By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 17, 2020 at 6:46 PM

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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. 

Three years later, having learned absolutely nothing, he made the mistake all over again. 

These are the never-ending chronicles of Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell.

"One Royal Holiday"

This is normally where I'd start off with some lovingly snarky or sassy introduction, eye-rolling at Hallmark's cozy cliches – especially since we haven't even begun dethawing the turkey for Thanksgiving, much less begun celebrating the dang holiday. But you know what? This is 2020, a year that's currently on its 258th day of March – the absolute worst of all the months on the calendar even when it's just the typical 31 days long. Space in my brain that should be used for "Sonic the Hedgehog" trivia and "The Bachelorette" hot takes is instead filled with information about safety mask varietals. We discovered murder hornets are a real a thing and not the title of a Syfy original movie. 

So yeah, Hallmark and its fans get a pass this season.

Normally, I'd make fun of these characters living in snowglobes – but right now, that actually sounds outstanding. I'd love to live in a world where you drink so much hot chocolate that you bleed Swiss Miss, where every store is either an adorable bakery or a homey Christmas knickknack-atorium, and where you win the Nobel Peace Prize for coming up with "snow" as the theme for a Christmas party. That all sounds like therapy for my 2020-addled brain. 

And here's the best part: My first Hallmark movie, "One Royal Holiday," isn't merely good because it reminded me nice things exist. It's actually pretty good! So without further ado, let's talk about this charming Christmas romance between a prince and a nurse – and the awful haircut that threatened to destroy it all. 

Who stars?

Starring as our small-town enthusiast is Laura Osnes, who got her start fittingly as a contestant nicknamed "Small Town Sandy" on the Broadway casting contest "Grease! You're the One That I Want!" You see, because she was from Minnesota where there's no big cities or significant populations – just lakes.

Anyways, Osnes would actually go on to win the contest and the lead role of Sandy on Broadway. Considering that reality show has been long-since forgotten and only lasted one season, surely that was the high point of her on-stage career ... hold on a second, she was nominated for not one but TWO Tony Awards after that?! Color me impressed (which, for those who don't know, impressed is a shade of rich taupe).

The other half of this royal romance is Aaron Tveit, star of the short-lived network shows "Graceland" and"BrainDead" as well as HOLD THE PHONE – ANOTHER TONY NOMINEE!? What is going on here?! Am I getting fooled by some small-time award called the Anthonys?! Nope, Tveit's also a Tony nominee – literally as we speak, earning a Best Lead Actor in a Musical nod this year for "Moulin Rouge!" Best of all, Tveit also starred as Danny Zuko in Fox's live production of "Grease," which means there's gotta be behind-the-scenes footage of "Small Town Sandy" Osnes and Tveit busting out "You're the One That I Want" in between takes. How was this not a Marvel-esque end credits scene?

With two Tony nominees, this has to be a contender for the most accomplished cast a Hallmark movie's ever assembled – BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! What's better than a Tony nominee? How about a Tony WINNER!? Yes, Tveit's queen mother is played by Victoria Clark, a Tony winner in 2005 for the musical "The Light in the Piazza." Unfortunately, she has no "Grease" on her resume – but she did co-star with Osnes in "Cinderella" on Broadway seven years ago. 

In conclusion, if there's not a musical number in this movie, it will be the greatest betrayal since Santa delivered me a Rubik's Cube when I asked for a Gamecube. 

Holly jolly or holy hell?

I know I said before that Hallmark holiday movies get a pass this year, but "One Royal Holiday" doesn't get a pass – because "One Royal Holiday" doesn't need a pass. No, it's just straight-up a good nice movie. And if you're waiting for a snarky "well, at least for 2020" or "it's good compared to everything else that's happened this year," welp ... keep waiting. The characters were charming, the performances were winning, the star's jacket budget was lavish, and the plot ... politely stayed out of the way. There's even a running plot thread involving delicious sugary pastries that, in turn, gave me an excuse to buy myself delicious sugary pastries. And any movie that encourages me to eat doughnuts deserves at least a call from the Library of Congress to ask about getting included amongst its culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.

So yes, I am basically arguing that "One Royal Holiday" is as good as "Citizen Kane."

