In movies, there’s good trash and bad trash, and Dolly Parton’s “Christmas on the Square” earnestly plants itself in the garden of the former. Dolly Parton’s essence perfumes every delightfully campy moment of the new Netflix holiday musical; after all, the legendary country singer penned the film’s music and lyrics, boasting 14 original songs. Directed by Debbie Allen, “Christmas on the Square” tessellates “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Hallmark movies, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and, of course, “A Christmas Carol” to produce what feels like a cozy cup of spiked apple cider. It’s as fun as it is frivolous, and luckily, everybody’s in on the joke.
The opening number introduces viewers to the gleeful residents of Fullerville, a small town nestled in middle America. Caffeinated by the Christmas spirit, they leap and twirl their way around a decked-out gazebo, a wagon of puppies and Dolly Parton herself. Parton first appears on screen as a mysterious homeless woman, wearing tattered grey rags and clutching a cardboard box inscribed with the word “CHANGE.”
In her rubato verse of the opening song, she champions the importance of community and love. The jolly dancers are much too busy vogueing and doing backflips to notice her. The town square looks far too manicured to feel like a real town even for a split second, but who cares? It’s fun to watch them frolic through artificially dusted snow with the peppy charm of a J.C. Penny commercial.
The sugary festivities sour at the arrival of Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski). Regina, the bitter Scrooge-type star, has decided to sell the small town that her late father built, dooming Fullerville to be bulldozed and reborn as a mall. The specifics of this transaction are fudged, but it really doesn’t matter, because Regina shows up — in what seems to be the only car in town — to deliver a flurry of eviction notices, shadowed by her sweet and apologetic assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason).
Throughout the first half, “Christmas on the Square” feels like community theater, introducing viewers to the cast of compassionate Fullerville residents. There’s the local pastor, creatively named Christian (Josh Segarra), and his wife Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell); they spearhead the town’s resistance against Regina’s autocracy. Then, there’s Regina’s old flame from high school Carl (Treat Williams); on one hand, the rusted relationship between Regina and Carl could benefit from a romantic duet, but on the other hand, Williams really doesn’t need another drawn-out ballad. A surprisingly heartfelt subplot uplifts Mack (Matthew Johnson), an upstanding single father, and his adorable daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones). While his role is fleeting, Johnson sings and acts circles around most of his co-stars, bringing impressive dramatic chops to this saccharine sugar cookie movie.
Another standout in this bunch comes as no surprise: Jenifer Lewis delivers a dynamic performance as Margeline, Regina’s former best friend and the local hair salon’s charismatic owner. Lewis comes alive in Margeline’s brassy, gospel-inspired “Queen of Mean.” Baranski and Lewis keep the tension between their characters at a cool simmer, never ruthlessly barbed but just sharp enough to be fun.
“Christmas on the Square” does not by any account showcase the best of Parton’s music. It is, however, warm and cohesive, with just enough teeth to land the few biting lines. Though it’s not revolutionary, the music feels most captivating when it’s sung by the country star herself. Early in the movie, Parton is revealed to be an angel, shedding the tattered rags in favor of a glittering white gown and bedazzled cowgirl boots. Parton’s angel beams atop silvery tufts of cloud, encouraging Regina’s frozen heart to thaw and advising a secret angel-in-training.
Yeah, that makes sense, but Parton isn’t appointing herself as a Christlike figure; the movie never takes itself that seriously. The plot of “Christmas on the Square” takes just as many leaps as the choreography, but at the end of the day, it’s all in good faith and good fun.