In new holiday TV specials, Dolly reveals more 'Colors,' MacLaine advises angels in 'A Heavenly Christmas' and Amazon gets beautifully animated

Of all the made-up wars being fought in America right now, the War Against “The War Against Christmas” is one of the least urgent, as it is taking place almost entirely in the minds of people for whom "Happy Holidays" amounts to a slap in the face. (Back off, friendly people!) But Christmas still rules the pop-cultural winter solstice; indeed, it has expanded its reach all the way back to Halloween, if the shelves at my local pharmacy are anything to go by.

As is the custom, television will be decked with holly and trimmed with tinsel until the New Year arrives.

Nowhere is this tradition more ardently observed than the Hallmark Channel, which will have debuted 19 original holiday movies, nearly all with the word "Christmas" in the title, by Jan. 1. Generally speaking, this is a case of quantity over quality, but there are always a few films that stand out by virtue of extra care, better budget and/or a starry cast.

With "A Heavenly Christmas," which premieres Saturday, the network has signaled its extra-specialness by framing it as part of the long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame franchise. Starring Kristin Davis, Eric McCormack and Shirley MacLaine, it works elements of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and "A Christmas Carol" into a supernatural rom-com.

Davis plays Eve, a Chicago financial consultant, too busy with work to stop and make a snowball, who slips on the ice and wakes up, if that's the word, in heaven —  only to learn from celestial mentor MacLaine that she has been made a Christmas angel and is being packed back to Earth to fulfill a Christmas wish: Little Lauren (Jaeda Lilly Miller) wants her Uncle Max (McCormack), to be happy again.

That Eve and Max have already "met cute" will tell you where this is headed, if not exactly how it's going to get there. (Suffice it to say that heaven and Earth may have rules, but rules are made to broken.) The dialogue can get a little cute ("Dear God, it's me, Lauren. I think this is too big for Santa, so I'm going straight to you") and I'm pretty sure that the Chicago public school system doesn't put on nativity plays, but the plot proves watertight and the cast is able.

NBC follows last year's highly successful TV movie "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors," with “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love" on Wednesday. It’s another "true story of a Christmas miracle that happened during my childhood," Parton says in the introduction. (The earlier film was a holiday special in spirit, but not in its setting.) Once again written by Pamela K. Long and directed by Stephen Herek, it's not quite up to the mark of its predecessor, whose strengths were in ordinary domestic relations and challenges —  a Smoky Mountains "Waltons."

Christmas brings some bigger effects and O. Henry plot points that don't all quite come off or ring true; the new film doubles down on the miraculous, though it also makes room for the skeptic. Maybe that dream was a vision, or maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe that angel over the barn was only snow blowing in the wind. Dolly knows what she thinks, but you can decide for yourself.

The core is solid, with strong work again from Ricky Schroder and singer Jennifer Nettles as Dolly's parents and Alyvia Alyn Lind very good as the 9-year-old Parton, a precocious, somewhat egotistic scamp who dreams of red patent leather shoes and stardom: "Every day I wake up and say, ‘Is it going to be today?’ " (Nearly: Parton was 10 when she began singing on the radio.)

In the film's most singular passage, Parton plays a "painted angel" —  a prostitute, is the pretty clear implication —  a dazzled little Dolly meets while singing on the street and whose flashy style she vows one day to make her own. (That the singer is now 70 is something that did not occur to this viewer at the time.)

"Are you a dream?" asks little Dolly, still wearing the patchwork coat of many colors her momma made for her. "Some women say I am their worst nightmare," the ghost of Dolly Future replies. It is a little jarring, but not out of tune with the film's message to "love and accept each other, and always be kind."

Beginning Friday, Amazon is streaming two new original cartoons adapted from (and expanding greatly upon) popular picture books.

"If You Give a Mouse a Christmas Cookie" spins a holiday tale off Laura Numeroff's 1985 children's book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," a simple circular tale that leads to another cookie. (Illustrator Felicia Bond's work is aped here.) The book's nameless little boy is now called Oliver; Mouse, joined by the animal stars of other Numeroff books, has been knocked up into a hapless protagonist whose poor impulse control and need to be involved in Oliver's business winds up endangering a school play. (There’s a school play in the Parton film too; it’s a Christmas tale.)

It has a tendency to cuteness parents will notice more than their children will, and a few good left-field jokes, more in Numeroff's absurdist spirit, to cut the sweetness —  a dog hypnotized by the revolving stripes of a barber pole, for example. ("It just keeps coming up from nowhere and going out the top.") As in many cartoons aimed at younger children, there is a surfeit of giggling. Nobody giggled in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

There is less giggling and more art in the other Amazon special, "The Snowy Day," a gorgeous translation of Ezra Jack Keats 1962 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, which broke ground by making its central, and almost only, character black —  that race was incidental to the story was Keats' small but mighty point. Taking a cue from Keats' illustrations, the look of the animation is textured and patterned and forgoes the black outlines and exaggerations typical of cartoons; as a purely visual experience, it's thoroughly delightful. You can never predict what will become a "Christmas classic," but "The Snowy Day" deserves to be.

Where Keats was primarily concerned with portraying the beauty, magic and immanence of the tangible world —  Peter (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) goes out to play in the snow, makes tracks in it, plays with a stick, packs a snowball and puts it in his pocket to save —  the adaptation, which features voice work from Angela Bassett, Regina King, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and narrator Laurence Fishburne, has been set specifically on Christmas Eve, filled out with other characters and given a small plot, most of which is taken up with Peter's distracted progress from his own house to his grandmother's a block away. (There is the familiar issue of a Christmas saved from ruin, but, like all else here, its terms are lifelike.)

Peter's street, which is every inch a New York City thoroughfare — Keats was a Brooklyn boy himself — includes an Italian chestnut vendor, a Jewish bakery, Asian and Arab shopkeepers, Latino teens and an African American a cappella group voiced by Boyz II Men. It is a bit of a dreamscape, where everyone gets along, mucks in and steps up, but consonant with the spirit of multiculturalism Keats brought to his work —  and exactly the dream, not just the season, that the future requires.

Happy holidays!

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Shirley MacLaine

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