Holiday movies don’t really have to be good in order to work. Usually, they just need to invoke Christmas and have attractive people in the cast. Being quality cinema tends to just be a bit of a bonus. In the case of 8-Bit Christmas, this isn’t about watching good looking folks fall in love during the holiday season. Instead, it’s about the quest to get the gift you want more than anything else. Truthfully, it’s probably more relatable for most. So, it’s a stroke of good luck that not only does the film work as a crowdpleaser, it also comes from a place that’s more honest than you’d expect.
8-Bit Christmas has a rose-colored view of the past, but it’s done with such a good natured attitude that it’s infectious before long. It sees, in particular, the Nintendo Entertainment System as the be all, end all, for young folks. Well, they’re also right, as that was quite the feeling at the time. However, there’s more to it than that, even if the flick tends to get bogged down in silly quests. It isn’t until the end that the true ambitions are presented. Then, you may actually shed a tear.
The film first introduces us to Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) as an adult, with his phone-obsessed daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert). She wants a cell phone of her own, so he opts to tell her the story of how he got his Nintendo. The story then moves back to 1980s Chicago, where ten-year-old Jake (Winslow Fegley) sets out on a quest to get the NES. After his father John (Steve Zahn) and mother Kathy (June Diane Raphael) refuse to get him one for Christmas, he begins all sorts of adventures to end up with one. Along with his friends, Jake will try to buy one, win one, or just luck into one, with amusing moments throughout.
As the story moves back and forth between the past and present, Jake’s quest becomes an obsession. Whether it’s bad luck, a bully (Cyrus Arnold), or seemingly fate, the Nintendo remains just out of reach. Will he manage to score the system? What does that have to do with Annie’s desire for a phone? Well, it all comes together in a lovely moment towards the end that hits you right in the center of your chest.
The cast is solid, even if there aren’t really any true standouts. Winslow Fegley is the star, but he doesn’t leave too much of an impression. June Diane Raphael and Steve Zahn are solid movie parents, though. Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s certainly a charming dad on his own. In addition to Cyrus Arnold and Sophia Reid-Gantzert, the cast includes Santino Barnard, Jacob Laval, Max Malas, Bellaluna Resnick, Che Tafari, and more.
Director Michael Dowse and writer Kevin Jakubowski are tapping into 80’s nostalgia here. They love a lot of what they’re depicting here, so any satire is very gentle. Mostly, it’s earnest and good-natured. At a certain point, you get what Dowse and Jakubowski are selling, which leads to boredom. However, they have a late third act turn that real elevates the flick. I won’t spoil it, but it’s actually fairly beautiful in its execution.
8-Bit Christmas may not end up a holiday classic in the years to come, but anyone looking for a new film to get into the season as November turns into December will be pleased. It has small ambitions, but a surprisingly bit emotional punch at the end. Keep your expectations for this movie low and you’ll have a real good time. It’s right there for you on HBO Max, so give it a play!