Every Christmas movie needs more Dolly Parton
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas — by which I mean, Dolly Parton is back on TV.
The country music legend isn't quite Candace Cameron Bure yet, but she's getting pretty close. Since the '80s, Parton has starred in six made-for-TV Christmas movies, the latest of which — Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square — is out on Sunday on Netflix.
Admittedly, Christmas on the Square is not a great movie; it has the slapdash production values of an NBC live musical, and would be middle-tier for the Hallmark Channel. Thank goodness, then, for Dolly Parton, who doesn't just bring a rhinestone twinkle to it all, but also a heart.
With her folksy aphorisms, bedazzled costumes, and signature winks of encouragement, it's clear why Parton is a favorite for Christmas cameos: She's practically a female Santa Claus. She's certainly nearly as beloved and generous, not to mention that she shares good Saint Nick's ability to seemingly be everywhere. Over the years, Parton has made her merry rounds in all the expected places, from the Hallmark Channel (2019's Christmas at Dollywood) to Lifetime (2013's A Country Christmas Story), dating all the way back to A Smoky Mountain Christmas on ABC in 1986. Though Billboard notes that she's made "surprisingly few holiday-themed albums" in her six-decade career (her latest, A Holly Dolly Christmas, came out last month), it's not news to anyone remotely familiar with the Queen of Being Extra that Christmas is her favorite holiday. "I start dressing for it on the day after Thanksgiving and keep it going well until my birthday on January 19," she recently told InStyle.
Christmas on the Square, like most of Dolly's Christmas movies, doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. In it, a wealthy grouch named Regina (Christine Baranski) returns to her small hometown after her father's death, with the idea of evicting the nauseatingly nice townsfolk in order to build the biggest mall in America. Only, Regina ultimately has a change of heart — just in the knick of time for Christmas! — thanks to some divine intervention in the form of an angelic Dolly Parton.
With her bouncy blonde hair and wide doe eyes, it's no wonder that Parton has played an angel in a Christmas movie already (and been mistaken for one in another). But even though Dolly also sometimes appears as herself in her holiday movies, as she does in A Country Christmas and Christmas at Dollywood, her performances are consistently genuine. In the prescriptive genre of holiday films — where there's somehow always an ill-timed blizzard, or a distracted career woman with no time for family, or a looming Christmas Eve deadline — she offers enough earnestness to grow a Grinch's heart.
Even when Parton is playing a character whose one-dimensional goodness would make you groan and roll your eyes if another actress were playing the part, she seems to actually believe her own words. When she's an angel, you buy it, and not only because the all-white country-chic outfits they apparently hand out in Heaven look so natural on her. Rather, the "true meaning of Christmas" messages she is espousing are really … her beliefs. Christmas on the Square, for example, is not the only holiday movie in which she urges a conflicted protagonist to "shine" their "light." Likewise, Angel-Dolly notes that "giving dreams wings is my specialty," an echo of real Dolly's uplifting declaration that "you never get too old to dream" in A Country Christmas. Sure, part of that repetition might just be the unoriginality of writing in Christmas movies — but also, you get the sense that Parton really subscribes to it, too.
More practically, it helps that she is charismatic enough to carry an entire movie even when she isn't the lead. Christmas movies don't tend to be stacked with cream-of-the-crop casts; Mama Mia's Baranski is actually a better get than most. Even so, Parton far outshines her co-stars in Christmas on the Square, giving a pulse to an otherwise staid script and cast of mediocre backup dancers. Similarly, in Christmas at Dollywood, Parton only pops up at the very end, but still offers the "first glimpse of natural behavior" in the entire film, according to YouTuber Nick DiRamio, who recapped the movie. "She has more charisma than the rest of this film has words! She just saved this movie."
If anything, there is not enough Dolly Parton in Christmas movies. She has the sort of childlike belief in the goodness of others that makes her the perfect messenger for lines that would sound cheesy or mawkish if they were given to someone else. When there are monologues to deliver about "the true meaning of Christmas," they don't feel like 10-minute warnings for the credits, but spoken from the heart.
Regardless of the cookie-cutter nature of most Christmas films, we still love them. Their familiar and interchangeable plots are soothing, and they reliably end with happily ever afters. The conventionally attractive high school sweethearts get together, like you knew they would. The Scrooge is overcome by Christmas cheer and decides against bulldozing the town. Still, we're aware on some level that these stories are fantasy, like myths about Santa Claus written for adults.
But not for Dolly. That wink of encouragement is real. That wish for something like peace, a fact.