CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE. Dolly Parton is never really out of public consciousness, amazingly maintaining her iconic presence in American culture without scandal, just working away and occasionally voicing her support for LGBTQ folks and Black Lives Matter, and doing weekly bedtime story readings online for children and frazzled adults during the pandemic. She’s having another moment sparked by a number of projects, not the least of which is the $1 million she donated to COVID-19 vaccine research that helped fund the Moderna vaccine.
Celebrating Parton’s continued presence on Earth in our lifetimes with a Nine to Five watch party is not a bad idea. Neither is diving into her country music catalog and subtweeting that trash Jolene. But this week, Parton has gifted us with the divinity-sweet confection of her new Christmas movie on Netflix, Christmas on the Square, for which she shares writing credit. It’s directed by the legendary Debbie Allen, who’s also having a moment, with a documentary just a scroll away (see below). The result of their collaboration is a throwback to TV specials of holidays past. It’s not terribly new or sophisticated, and, like old-fashioned Christmas candy, it’s not for everyone. But for those who can take the sugar, it’s a nostalgic treat to put on while you roll out gingerbread dough.
The happy people of Fullerville are spinning and cartwheeling around the town square when Regina (Christine Baranski, channeling Miranda Priestly if only she deigned to sing her disdain) sweeps in from New York with her terrified, apologetic assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) to deliver eviction notices to the entire town. Having inherited ownership of the town from her community-minded father, the ruthless Regina is eager to sell it to the Cheetah Mall conglomerate and put it — and the regrets of her youth — in the rear view mirror. As she makes her way from shop to shop, delivering bad news and dodging calls from a doctor about a brain scan, she darkens the doors of Pastor Christian Hathaway (Josh Segarra) and his wife (Mary Lane Haskell), as well as her supposed best friend Margilene, the salon owner and mayor (Jennifer Lewis, going full out), followed by a surprisingly glamorous homeless woman (Parton). Not much of a shock when said homeless woman appears before Regina that evening as one expects Parton always does: in a burst of sparkles, clad in white sequins, 6-inch stiletto mules and floating on a cloud. She is, of course, an angel come to pull Regina back from her selfishness. She tags along to a “Resist Regina” town meeting that features the most wholesome production number to include calls for violence I’ve ever seen, and generally nags her and an angel in training while sporting a series of supernaturally tailored white ensembles. Whether Regina will defrost and/or reconcile with her high school sweetheart (Treat Williams) isn’t much of a head scratcher, but we did not climb onto this sleigh ride for noir.
Unlike Netflix’s Jingle Jangle, which pulled out all the stops in terms of production value, design, music and those who could make it soar, Christmas on the Square feels small and made for TV. The production numbers, with their big, throwback Broadway style come off like the numbers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Most of the songs come and go easily, forgettable with barely a breath between them. Only Lewis has the voice to rile us up. But just when you think it’s all too goofy, Parton lets the warmth and fragility of her voice deliver something genuine, and damn. Likewise, Baranski’s sudden turns from comic arched brow to grief and regret. TVPG. 138M. NETFLIX.
DANCE DREAMS: HOT CHOCOLATE NUTCRACKER. “Ms. Allen doesn’t play,” warns one of the teachers at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. She’s not kidding. This engrossing journey from auditions to performance of Debbie Allen’s wide-ranging, contemporary adaptation of the holiday classic is worth your time. Allen is as warm and tough as you expect and then some as we watch her teach young dancers at her academy and revisit the heartbreak of her struggle as a young, Black ballet dancer who was repeatedly told she did not belong. Her students, largely Black, come from a range of economic backgrounds, including one talented ballerina who works as a cashier, and struggle with the lingering exclusion of the dance world. It is heartbreaking to hear a young dancer say, “The craft that chose me was not created in my image,” but heartening to hear her resolve and to hear Allen and her team of instructors build the dancers up. TVPG. 80M. NETFLIX.
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