HBO Max’s 8-Bit Christmas may fulfill your ’80s-nostalgia needs quota at least until the next season of Stranger Things buries us in [plumbs the depths of memory] Lotto hightops and Sizzlean. Scripter Kevin Jakubowski adapts his own novel about a middle-aged dad and the holiday-dazed memories of his youth, when he coveted mightily a Nintendo gaming system, and would do anything he could to get it, almost but not entirely within reason. Now that we’ve outlined the movie’s conceptual rigamarole, we can get to the question here: Will it be earnestly involving, or are we just gonna be distracted by all the anachronisms?
‘8-BIT CHRISTMAS’: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) is in Life Lesson Mode. His daughter, whose name probably should be Ennui, really really really really really really really wants her own smartphone, really, really really, and he won’t let her have one. In fact, it reminds him of the time, “in 1987 or 1988,” when he was 11 and wanted a Nintendo with just as many reallys, and his parents said nein, nyet, nay, nuh-uh. He smears the years as he reminisces, which allows the movie to get away with inaccuracies about the Cabbage Patch Doll wars and the f— face baseball card. Do YOU remember things from 30 years ago with pinpoint accuracy? I’ll bet you an Adam Bomb Garbage Pail Kid card you don’t.
Anyway, flashback: Eleven-year-old Jake (Winslow Fegley) lives in the Chicago ’burbs with his coupon-cutting mom (June Diane Raphael), goofy handyman dad (Steve Zahn) and little sister Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), a serial bootlicker who suffers mightily from Cabbage Patch cravings. It’s December and Christmas looms like the inevitability of death. Jake and his rogue’s gallery of pals all desire the almighty Nintendo machine, but the only kid who has one is a real son-of-a-rich-dad, and he lords over the lesser classes, only allowing a select few to enter his posh game room and watch him play. Life is pain.
Acquiring the game box on his own is like making it to the Moon with a handful of firecrackers and some paper-towel tubes. Jake glimpses one in the mall during his family’s annual shopping excursion, which they take in a boxy minivan in which nobody wears their seatbelt. His best bet is to win one by selling the most crappo Christmas wreaths for a scout-troop fundraiser, which puts him in direct competition with his pals. Many things stand in his way: “Video games make you fat,” says Jake’s dad. His mom making him wear girls’ boots. Protests about video game violence. The held-back-within-an-inch-of-his-life pituitary-case school bully. Will Jake get his damn brain-eating box of wires and microchips under the tree, or learn the lame-ass true meaning of Christmas, or what?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Those of a certain vintage will call out 8-Bit Christmas for its Harris/How I Met Your Mother voiceover-flashback structure. But those of us who are of an even vintagier certain vintage — those of us who watched Harris play Doogie Howser in real time — know it’s just A Christmas Story for Gen-X nostalgia, with Power Gloves and Pop Tarts instead of Red Ryder BB Guns and Ovaltine.
Performance Worth Watching: Like he did in underrated, offbeat kid flick Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, Fegley effortlessly carries 8-Bit Christmas, navigating the then-monumental/now-miniscule disappointments and triumphs of childhood with significant comedic panache.
Memorable Dialogue: Adult Jake bemoans how he never, ever had snow days as a kid: “It could be 20 below with a Soviet attack on the way, and we’d still have school.”
Sex and Skin: None. This movie is rated PG for upsetting scenes of Power Glove failures.
Our Take: 8-Bit Christmas would probably deflate like a bullet-holed balloon without its relentless barrage of ’80s references, but that doesn’t mean it’s heartless or unfunny. It’s often such a shameless rehash of A Christmas Story, it’s absurd: The wacky mom, the annoying younger sibling, the bully, the somewhat forbidden object of desire, etc. But like its holiday-movie forefather, it’s also spritely in tone and pace, well-cast, sentimental without being overly gooey and consistently funny. But it’s not as funny as A Christmas Story — few things are.
The main difference is the character of Jake’s father, for whom Zahn finds a genial blend of warmth and disciplinary dad-ness that gels nicely with Fegley’s amusing exasperation. They’re surrounded by supporting players who know their way around medium-light family-comedy characters and modestly witty one-liners, whether it’s Raphael’s ever-so-mildly ditzy Midwestern mom or the cadre of kids playing Jake’s misfit schoolmates. (Notably, Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise alum David Cross turns up to deliver a couple of big laughs, stealing a couple of scenes as a shady type dealing black-market Cabbage Patch Dolls from the trunk of his Town Car.)
All this is foundational material, the moist cake beneath several inches of nostalgia frosting: Jokes about the Dewey Decimal System, jokes about Trapper Keepers, jokes about gawky orthodontic retainers, KangaROOS sneaker sightings and far too many era-specific needle drops (although the use of Ronnie James Dio-era Black Sabbath over well-worn Ozzy tracks shows a remarkable level of taste and restraint, he said, pointlessly flaunting his heavy metal cred). There were moments when I worried the movie might be little more than flagrant shilling for Nintendo Corp., but scenes in which it gives the game box HAL-9000’s voice, and its honest portrayal of the Power Glove as a barely functional junk accessory, show at least a modicum of commitment to truth over commerce. 8-Bit Christmas is definitely not The Wizard, I’m happy to report.
Our Call: I doubt 8-Bit Christmas will be a holiday classic — too much pastiche-y nostalgia — but it’s good-humored and breezy, not too heavy and never too dumb. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.