We're first introduced to our heroine Anna (Laura Osnes) as she Christmas shops before her work shift as a nurse in a Boston cardiac care unit, so charmed by a Christmas-themed spatula that she's just gotta have it. As one who spent most of this pandemic making wildly impulsive online purchases to fight away the boredom and creeping existential dread of existence, I can already relate to her. Plus, as we learn later, she often spends her lonely nights snacking on the many tins of artisan popcorn she stores under the Christmas tree from recovered patients – a legitimately sweet grace note. A compulsive shopper and compulsive snacker? Weird that this movie is about the female me! DOES SHE RECAP "THE BACHELORETTE" TOO!?

While Anna is falling out of her chair trying to catch popcorn in her mouth, across town there's a fancy banquet hosted for hospital courtesy of Queen Gabriella (Victoria Clark) and the stern Prince James (Aaron Tveit), who want to show their support for the place that took such good care of the unfortunately now-deceased King of Galwick – aka Britain. These royalty-themed romances always come up with a fake country, but it's always just England. Just once I want to see the handsome prince talk in a dense eastern European accent and share his love of goat liver and cabbage pierogies. 

Anyways, while they may have been at a fancy event, things are not a party for the Galwickian royals as apparently they are in DISARRAY, according to tabloids, ever since the king passed and the prince gave a bad Christmas speech. And in fairness to the Galwickian Enquirer, they do seem out of sorts. For instance, they don't seem to have bodyguards, just popping in for a pit stop at Donnie's Donuts without anyone watching their six. Their driver seems like he might just work for Uber, and when a blizzard hits, they seem utterly clueless on what to do. These people can't handle a trip to Boston; how do they handle a country!?

But the ultimate sign of problems amongst Galwick's royalty? Our prince's terrible hair. It's similar to a mullet: business in the front, the aftermath of a sloppy makeout session with an electrical outlet in the back. No wonder he's such a grumpus; I'd be sulky too if a small unwashed ferret perched itself on the back of my head and refused to leave. What I'm trying to say is that the look is bad – and I know the hairdo is no good because it's MY hairdo. I too am currently rocking the accidental mullet – not by choice, but by criminal fashion negligence – so I feel your pain, Prince James. 

Anyways, while the royals try to come up with a blizzard housing plan in the middle of a New England donut shop, our prince with the Galwickian waterfall meets Anna, who politely tries to give him her bonus free Christmas cruller. But James is not interested in her peasant's snack. They have a FAR SUPERIOR version called a Galwickian yule cake that would shame poor Donnie into closing his donut shop. But even after he's debased the good name of the Christmas cruller, Anna still offers to help the stranded royals, as her father conveniently runs a bed-and-breakfast maybe an hour away – just close enough to avoid the blizzard. And since their driver is bailing – woof; one star for that Uber ride! – she even offers a ride there too. 

There's just one hitch: They haven't told Anna that they're royalty, trying to maintain a low profile on the insistence of their lone security officer who ALSO HAS UNRULY HAIR! Did Galwick outlaw combs?! But speaking of bad things: lying about the royalty thing. I get the idea that you don't want to be roaming around just royal-ing it up everywhere, but this is such an annoying plot contrivance for the sake of needless drama. And thankfully, the movie agrees! As soon as they arrive at the dad's B&B, they accidentally spill the beans, and we get to move forward with the cute romance and charming interactions without the cloud of the third act reveal/split hanging over everything.

With that out of the way, we can simply start the process of thawing out Prince James' heart and getting him to learn to appreciate simple things. He starts out harrumphing about the B&B's lack of a "pillow menu" (dude, you're fine; your hair comes with a built-in neck pillow) and wearing three-piece suits with a weirdly girdle-looking vest and increasing weather delays. He even notes how annoying it is that they can't get the roads plowed in this little town but apparently it can still host busy Christmas parades. HOW RUDE; DON'T POINT OUT THE PLOT HOLES!

But it doesn't take long for him to trade out his weird girdle suit vest for Chris Evans' sweater from "Knives Out," to help plan and decorate the town's Christmas ball – typically a relaxing pajama ball but this year shifting into glamour because Hallmark didn't buy Osnes a fancy gown for nothing, dammit! – and to get excited about black ice covering the roads and a tree parking itself in the village's one bridge in and out, keeping them in the small town decorating gingerbread houses and taking carriage rides. Even his security guard joins in the fun, falling in love with Anna's good friend and the town's mayor, winning her over with charming chat about the Great Galwickian Comb War of 1928 over hot cider. 

