Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Michael Dowse
Writers: Kevin Jakubowski (screenplay by/based on the novel by)
Actors: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, Che Tafari, Max Malas, Bellaluna Resnick
By Tom Moore
As a huge fan of “A Christmas Story” and an avid gamer, HBO Max appeared to be delivering the kind of Christmas movie I didn’t even know I wanted with “8-Bit Christmas” (2021), but it doesn’t always manage to be a dream come true.
“8-Bit Christmas” attempts to be a nostalgic holiday treat in more ways than one. Its story, based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Jakubowski, of father Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) recounting a time from his youth where he spent a Christmas trying anything and everything to get his hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is very akin to “A Christmas Story”. Harris’ narration style has the same kind of personal, detail-oriented storytelling as Jean Shepherd’s with some modern flair. Like Ralphie, ten-year-old Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) goes through hell in order to get a meaningful Christmas present that’s sort of representative of generational fantasy. Most importantly, like “A Christmas Story”, “8-Bit Christmas” attempts to offer a deeper a perspective of the youth of that era and explore other aspects of being a kid during the late 80s.
The idea of trying to emulate a timeless classic like “A Christmas Story” seems like a move that’s too risky for most to pull off at the cost of looking like a rip-off, but this style of storytelling can work in the film’s favor. Parts of Harris’ narration can be really funny, like when he tries to sugarcoat how safety wasn’t a priority in the 80s, and the personal, detailed descriptions of things is nicely nostalgic. It’s also nice how that sense of “safety” in the storytelling persists in subtle ways with certain curse words being censored and characters with darker shades having more “wholesome” personas.
“8-Bit Christmas’” sense of nostalgia really stems from how it captures the impact of the NES and video games becoming home consoles. The first few scenes of Jake and his friends competing and begging snobby rich kid Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean) to see his NES since he’s the only one with one on the block instantly strike a relatable chord and it’s great how “8-Bit Christmas” doesn’t have to lean on the nostalgia of the NES or NES games to be nostalgic. Although the sheer visual of the NES and games like “Rampage” and “Paperboy”, the way that Jake’s pathologically lying friend Farmer (Max Malas) gives off “My Dad Works at Nintendo” vibes and that sense of exclusivity with home game consoles, which everyone is feeling lately with how hard it is to get a PS5 and Xbox Series X/S, are nostalgic in a more meaningful way.
Even the way the film reminds you about how video games used to have been picked up in big department stores like Marshalls or Sears and how you blew into Nintendo cartridges for no apparent reason hit a good nostalgic chord. Rather than focus on the physical nostalgia that most would recognize, “8-Bit Christmas” pays homage to the culture and emotional beats of that era and it benefits the film a lot in making its core group of kids relatable and its story of Jake doing everything he can to get a NES have some real heart to it. Also, yes, it was awesome to see the Nintendo Power Glove again and be reminded of how crappy it was.
However, “8-Bit Christmas” struggles to completely ride on that nostalgia that becomes lost in the film’s final moments. As much “8-Bit Christmas” can take the storytelling formula of “A Christmas Story” and use it well, it’s a little too one for one with its scenes and ideas making it still feel like a lesser version of a classic. It also misses the opportunity to really delve into interesting aspects of parental outcry on video game violence as it creates a really good satirical approach to bring the ongoing topic into the story, but then just uses it as a bland obstacle for Jake and his friends in their final plan. The idea of Jake wanting a NES eventually fades into the background as well making more hokey Christmas movie stories and dialogue come the forefront of the story.
As easy as it is to appreciate the film for not overshowing the NES and rather show Jake and his friends going above and beyond to get it since it adds another layer of relatability to Jake, it also leads to some holiday hijinks than can be a little too wholesome. As funny as certain scenes and the parental safety the narration provides can be, “8-Bit Christmas” is a little too safe of a watch and you constantly feel yourself wanting a bit of a “Sandlot” or “Goonies” edge to it. In turn, this brings out clumsier dialogue that can’t always get laughs and forgettable characters that hold no strong purpose in the story. Also, its holiday message about Christmas not being about that one thing you desperately desire just gets shoved into the final moments to try and make up for the film’s lack of resolution with Jake’s journey to find an NES. The message itself isn’t bad and the film, to its credit, gives it some good warm emotion with its scenes, but it isn’t really building throughout the film making it feel cheap and underhanded.
HBO Max’s “8-bit Christmas” isn’t a lump of coal as many will easily find enjoyment in the holiday and gaming nostalgia it provides, but its also no instant classic or a remotely remarkable holiday flick either making it just a middling holiday watch.