doing seventy an hour. It is NOT true that a blatantly derivate movie needs to be constantly self-aware to sell—I have to assume that Hallmark movies prove that wrong all the time.

Oops! I Forgot Dolly Parton Was In This

After that, Regina learns from the wacky balding doctor that she’s dying of a brain tumor (something else I wondered if I’d heard right the first time), goes home, badmouths her assistant Felicity (why does Felicity make such a good assistant name?) and finds some solace upstairs. But not for long. That homeless lady Dolly Parton is there…except she’s an angel, and she’s floating on a cloud!!!

The fact that her cloud bobs up and down the whole scene is very distracting, and again, thank you for asking.

What is her name? “Well…Angel!” Is she just a tumor-based hallucination? No, but Regina will keep on believing that. Naturally, she is her guardian angel and she’s here to help her make a change of heart. Honestly, the fact that she turned out to be a literal angel makes the fact that she began life as a radiant homeless person go down a little easier for me. It does seem like a guise that a biblical angel might wear to test humans and their morals. Still quite corny execution, though.

May I add that another reason I hope Dolly Parton is a decent human being is because her character in this film is just adorable? She couldn’t be cuter in this if she were an apple-cheeked youngster wishing for her two front teeth. I won’t make any rude comments about suspected plastic surgery because Dolly Parton probably reads my blog.

Moving on, she sings a song about “the old lamplighter” shining and sharing his light around town. This is a reference to Regina’s father which begins subtle but will become much less so as the film goes on and Regina finds the special lamp he used to light.

Failure Guardian Angel Makes Regina Even Meaner

Geez, what even happens right after that? Oh yeah, Regina angrily gets in her car and goes for a drive. When she sees Angel in the mirror, she lets her know that indeed, she’s inspired a change of heart…because now Regina is even MEANER!

The church is currently having their Resist Regina meeting, where another moment happens that makes me chuckle and go, “I can hardly believe they went there.” They’re debating how to solve a problem like Regina, and someone goes, “No such thing as a bad idea!” They immediately start singing about cannibalism and dismemberment.

Then they launch into another frankly entertaining song called “Wickedest Witch of the Middle,” another testament to the power of the public domain to give stories like The Wizard of Oz new life in the popular imagination. I know I sound like a billboard right now, so let’s move on.

Regina herself BUSTS into the church with a declaration. She’s STILL foreclosing, and she’s going to do it EVEN SOONER! She’s changing the date to…Christmas Eve!!!

The church responds by singing an inspirational number about climbing mountains, I guess. It lasts like thirty seconds.

As Regina is leaving, something catches her eye: a place called The Old Lamplighter. She goes in and finds a child wiping the floor with her uncle at checkers. Is this some family’s home? Yes and no; it’s a combination home and bar. The child goes over to the counter and offers to serve her up some spirits. Regina asks if she’s old enough to do it, and she coolly replies that she is and her father is very responsible. The scriptwriters patted themselves on the backs for another case of strange optics managed, this time in a wacky fashion that I think does make it more agreeable than a candidate for office quietly becoming a hairdresser.

This child is named Violet, and she’s alright I guess. I hate the fact that she says “BTW” out loud, but while she does hold herself like she’s just as worldly-wise as any adult, she’s not as smart-aleck as the kids from Almost Christmas and that makes her OK in my book, if only comparatively.

To their mutual surprise, they find common ground over their views on how Life’s Not A Fairytale. Except that when Regina sings that “there’s no happy endings,” Violet says “hold on!” and stops the whole musical number. Because that’s where they differ: there are happy endings!

I don’t exactly remember how that segued into her describing her mother’s tragic death in a car accident as a result of driving in a blizzard to get vital medication for Violet from the next town over, medication which she couldn’t get in Fullerville because Regina had closed the pharmacy out of horrible cheapness, meaning that Regina killed her mother. Also, Violet blames herself for her mother’s death.

This is quite an awkward bout of tonal whiplash, but I at least see something to appreciate in how Violet is matter-of-fact about her mother’s death—I can believe that some young children whose parents died when they were babies would be able to talk about it that way. It is also touching that when Violet blames herself for it, Regina (who hasn’t revealed to the girl that she’s the mayor who caused this) does her first morally upright thing. She tells her, “NO.” Over and over again as she backs away and begins to leave, she tells her “NO” because she can’t blame herself, and she has one very specific person to blame.