Of course, the most important thing warming the prince up to the town is Anna, who helps him loosen up while cutely getting to know one another. She learns that he went viral in a bad way last year for his terrible first Christmas speech as prince (come on, James; you should know to never read the comments), while he learns that she actually worked at the hospital that took care of his dad, probably providing him the care that nursed him back to health so well. She teaches him how to decorate a tree; he teaches her how to dance a Christmas waltz. He and the Queen even team up with the B&B's chef to serve her an authentic Galwickian yule cake, which ... appears to be a filled decorated doughnut. Galwickian culture sure looks a lot like the Dunkin' Donuts special holiday menu. 

But even if the yule cake is underwhelming, "One Royal Holiday" isn't, providing all the cozy winsome charm you could win. Osnes is a pretty exceptional Hallmark lead, peppy and fun without ever coming off insincere or saccharine, and while I may have strong feelings about the hair styling situation, Tveit pulls off the transition from icy snot to charming romantic lead nicely. Some others come off too cold or mean in the first half, making the happy ending a lot harder to earn, but Tveit toes the line well. We like watching these two fall in love, as opposed to feel like it's just the inevitable.

Best of all, the script just stays out of its stars' way. There's basically no conflict or plot, making it essentially a cozy and natural hangout movie with charming company, and when the story does occasionally barge in, the movie doesn't rely on cheap dramatics or overplay its hand. Bailing on the "keep the royals" secret was the right choice, avoiding forced comedy or tedious tension. At one point, the movie looks like it's about to bust out the dreaded "love interest overhears the wrong part of a conversation and makes the wrong assumptions like a baby person" third act twist, but it totally skips over it. FOUR STARS FOR THAT ALONE!

Later, there's gossip in the Galwickian tabloids – between tabloids and haunting a speech's comments secction, this is a Very Online country – about the royals hanging out in America, but even that doesn't become a dumb fight or irritating character turn. Instead, their falling-out happens for shockingly real and understandable reasons; they're living two very different lives in two different countries, and Anna doesn't want to keep him from his people. That's ... pretty legit? What's the deal with all of these people in this Hallmark movie behaving like ... people? THEY CAN DO THAT!?

So, after being internet-shamed by his people, Prince James and Queen Gabriella return to Galwick, which appears to consist of one dark and creaky stone castle, while Anna helps assemble the town's Christmas ball and wear an outstanding gown. For a moment, she even thinks James is there – but no, it's just another town resident with a similarly unfortunate haircut. But lo and behold, James does pop in for a snowy romantic return to dance their waltz (dawww!) and to find out that she was the warm-hearted nurse that his father grew close to during his hospital stay. I know he was listed under a fake name, but you'd think she'd know more about Galwick and this family after having to hanging by his side for an extended stay. And hold on a second: We spent the last week in this movie's world stuck in this small town, but now it takes about ten minutes for Prince James to hop back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean?

It's a credit to "One Royal Holiday," though, that I don't care about these plot holes during the movie. All I care about is Anna and the prince falling in love and being happy forever (and hopefully bringing some better hair styles to Galwick), and when that's the case, a Hallmark movie's done its job.

Verdict: A royal gem

Drinking game drunken-ness score

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 several 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 – and if you have your own drinking game, pass it along! After all, tis the season for sharing (and getting sloshed)!

