8-Bit Christmas review: You don’t need to be an ’80s kid to love it, but it helps

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to making a good holiday film. As long as it evokes a particular set of emotions, pushes the right nostalgic buttons, and features a few jingle bells, any film can make it feel like Christmas.

And it’s even better when a film finds a way to feel like your Christmas.

That will likely be the case for quite a few people watching 8-Bit Christmas, the new holiday comedy about a kid who will do whatever it takes to make sure the hottest gift of the late-1980s — a Nintendo Entertainment System — is under his tree on Christmas morning.

Winslow Fegley screams in a scene from 8-Bit Christmas.

Playing with power

Directed by Goon and Stuber filmmaker Michael Dowse from a script penned by Kevin Jakubowski — who also wrote the book that inspired the film — 8-Bit Christmas casts Timmy Failure star Winslow Fegley as Jake Doyle, a kid living in Chicago in the 1980s who desperately wants an NES video-game console, but who finds his efforts to secure one thwarted at every turn. With the console selling out everywhere and a host of paranoid parents looking to keep it out of kids’ hands, Jake comes up with a complicated scheme to acquire the holiday’s most sought-after gift — but he’ll need a Christmas miracle to pull it off.

Jake’s story is offered up as a flashback of sorts, with Neil Patrick Harris playing the adult Jake, now visiting his childhood home with his own daughter. Harris’s character is more than a passive narrator, though, as his recollection of that memorable Christmas is punctuated with the sort of self-edits and colorful exaggeration that are part and parcel to parents’ recollections of an era that feels a world away from today.

Neil Patrick Harris falls on ice near a Santa Claus in a scene from 8-Bit Christmas.

Time machine

Dowse does a wonderful job of capturing the little details of life in the ’80s for middle-class, suburban families. From mornings spent listening to school closings on the radio to the signature hair and fashion of the time to Christmas shopping in the mall — and all the crowds and chaos that entails — the film packs in many of the sights, sounds, and holiday sentiment of the period.

All of those meticulous design elements, along with Fegley’s performance — and those of June Diane Raphael (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Steve Zahn (That Things You Do, White Lotus), who play Jake’s overworked, eternally distracted parents — blend together wonderfully to sell the period setting of the story from inside, while Harris’ role offers the self-aware commentary on the era that only comes from looking back on it now. For children who grew up in the ’80s, the film will likely feel like a lovingly crafted time capsule, in much the same way 1983’s A Christmas Story delivers a rose-tinted recollection of its own main character’s Christmas adventure in 1940.

To that end, A Christmas Story and 8-Bit Christmas share plenty of positive qualities, and the comparison is an easy one to make, given both films’ basic premise: A kid endures one crazy ordeal after another in pursuit of a Christmas gift no one thinks he should get. However, kids who grew up with A Christmas Story but never quite connected with Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder air rifle or its setting in pre-WWII suburbia will likely feel a deep connection to 8-Bit Christmas, which channels similar themes in more familiar surroundings — both in its period setting and the sentiments of the time.

8-Bit Christmas (2021)

8-Bit Christmas
Genre Family, Comedy
Stars Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael
Directed by Michael Dowse

Something for everyone

Fun, funny performances abound in 8-Bit Christmas, too, with Fegley carrying every scene he’s in and doing so with a surprising level of comfort, given that the film leans so heavily into a time period decades before its main actor was even born. It’s hard not to root for Jake in his quest, even when it takes him in directions no parent would approve of, even in the ’80s, due in no small part to Fegley’s investment in the character.

8-Bit Christmas never stops feeling like a film that would be a blast to work on, and that can often lift an otherwise entertaining film to the next level. Sure, it feels like hyperbole to call 8-Bit Christmas a holiday classic the same week it premieres, but Dowse’s film checks off all the boxes — particularly for anyone who grew up during that particular era in the US.

The best Christmas movies all tend to walk a fine line between being timeless and timely, evoking a certain set of emotions and memories no matter when they’re set, while also delivering a snapshot of how the holiday was shaped by that particular era. 8-Bit Christmas offers all of that and more with another heartwarming, hilarious film the whole family will connect with, no matter what generation you were born in or what you’re hoping to find under the tree.

Holiday comedy 8-Bit Christmas premieres November 24 on HBO Max streaming service.

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