On Nov. 9, 2017, during an OnMilwaukee editorial meeting, culture editor Matt Mueller brought up the craze of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was a decision he would come to immediately regret, as he was quickly punished assigned to watch a new Hallmark movie a week during the holiday season and write about his discoveries and loss of dignity.
You might think going from Rome to a city called Pigeon Forge in the middle of Tennessee might be a slight downgrade – but I strongly disagree, and not just because I chant "U.S.A! U.S.A!" at the end of literally any noteworthy event. (Just ask people who see movies with me!) After all, does Rome have national treasure Dolly Parton? I THOUGHT NOT! Does Rome have theme park rides such as the Dizzy Disk or the Tennessee Tornado? THAT'D BE UN NEGATIVO! Psh, your attractions can't even stand up straight, Italy! And when it comes to the best Hallmark holiday movie ... uuuh, well, anyways, how about that Tennessee Tornado?!
WAAAAT WOOD CHOU DOOOO IF I SANG ... OUT OF TUUUNE. That's right: It's ultimate '80s/'90s TV crush Winnie Cooper, aka Danica McKellar. As we all know, the transition from child actor to normal functioning adult can be notoriously brutal; take, for instance, McKellar, who after her time on "The Wonder Years" went on to ... earn a degree in mathematics summa cum laude from UCLA, in the process co-authoring a published and peer-reviewed scientific paper. WHERE ARE YOU NOW, TMZ!? The title of that paper is (*takes a deep breath*) "Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2." I literally understand three words of that, and they are "and," "for" and "on."
When she's not getting actual theorems named after her, McKellar's continued acting, appearing on "The West Wing," "How I Met Your Mother" and more, as well as the 2013 Syfy original film "Tasmanian Devils," which is exactly what you think it's about. Yes, it's about people getting killed by giant ancient evil Tasmanian devils. Also: Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno is there. I'm not making fun of McKellar for this. Being insanely intelligent, publishing papers (oh, and four math books for young girls), making the world a better and smarter place – all while making demonic rodent creature features on the side? That is the dream. U.S.A! U.S.A!
McKellar also appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" – because when you're a celebrity, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself on "Dancing with the Stars." She finished sixth during her season – but to be fair, one of the contestants above her was a pop star who already had some basic knowledge of dance while fifth and first place went to Charlie White and Meryl Davis, Olympic ice dancers. DANCE IS RIGHT THERE IN THEIR JOB TITLES; THIS GAME IS RIGGED! Meanwhile, guess who finished in third place that season? That's right: fellow Hallmark star Candace Cameron Bure! God, I hope they have beef.
Anyways, her romantic interest is Naill Matter, who briefly appeared as old-timey superhero Mothman in Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" movie and got murdered by a space alien in "The Predator." Slacker. GET ON WINNIE COOPER'S LEVEL!
A word of warning to start: If you're expecting a lot of Dolly Parton to go with your Dollywood-themed Hallmark movie, you'll be more disappointed than the big city business boss who's looking forward to giving our protagonist a promotion at the end of the movie.
Indeed, while there's plenty of Dolly Parton sightings in "Christmas at Dollywood," they're mostly cardboard standees, as the actual country music icon only drops by the final five minutes. The reveal is admittedly pretty great, and five minutes of Dolly Parton is far better than no minutes of Dolly Parton, but for most of the movie, it comes off less as smartly dramatic teasing and more like Dolly Parton just had a lot of other better things to do – though it does lead to the funniest part of the movie, in which McKellar's party-planning heroine Rachel thinks she sees Dolly chatting with Matter's handsome romantic rival Luke in a group of people ... only to find out it's just a different big-haired blonde lady with exactly NO country hits.
That may seem like an easy criticism – and honestly, if you thought Dolly was going to be a main character, you probably thought our leads would never fall in love either – but it speaks to the greater issue in "Christmas at Dollywood": For a movie with such promise of personality, there really isn't much. Hallmark movies are all pretty much the same, but the best have some texture to them to make them stand out and feel less cookie-cutter. Here, however, there's little in terms of Southern charm – and forget Dolly, there's not even that much Dollywood. Most of the on-site action is reserved to the Show Street section; otherwise, it's a lot of walking through the least interesting parts of Dollywood. Hope you like offices and street sidewalks that look a lot more Canadian than country-inspired.