  • Reference to a dead relative? We've got not just one but two – Prince James' father as well as Anna's mom – which means we get two drinks! KNOCK BACK A GALWICKIAN DOUBLE GULP!
  • Christmas-y main character name? Unfortunately Anna and James are pretty holiday-free names ... but wait a second! Queen Gabriella ... Gabriel ... THE ANGEL GABRIEL! It's a stretch ... but it's also 2020, so we've earned this DRIIIIIIIIINK!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? Anna makes fun of the prince for never decorating a tree before (no wonder his first Christmas speech sucked), but the tree itself gets spared mockery. Which means my liver gets spared as well. CEASE IMBIBINGS!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? I mean, the whole plot is essentially "a newcomer must participate in old-timey traditions to pass the time," so yeah, drink up. And in case that wasn't enough, what is royalty if not the old-timey-iest of traditions!? Is that another Galwickian double gulp again?! I VOTE YAY!
  • Hot chocolate? Oh, only about in every other scene. I'm enjoying this cross-drink cooperation between hot chocolate and booze to get me drunk – and speaking of which, DRiNK!
  • Near-miss kiss? Strangely, for a movie with as cute and charming a love story as this, there's no moment of kissing tension – probably because Osnes and Tveit work well enough sparking chemistry on their own without the script having to manufacture it. Good for them, bad for my desire for liquid booze juice. HALT ALCOHOLING!
  • Product placement? OK, we need to discuss the jacket budget for Hallmark movies. Anna somehow packs a whole Nordstrom of cute winter coats – and I'd complain more, but each one (especially one white nutcracker-looking number) made ME wish I had her wardrobe. It's not technically product placement, but congrats to the costume designer all the same. Also, congrats to be sobriety because KEEP NOT BOOZING!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? There's no ice skating (all that black ice on the streets for NOTHING!), but there is a snowball fight ... kind of? It looks like Anna and James are about to duke it out, but instead they play snowbaseball, slow pitching snowballs to one another to whack with a stick. Didn't know that was a thing, but they're pretty good at it, making solid contact both times. We should probably run the replay, thought, because I am pretty sure I heard some trash cans banging in the background. While we investigate that though, the buzzer taped to my chest says DRINK! (And also curveball.)
  • Ugly sweater or tie? I was very excited for the pajama-themed ball – partly because of the drinking, but also because it's one of the first times a Hallmark movie threw a holiday that actually sounded reasonable. I'd love a party where you show up pre-cozy! Unfortunately, that gets glammed up, so there's no ugly Christmas jammies – but there are ugly fuzzy socks, a tradition in Anna's family! Thanks Anna's family – and thanks TO THIS BOX OF WINE FOR ANOTHER DRIIII(*hiccups*)NK!
  • Big city person in small town? I have a hard time counting Galwick as a "big city" because, when we finally see the kingdom, it appears to be one evil castle located somewhere between Norway and the moon. But Prince James has big-city airs about him, snarking at donuts and aghast at the lack of street snow cleaning, so I'm gonna say KnOcK bAcK aNoThEr OnE!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? You really thought Hallmark was gonna hire TWO musical stars and not have them bust out a single note? Yep, during a holiday gathering, the two get brief solos singing carols with the city. Impressive acting on Tveit's part to make a coherent character out of a guy who doesn't know how to decorate a Christmas tree or seems persnickety but is also willing to bust out a few impromptu bars of a holiday song in public in front of strangers. Meanwhile, exccuse me while I bust out A FEW MORE DRINKS OF MY DRINKY DINRK DNIRK DRINK! I'M DOING (*zones out for a second*) GREAT!
  • Mistletoe? Again, this is not a kissy Hallmark movie – which is good beacuse my first thought wouldn't be "aww" but instead "you two should probably get a rapid COVID test tomorrow." STOP DRINKING!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? Unless there was something secretive going on with that Galwickian yule log recipe, there's no magic here. CONTINUE EMBARGO ON ALCOHOL!
  • Anytime you hear "Jingle Bells"? I can't honestly remember if I heard "Jingle Bells" during this movie ... mainly because, at this point, we've drunk so much that I can't hear anything at all besides a buzzing sound. That should be fine. Anyways, KEEP SOBERING UP!
  • Snowed in? I mean, that is the premise of the entire film, so I guess hook an IV of wine into your arm for two hours! (*doctor whispers in my ear*) I'm getting reports that's literally the worst thing you could do, so MAYBE JUST DRINK NORMALLY INSTEAD! 

As for the final categories, the only drink there is for the cynic warming up to the spirit of Christmas, which you can finish that drink at the part when Prince James makes a gingerbread castle that's about three feet tall and looks like it was attacked by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. But who cares about aesthetics; he's happy – and in love, with both Anna and Christmas. DAWW!

The other two are misses – the climactic snow at the end isn't on Christmas, and unless they're making cameos as disgruntled Galwickians in the comments, there's no Candace Cameron Bure or Lacey Chabert – but considering the amount of alcohol before, you won't miss those drinks. It's kind of a shame that a Hallmark movie that's actually sweet enough to not require alcohol would also also be so good for this drinking game. The one time I want to remember a Hallmark movie and I'm drinking to the point of blackout. 2020, have you no mercy?!

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.