I remember it like was yesterday. Waking up on Christmas morning in 1987, glassy eyes and my hair looking like I had just excited a wind tunnel. I hadn’t slept much that night. I never did on Christmas Eve, even during my teen years. Call it a side effect of being a big ol’ kid during the holiday season. But that year was special. It was the year when our parents completely surprised my brother and me with a Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s something we weren’t expecting as we walked into our living room on that chilly December morning.
Our Nintendo was quite the treat and I couldn’t begin to tell you the number of hours we logged on that console. Those with fond memories of the NES automatically have a nostalgic connection to the new Christmas comedy “8-Bit Christmas”. It comes from director Michael Drowse and screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski and chronicles a young boy and his friends as they try to secure a coveted Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas.
Based on Jakubowski’s novel of the same name, much of the movie plays like a knockoff of the perennial Yuletide classic “A Christmas Story”. Instead of Ralphie pursuing a Red Rider BB Gun, it’s an 11-year-old named Jake (Winslow Fegley) after an NES. It has the same style of narration. There’s the neurotic yet caring father. It even has its own Scut Farkus (played here with a nice mix of menace and humor by Cyrus Arnold).
But the more you watch, the more you begin to notice that “8-Bit Christmas” has a few of its own unique markings that set it apart from its better and more memorable inspiration. It’s hard to recognize them at first, as it’s so blatantly pulling from “A Christmas Story”. But as it goes, it begins to develop its own identity. It delivers some well-landed lighthearted laughs and ends on a warm and touching note that frankly I wasn’t at all expecting.
Jake’s quest to get his own Nintendo is framed as a story told by his older self to his young daughter. Adult Jake (Neil Patrick Harris) is hearing it from his flustered daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) after telling her she’s too young to get a cellphone for Christmas. He begins telling her the story of certain Christmas in the late 80s when the Nintendo Entertainment System was what (almost) every kid wanted. Annie sours at the thought of listening to her dad blab, but over time gets sucked into the story.
We’re then transport back to 1987, the time of the Trapper Keeper, Lite Brite, leg warmers and Swatches. Jake lives outside of Chicago with his scatterbrained wannabe carpenter dad John (Steve Zahn), his coupon-clipping mom Kathy (June Diane Raphael), and his snarky little sister Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick). All Jake wants for Christmas is a Nintendo, but as you would expect he runs into all sorts of obstacles.
Jake’s parents aren’t interested in getting him an NES and their reasoning is strangely murky. It’s made even weirder by the fact that the Nintendo seems easily available in stores. His folks just aren’t into it, I guess. Later they’re given a little motivation when an advocacy group rises up protesting the violence in video games. So Jake and his eclectic group of friends must hatch their own plan if they’re ever to get a Nintendo for themselves.
“8-Bit Christmas” has its rocky patches and the storytelling can be pretty uneven. And at times it seems handcuffed by holiday movie expectations. But you kinda look over those baked-in tropes that are in nearly every movie like this. Instead, it’s the funny bits that end up standing out. It’s the wackier side characters like psycho rich kid Timmy (Chandler Dean) or Farmer (Max Malas), Jake’s friend and well documented pathological liar. And then there’s the film’s heart which really comes out at the end. Sure, it’s a little sentimental, but who cares. I responded to it which is all I could ask. “8-Bit Christmas” is now streaming on HBO Max.