8-Bit Christmas may crib from previous films, the idealization of late 80s Nintendo products is from The Wizard and the kid needing a precious toy while the adult version of him narrates is very much A Christmas Story. But it has an anarchistic spirit which makes it fun and the late 80s details are spot on. The amped up vibe makes sure it never devolves too much into Christmas schmaltz until the very end, as is often required in the genre. Even though the poster and trailer shamelessly proclaim, “From the Studio that Brought You Elf!” this is not destined to become a new Christmas classic. But it’s better than any Hallmark holiday film and features somebody drop-kicking a TV in rage. Not many Christmas movies have that.
Jake (Neil Patrick-Harris) takes his daughter back to his childhood home and dusts off the old Nintendo Entertainment System and regales her a tale of how much he wanted a Nintendo in the late 80s. (The specific year isn’t mentioned because he can’t remember and the daughter tells him to get on with it). Young Jake (Winslow Fegley) and a gaggle of kids scrounge up the cash to get a Nintendo, while the richest kid in the neighbourhood, Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean) selects kids to play his Nintendo. Jake’s mother, Kathy (June Diane Raphael), is baking cookies for other people (cookies that the family members aren’t allowed to touch) and the dad, John (Steve Zahn) is obsessed with perpetually renovating the house while Jake’s sister, Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick), just wants a Cabbage Patch doll. Jake and his buddies come up with a scheme to secure the Entertainment System but half-baked plans and bullies like Josh (Cyrus Arnold) may bring it crashing down.
There’re more than a few in-joke references for classic Nintendo fans. In The Wizard from 1989, the half-Nintendo promotional film awkwardly mashed up in Tommy, the baddie used the Nintendo Power Glove to the awe of his competitors. In reality, the Nintendo Power Glove was awkward and often unplayable. Snooty rich kid Timmy, who cheats at Nintendo by playing with the Light Zapper close to the TV, busts out the Power Glove to try to defeat one of the newcomers and gets utterly thwomped. He futilely hollers “Unleash your power!” while Adult Jake gravely narrates that the horrible truth of their generation was that the Power Glove sucked. Dean as Timmy is perfectly irritating, whiny and overconfident. Another fun bit is when Adult Jakes boots up the Nintendo he tells his daughter they have to blow in the cartridge and she asks why and he just shrugs “I don’t know”, it just has to be done.
Probably the best bit of Nintendo mayhem is when young Jake sees a display of a giant NES that starts talking to him, saying Nintendo is all he needs. When young Jake takes the controls, literally the entire mall starts chanting his name. It’s a bizarre, fantasy infused scene that is gleefully crazy. The best bits are when 8-Bit Christmas discards reality, like when the kids are dreading Josh, the bully who plays King of the Mountain on a snow hill at recess. Adult Jake admits they gathered at the mountain every day “for reasons unknown”. Josh is shot like an ogre, slow angles and slow motion, hollering “This is my mountain” like a mythical beast. It’s hilariously weird. Another strange scene is when the family finds empty aisles where Cabbage Patch dolls used to be as the janitor relates the chaos of people fighting for Cabbage Patch scraps like a war story.
Harris’s narration is exuberant and amusing. His kid asks if he was wearing a helmet while riding a bike, when the film shows that kid Jake wasn’t, he says “Of course, we all wore helmets in the ‘80s” and then a helmet magically appears on kid Jake’s head. The end of the film has some sappy emotional payoffs that Harris sells convincingly. The true spirit of the film is chaos so when it tries to turn on pathos at the end, it feels unearned. Fegley as the young Jake is likable although his obsession with getting a present for Christmas is almost exactly like the kid from A Christmas Story. He has some snarky dialogue with his sister and Resnick as Lizzy has some funny bits like when she grills a random street corner Santa for information. As the parents, Raphael and Zahn are endearingly oddball. Mom is obsessively baking for people outside the family while dad is dopey. One moment when he freaks out about Jake losing his retainer is gold. One emotional beat that works is at the end when dad does something unexpected for his son and Zahn subtly underplays emotionally what is going on.
8-Bit Christmas follows some standard Christmas movie tropes and gleefully subverts others. It has an amusingly nasty streak tinged with flights of fantasy that often aren’t found in Christmas movies which makes it unique. Of course, it tries to sell the spirit of the season at the end which is a bit eye rolling but there’s lots of fun chaos that happens beforehand so it gets a pass.
Director: Michael Dowse
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, David Cross and Steve Zahn