8-Bit Christmas Review: Nostalgia’s Punch Out
A harmless trifle assembled like a Frankenstein monster from the parts of other, far better films, “8-Bit Christmas” is a good movie to turn on in the background as you decorate the tree, occasionally getting a laugh from its easy-to-follow, lighthearted plot. After all, there’s only so many times you can watch “A Christmas Story” before you think to yourself: You know what I’d like to watch? A film just slightly different from “A Christmas Story.”
Although that’s not really fair. “8-Bit Christmas” also unapologetically lifts elements from non-Christmas movies as well, including “Stand by Me,” “The Princess Bride,” and a dozen others. But hey, it does a better job of mining nostalgia than your typical episode of “The Goldbergs.”
The setting is the present, where Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) is desperately trying to connect with his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), who wants nothing worse than a cellphone for Christmas. Visiting his old childhood home, Jake uses it as an excuse to break out his old Nintendo and, while taking his daughter back to the dawn of gaming, spins a colorful yarn about how he was able to secure the much-sought-after system in a magical, perilous, faraway land called the late ’80s.
Here, the Nintendo Entertainment System is so precious that the rich kid in the neighborhood who has one holds court daily, selecting a handful of playmates from the begging masses wielding offerings like sausage sticks and goldfish. But he only wants to make them watch him play, basking in their jealousy as he wields the Power Glove, Zapper gun, Power Pad or other state-of-the-art equipment (and ultimately, gimmicky disappointments) that every late ’80s kid dreamed about.
In the middle of all this is young Jake (Winslow Fegley), an awkward but adorable kid who spends his days ducking Scut Farkus … er, Josh Jagorski … trying to earn the love of his grumpy father Darren McGavin … er Steve Zahn … navigating the unforgivable kid crime of breaking his glasses … er, retainer … and planting none-too-subtle hints that all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time … er, NES. He’s surrounded by eccentric, one-note buddies, adults who only want to squash his dreams, and he has no idea that this “miserable” reality will someday be looked back upon quite fondly.
Where “8-Bit Christmas” really sets itself apart is the ’80s references, and as Ferris Bueller would say if he were in an ’80s movie, they move pretty fast. Cabbage Patch Kids are all every little girl wants, everybody in Jake’s Chicago suburb neighborhood adores the Super Bowl champion Bears, teachers instruct students in the Dewey decimal system, and the best way for a kid to make big money is locating a rare Billy Ripken baseball card mistakenly printed with a four-letter word. If you’re stopping to think that the Cabbage Patch craze was early ’80s, the Bears were mid-’80s and the Ripken card was at the end of the decade, well, perhaps all that can be explained by Harris’ narrator admitting his memories might be a bit clouded.
How I Met Your Santa
From there, the film takes license with fun, creative flourishes that feel half like the fond remembrances of writer Kevin Jakubowski (based on his 2013 book) and half over-the-top embellishments that would color the memories of someone several decades later. David Cross is great as a black market dealer in Cabbage Patch Kids. The local parents come together to form a video game protest group that feels equal parts Satanic Panic and PMRC. One poor kid is a useful distraction because Spaghetti-O’s cause him to projectile vomit to a degree unseen since the days of the barf-o-rama. Perhaps the most clever moment comes when little Jake has an imaginary conversation with an enormous Nintendo who claims “I have all the games … what game would you like to play?” He keeps naming games as the NES says “Pick another one. I don’t have that one,” as it becomes amusingly clear this kid’s most heartfelt desire is only setting him up for further disappointment.
“8-Bit Christmas” is also clever enough to use its own cliches to occasionally catch the viewer off guard. By now, everybody knows the story beat of Christmas morning festivities concluding in disappointment, with one unseen large box hidden behind something, and that box contains … in this film, possibly not what you’d expect. Such moments give way to a heartwarming ending that will leave you in the holiday mood, as well as perhaps a bit quicker this year to offer hugs to those gathered around your tree.
Don't you dare say Fudge!
June Diane Raphael is fine as Jake’s mother, but Steve Zahn is forced to rely heavily on his inherent likeability to overcome his miscasting. A generation ago, it would have been so easy for filmmakers to find a believably gruff, emotionally distanced, physically intimidating father figure — but for actors of Zahn’s generation, who is there, really? It’s an interesting question, because the concept of “the father” has changed so dramatically from the ’80s and prior — nowadays, we expect on screen dads to be goofy nerds trying too hard to be in their kids lives, not the “old man” stereotype of generations past.
One great thing about “8-Bit Christmas” is that it’s safe to watch with your whole family. Grandma and grandpa might enjoy reliving their own memories of chasing down Cabbage Patch Kids and video game systems, Mom and Dad will obviously find plenty of familiarity in Neil Patrick Harris’ attempts to make his child value family time over screentime, and the kids in the family will enjoy enough high-concept hijinks and fart jokes to feel like they could be watching the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies. True to its name, “8-Bit Christmas” may seem a little crudely constructed at times, but it’s as comforting as turning on an old video game. Overall, it’s worth the ride — even if, much like you trying to get the NES to operate properly back in the day, every now and again it blows.