That leaves the standard plot: Rachel is an esteemed big-city event planner, introduced putting on the perfect Christmas fashion show. Her boss is very impressed, telling her that she's going to be running this company someday, but BAD NEWS, BOSS LADY; THIS IS A HALLMARK MOVIE, WHERE PROMOTIONS GO TO DIE! More importantly, though, she gives Rachel vacation time during Christmas ... which she promptly uses to pick up another gig: Dollywood's anniversary Christmas celebration.
That means traveling with her daughter back home to Tennessee and staying at her parents' house. Or at least trying to stay at her parents' house, because I don't think you could enter or exit that building without crunching on some holiday lights. I don't even think you could even merely look at the house without those special eclipse sunglasses. Every single Christmas light and decoration in existence is on these people's lawn. Apparently when the director asked how many Christmas lights should the home have, the production designer answered, "Yes," and ran with it. The electricity bill at that house must fund most of the public works in the state of Tennessee. I guess what I'm trying to say is her dad could pump the breaks a bit on the decorations. He's making the "Christmas Vacation" house look understated.
To give her corneas a break, Rachel heads over to Dollywood to do some reconnaissance before interviewing for the party-planning gig. While there, she runs into a handsome stranger – and before introducing herself or anything, she talks about how miserable the event's set-up is. Because I love greeting people by complaining. Certainly this is charming behavior that will not amusingly backfire in any way during the next few scenes!
Of course, this handsome stranger turns out to be the Hallmark movie's requisite Handsome Romantic Rival, Luke, who's in charge of events at Dollywood. Oops! However, while she's hoping to be in charge of just this particular party, he's interviewing for a promotion to park manager, so the two take the ribbing in stride, pass some awkward banter back and forth, and plan to never see each other again. Unfortunately, that's not allowed as the Dollywood execs like both Luke's dry business-minded approach and Rachel's passionate outside-the-box thinking ("outside-the-box" in this case translating to "it's not a party but an event"; damn, I had never considered that before), so they hire them both for the gig. Because if there's one thing we all know companies love, it's hiring two people to do the same job.
Unsurprisingly the two butt heads continuously – mainly because Luke is, indeed, a butt. He constantly mocks her for having THE GALL to have ideas, eventually calling Rachel "bossy" – classic code for "a lady who dares to be assertive and strong-willed." He also goes to complain about his new partner with his best buddy at his favorite hangout: a bar called "Bar." I hope they serve Beer Brand beer at Bar! His buddy reminds him of his goal – proving his worth by putting on a great anniversary party – and that she's helpfully providing some coattails to ride there. That friend is never seen outside of Bar, so Luke might want to have a serious conversation with him. He may have a problem. (*glances down at the section of this article dedicated to drinking heavily during Hallmark movies*) Maybe I shouldn't talk.
As you predicted before the movie started, though, the two eventually start putting aside their differences so Luke can get his promotion instead of getting poached away to a different theme park he has no affection for while Rachel can ... impress here already impressed boss, who wanted her to take a vacation in the first place? I guess? Rachel's goal, or really her family's goal, is to get a less demanding job, while Rachel wants to show her daughter that you can make your own way – even if life gets you down, whether it's losing your husband or not achieving one's dream of becoming an author. Indeed, while touring Dollywood's charity library, Rachel explains that she wanted to write stories, but her manuscripts were turned down. One of the authors in display in that bookstore? Danica McKellar. DANICA MCKELLAR EXISTS IN THIS UNIVERSE! HAS RACHEL WATCHED "THE WONDER YEARS"!? CUE "INCEPTION" BWAMM SOUND EFFECT!
