8-BIT CHRISTMAS is directed by Michael Dowse, based on Kevin Jakubowski’s book. The movie stars Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, David Cross, and Steve Zahn. It was released on the HBO MAX streaming service.
Jake Doyle, a child of the 1980s, takes his daughter to visit his parents’ house. When she’s initially bored, Jake shows her his Nintendo Entertainment System, and begins flashing back to the 1980s, where as a young man, it was the Christmas present he wanted more than anything. Faced with school bullies, parents protesting video game violence, and hectic demand in which the NES is the must-have gift of the season, how will Jake get the gift he dreams of?
It seems like in recent years, every movie studio and streaming service rushes out new Christmas/Holiday movies in hopes that one will become a much-treasured classic for years to come. 8-BIT CHRISTMAS is one from HBO MAX, and upon hearing the title, seeing the pixelated NES-style title fonts, and learning it would be about one young man’s quest to get an NES for Christmas, I was certainly curious. The end result isn’t quite the Holiday Season masterpiece it wants to be; it’s far too derivative and borrows liberally from the classics. But its quest for nostalgia and old-school gaming, not to mention some decent emotional moments and comedy, still give it a place above a lot of the other generic Christmas movies shoveled out to the public every year.
8-BIT CHRISTMAS is surprisingly well cast. Although Neil Patrick Harris gets top billing and is surprisingly effective in his scenes, most of the movie takes place in 80s flashbacks in which his character (as a boy) is played by Winslow Fegley. I wasn’t familiar with Fegley prior to seeing this movie, but he certainly won me over with his slightly over-the-top quest to get an NES for Christmas. As a big-time video game fan when I was a boy, I certainly saw a lot of myself in this character.
The other members of the cast are all well suited to their roles, with a standout player being the always-entertaining Steve Zahn as Jake’s father in the flashback sequences. The house’s handyman, he gives the movie what are arguably its funniest and most dramatic scenes alike. Zahn, despite his popularity, is actually underrated in terms of what he can do as an actor, and one of the biggest surprises of 8-BIT CHRISTMAS is how much it lets him show off his range.
The movie scores points for period details, including shopping malls, roller rinks, toy dealers in back allies, and the hectic atmosphere of a pre-online shopping world. The Nintendo displays in the stores show in the movie come to life (both figuratively and literally) and make for some entertaining moments and great flashbacks. I also appreciate Harris being painted as something of an “unreliable narrator” figure who sometimes has to correct himself when telling the story to his daughter, if for no other reason than to get a good example at times.
8-BIT CHRISTMAS doesn’t quite reach “Holiday Classic” status, largely because it’s far too derivative of better films. Many sequences involving Jake’s family in the 80s scenes are heavily inspired by A CHRISTMAS STORY, with a late-movie laugh even parodying one of that film’s big reveals. You’ll get that feeling of “I’ve seen this before” in a few places throughout the movie, for better or worse. At times, it goes for over-the-top sequences that do tend to undermine the message of the movie, though these certainly don’t ruin the experience. Surprisingly, the film works best in its more dramatic sequences, including some great father and son moments, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any laughs to be had.
If you’re asking me if 8-BIT CHRISTMAS will become one of the next big films we watch every Christmas, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy its combination of nostalgia, humor, and drama, even if it’s too derivative of other movies and doesn’t do the audience any favors with some of the more over-the-top sequences. That said, if you’re looking for Christmas-themed nostalgia to bring back memories and get a few laughs, the movie mostly delivers what it promises. Recommended.