Wackiness Resumes: Another Angel!

I’d predicted that Felicity, the beleaguered assistant, would need to take on a radical change of her own, get some assertiveness and smarts about her. I was half-right because what she actually needs is better angel training. For you see, Felicity is Regina’s guardian angel! Angel is just her supervisor who’s trying to help her get her wings.

This twist doesn’t elevate the movie or anything, but it is a cute surprise and it gives us something else to do. Angel makes her do calisthenics, almost seals her in a jar for all eternity, and then they read up together on how a change of mind makes a change of heart and vice-versa, or something.

Yay! Surely now that Felicity has a bit of discipline instilled in her, she’ll begin to do a decent job, or at least deliver coffee on time.

Felicity drives Regina to the kooky doctor so he can look at her terrifying brain tumor that is predicted to kill her imminently. On the way, she begins to flashback, and Angel begins to sing like the ending jingle of a Folger’s commercial (I swear to you that is true). “Lookin’ at life through the rearview mirror reveals your destiny…” That’s not the type of sound you want for some heartrending reveals, but you do you, Christmas on the Square.

Well, here comes Regina’s sad backstory. She was all set up to become a happy, healthy, ethically responsible mayor from birth. (Quote from a later flashback: “Keep the rents low and the spirits high, right, Daddy?!” MAN that is on the nose.)

But it all changed at the high school prom. Firstly because they are playing some truly awful background music. If you already hate “70s music,” you’ll despise “faux-70s prom funk as engineered in 2020.”

Secondly because she’s waiting for Carl, the young man who will run the general store. As she’s waiting, she looks and sees Carl…showing his ring to another girl! GASP!

You know where this is going if you’ve ever seen a TV show before. It was all a contrived misunderstanding. He wasn’t giving her the ring!

But wait, why the fuck would he even show it to her? Will anyone consider that maybe someone who’s so callous with such a strong symbol of enduring love is not compatible with Regina, who is? Maybe he DOESN’T deserve a Mrs. Claus…

But whatever. The movie tells us (through Angel’s vocal cords) this is only proof that Regina is “only seeing the worst in people.” As a result of this contrivance, Regina angrily dances with some other guy she doesn’t even like, and he gets her pregnant. Her dad didn’t approve at all, and when the child was born…he forced her to give the child up for adoption!

Damn! That’s cold. That’s beyond cold! How is the heartbreak and trauma Regina feels after this reduced to “only seeing the worst in people” too?! I’m telling you why: because it’s revealed that her dad only did this to ensure that the people of Fullerville wouldn’t start rumors.

How is that a reveal? We all know that small towns are gossipy. Surely Regina didn’t need Angel to tell her that much.

But also, I think she would be justified in never being able to see him as such a venerable figure again, and for me, this reveal makes the story of him being so good and such a caring advocate for all the poor folks of Fullerville turn a bit sour. I’m sure many stories struggle to simultaneously paint “martyr” mentors with shades of grey while keeping them heroic, but man, all you had to do was admit that maybe he wasn’t perfect, maybe he could actually be mean and misguided. Does the movie actually need to bend over backwards to say Regina is more thoroughly in the wrong here? Isn’t there a way to say that Regina should not merely duplicate her father, but surpass him?

Also, remember: this is what Fullerville looks like. It only has one homeless person, who is actually an angel, and if the orphan truly grew up here as Regina’s bastard child, they would have become, at worst, a dancing shoeshine kid.

Anyway, Regina might be dying from brain lump, but she’s now filled with new purpose, if not quite new goodness.

Sorting Out The Business (No I Don’t Mean the Mall)

Regina goes back to her old flame’s place for her dad’s old lamp, which used to stand in the square. She asks if he can have it, he goes “um, weird ask, OK you can have it but fuck off,” she takes it back to her dad’s officey-room.

There she examines the lantern and opens it to find…a hidden family bible. Inside are the details of her long-lost child!

Yay! Everyone is morally perfect now. Her dad is vindicated because he expected her to go on a Scooby-Doo quest to open a latch on this lamp, to be followed by an additional Scooby-Doo quest to actually track down the child (who need I remind you does not know her from Adam). But…whatever, she’s crying tears of joy because now she loves him again, for doing the bare minimum. The dude didn’t even give her a heart-to-heart!