And as you DEFINITELY predicted before the movie even existed, Luke and Rachel start falling in love, as Luke starts warming up to her passion for party-planning and she melts away his icy heart with Christmas spirit. They sample tasty new menu items (though a filmmaking crime is committed in the process: nowhere near enough food porn) go tree shopping and even build a snowman – the world's fattest and misshapen snowman, less Olaf from "Frozen" and more Michael Keaton's lumpy "Jack Frost," but a snowman none the less. Luke even bakes a Yule log with Rachel's family – though they all mock his work at the end, so I assume his cooking days are done. Kids, don't log-shame.
The romance all caps with a trip line-dancing. The scene doesn't particularly work; despite McKellar being enjoyably flirty and charmingly peppy, Luke's character is established as such a strangely condescending grumblegus (a technical screenwriting term) early on and their banter is so confusing and stiff that it's a tough hole for their chemistry to dig out of. But it's a scene with some semblance texture as well as a sense of place and character, something missing from most of the blandly acceptable "Christmas at Dollywood."
The final act thankfully opens things up a little bit with some bluegrassy performances and a parade that marches through the park to the party's set piece: a giant LCD-lit tree. There's just one problem: The tree keeps glitching and shorting out, leaving the tech guy with no answers. Has he considered that the problem may be that Rachel's family is using all of the city's electricity with their Christmas lights? Just a thought.
Thankfully, though, he figures it out just in time – and I mean JUST IN TIME because, when the parade arrives, it takes a solid and effectively stressful minute for the tree to finally fire up in bright and merry Christmas glory. Thank the heavens, too, because – A HOLIDAY MIRACLE! – Dolly was actually there. And if you disappoint Dolly Parton, I'm pretty sure you're immediately blacklisted from the planet. Or at least that's what I imagine it feels like. It'd be like making Tom Hanks sad; a person's soul is not made to hold that much guilt.
Though they avoid the soul-crushing feeling of disappointing Dolly, it's not a completely happy ending yet. After all, Rachel's pretty convinced that she's going to continue working with the party-planning company instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a writer, while Luke's ready to take the job at the rival theme park after seeing some other chump named Vince Blackwell interview for his Dollywood dream job and shake hands with his bosses. Plus, Luke said that he really liked working with Rachel as a WORK partner, splashing some cold water all over their growing romance.
If only there was a country music icon around to make everything right – OH HI DOLLY! She gives Rachel the pep talk she needs to follow her heart – both to writing books AND to Luke, who actually got the job and just totally misread the situation with Vince Blackwell. So Rachel runs off to tell Luke that she loves him – and also that he got the gig. Seems like a poor corporate situation if co-workers are telling each other about promotions before the bosses do – but hey, YAY FOR LOVE! And yay for dreams, because in a final flash-forward scene, Rachel gets the ultimate Christmas gift: a published book, accepted into Dolly's special charity library. U.S.A! U(*gets hit by a thrown Dolly Parton cardboard standee*)
Not that I needed any more excuses to drink heavily while watching Hallmark holiday movies, but thanks to Wide Open Eats, I found this Hallmark drinking game created three winters ago by human saint Brittany Graves and posted on Facebook. So let's go through the checklist and see how crushed we can get off Christmas cliches!
Since there's no Lacey Chabert or Candace Cameron Bure – because of the "Dancing with the Stars"-based rivalry she has with McKellar that I just made up, of course – there's no bonus shot, and while you can finish your drink for Luke learning that a mere wreath is NO WAY to celebrate a proper Christmas, there's no snow at the end to cause another finished drink. All the snow probably all melted a mile above Pigeon Forge because of the heat emanating from all the glowing lights at Rachel's family's house. Maybe we only put one Milaeger's worth of decorations up next year, eh, Rachel's dad?
Anyways, you won't need the alcohol anyways because "Christmas at Dollywood," while perhaps a missed opportunity for something better, is an acceptably adequate Hallmark holiday movie. Plus, it opens the door for MY pitch for next year's theme park-based Christmas holiday movie: "An Action Park Christmas." After all, what's the holidays without a concussion or five!?
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