88 Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, June Diane Raphael, David Cross, Steve Zahn
Director: Michael Dowse
Rating: PG for rude humor and some mild violence, language, and suggestive references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Steaming on HBO Max
It's hard to make a good Christmas classic these days. Just about every holiday film that comes out feels contrived and cliche. It's either too sappy to stand apart or not remotely funny enough. But some post-2000 Christmas movies do manage to cut through the fog, like "Elf." And for some reason, "Christmas with the Kranks."
And the studio that brought "Elf" to the world took another swing with "8-Bit Christmas." For those curious about the title, it's a film about a kid in 1988 who wants a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas.
"8-Bit Christmas" opens with Neil Patrick Harris playing a character named Jake Doyle. He's a father being pestered by his young daughter for a cellphone. Eventually, the two arrive at Doyle's childhood home, and while they wait for the rest of the family to get there, the father shows his daughter an old (and suspiciously clean) Nintendo, which they play together.
At this point, Doyle begins to tell his daughter about his experience trying to get a Nintendo when he was a child. And the narration device is lifted straight from "The Princess Bride," with the daughter starting out uninterested in the story and slowly growing more engaged as Doyle gets farther into the tale.
Winslow Fegley plays young Jake Doyle navigating childhood and trying to get that sleek piece of hardware from the Land of the Rising Sun. When Harris is on the screen, the movie is almost purely "The Princess Bride," but when Fegley is present, it's more a mix of "A Christmas Story," with a holiday episode of "The Goldbergs."
Some folks will probably be annoyed by how much this film borrows -- nay steals -- from other movies that came before. But "8-Bit Christmas" takes liberally from other successful movies, just as T.S. Eliot did writing "The Wasteland."
That's not to say this movie is poetry, just that screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski knew exactly what to steal and how to piece it into his own script. The film is downright hilarious with absurd scene after absurd scene of '80s kids doing wacky things trying to earn this Nintendo.
Young Jake has a group of about five or six friends, some likable, some cardboard cutouts, that audiences will enjoy watching engage in the rat race to earn a Nintendo. And "8-Bit Christmas" gives the kids plenty to do, from racing through malls to find a discarded retainer to dropping a 42-inch television on a tiny dog to prove that video games do indeed make children violent.
The film is evil in how many hoops it forces these kids to jump through as they fight for a Nintendo. And it's all for the benefit of viewers who will belly laugh through most of their shenanigans.
"8-Bit Christmas" casts Steve Zahn as Jake's father, John. And while his introduction will have audiences thinking he's a knockoff Darren McGavin from "A Christmas Story," just give him some time. As adult Doyle narrates more of his childhood Christmas experience, his father steals the spotlight as a salt of the earth macho suburban father of the '80s, but one who really does care about his kids.
In "A Christmas Story," McGavin's character was a hoot because he cursed and fought furnaces. He drooled over the perfect Christmas turkey and bought his son a Red Ryder B.B. Gun on a whim because "heh heh, oh what could it hurt?"
Zahn's character has some of that in him for sure, his obsession with carpentry, yelling at traffic, being grumpy during Christmas shopping and getting his daughter a Cabbage Patch Kid off the black market. But he also has warmer moments where you see he truly cares about his kids, like when you see what he actually gives young Jake for Christmas.
John Doyle is stern and scolds his son plenty, but he has his tender moments as Zahn channels his best Woody Harrelson impression. And he'll make some people cry before the credits roll.
"8-Bit Christmas" has a techno synth soundtrack ripped straight from "Stranger Things" that fans of '80s cinema will appreciate immediately.
It's not a highly refined or sophisticated piece of cinema by any means, but the really good Christmas movies that stick with viewers for years and years rarely are. "Home Alone," "Jingle All the Way," "Elf," they're all memorable for making people laugh and maybe delivering a tiny lesson about Christmas.
They're cheesy in the best way, and that's why people love them. Combine all that with Christmas as the theme/setting, and it really sticks in the brain with chewing gum or sticky tack.
Audiences will have to decide whether "8-Bit Christmas" earns that cult Christmas movie status like "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life." But that's not something that'll be decided for a few years. Cult classic status doesn't come overnight like Santa. HBO is betting subscribers will watch it every Christmas. Maybe.
Either way, "8-Bit Christmas" is a hilarious film worth watching at least once. It borrowed from the best, and it knows it. What makes it a superior holiday film is knowing what to do with the pieces it stole from other movies.