OH NO A Horrible Car Crash!

Violet is critically injured! Her dad was driving her to her mother’s grave, which she visits every year on the anniversary of her death, so she was hurt in the most awful ironic way!

I’m going to say something that I would NEVER tell anyone in real life, something I’m ONLY saying because these are fictional characters in a corny film: cars hate this family.

Regina, horrified, tries to explain to Violet’s father that she understands, but he’s enraged. How could she possibly know what it’s like to lose a child?! She says, “I know exactly how it feels.” Gasp…you hear that? That’s Dramatic Irony 101.

She then has Felicity fly in the greatest surgeons in the country just to get Violet emergency treatment and save her life. But will it come to pass!?

Everyone in town convenes in the church, now feeling mournful. They pray. They sing, in a non-wacky fashion. Well, part of it is wacky. At some point they have Margeline pull out the gospel (another reason they couldn’t swap out her character) and that entertained me chiefly because one guy in the audience is doing the chicken dance. And he does it like he means it, too.

Now, my mom claims that the chicken dance is not only the worst dance of all time, but among the whitest, so I think that if someone started a Black Baptist revival near her and a random white dude came in hittin’ that Vaguely Funky Chicken, she would have to file a lawsuit.

Tying Up Loose Ends…With A Christmas Ribbon

This ending blurs together for me. There’s no more to discover. All that’s left is to match up Regina with Point A, Man B, and Chicken-Dance-Revival C. Felicity prompts Regina to go see her old flame, though Angel doesn’t think she’s ready yet! In fact, she says that Felicity might be gettin’ too big for her britches! But by some Christmas miracle, it’s gonna turn out alright, giving Angel more faith in her liege.

So Regina has her first touching moment with the old Santa-like guy. Aww. I mean, I don’t remember what they said, but aww.

Then Dolly Parton sings around the Square, symbolically reassuring the citizens that even in their time of need, angels are watching. She adds on details about the qualities of angels, like how they “take themselves lightly” and…I forget all the rest.

Also, this is the part where she points at the Christmas wife, specifically at her skirt. Sparkles fly out and enchant her skirt, making the floral print glow. The wife looks awestruck.

You know, I think E.T. did that once.

Yep! This is the only screencap I could grab from the trailer that looks like it might be from the end of the film. Who would’ve thought?

Regina makes her way back to the church. And she’s got some inspiring news…

First of all, Violet is alright! Second, Pastor Christian introduces her afresh to the congregation as…HIS BIRTH MOTHER!

Wow, how awful! So Regina’s own father “hid” her son in plain sight. She should be feeling like she’s been played for a fool. And while he was, as Pastor Christian notes, watching his baseball games for mysterious unknown reasons, Regina was kept totally in the dark. This went on for at least thirty years.

I guess as a follower of the “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” religion, Pastor Christian (the Christian pastor) is obligated to forgive his grandfather for doing what he thought best. But woah. Somehow I don’t think the magic of Dolly Parton can realistically resolve this trauma within ninety-nine minutes.

Regina calls off the mass foreclosure, her old flame suggests that Pastor Christian may be getting a new father too (wink wink, nudge nudge Regina’s shoulder), Felicity gets her angel wings and a sparkly new dress, and everyone goes out groovin’ on the square. It’s a string of Christmas miracles! Three for the price of one! Oh yeah, and also, a few minutes before Regina confessed all this and finished her change of heart, the wacky doctor told her there never was a brain tumor and he was mistaken. That dude is about to get sued!

Who Should Watch This Mess?

Um…I’m not totally sure I would call it a mess. It is not only coherent, but entertaining, occasionally funny, and occasionally hummable. If you’re OK with all the subject matter, it’s a feel-good movie with probably as much corn as you already expect.

I only wish I knew how this stacked up against Dolly Parton’s other Christmas movies. Because SHE DOES HAVE OTHERS.

Which I only learned a little late into the movie-reviewing game, so…that will have to be a watch for next year, if you enjoyed reading my take on this one.

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

Check out my other posts about campy or bungled media, including the Blondie movies, 4Kids TV’s cheesy-ass theme songs, and other Christmas movies and stuff:

Almost Christmas
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
It’s a Wonderful Life

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
The Polar Express

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