There can be a modern trend to over think and lose the heart of modern Christmas-related films but 8-Bit Christmas, out now in the States on HBO Max and on Digital in the UK, manages to smartly balance out the nostalgia dive with an old-fashioned tale of finding the real meaning at the centre of the hype, that of family and living in the moment in the best possible way.
Directed by Michael Dowse, with a screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (based on his own book), 8-Bit Christmas is told in flashback, with Neil Patrick Harris’s Jake Doyle telling his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) a story about how he got his Nintendo, and a simpler time in the late 80s, without bike helmets, the internet or 24/7 distractions but, of course, this was also the time of the first Nintendo console, so there was something very stirring to want in your life.
Narrated by Harris, our flashback follow a 10-year-old Jake, played excellently by Winslow Fegley, as he and his family head towards Christmas during that time as a kid when you definitely want something very specific. In this case, as you now know, it’s the latest NES and while the film is mainly his quest to get one for the 25th December, there’s also a more here at play here including a comment on friendships, good memories and definitely a look at a different time to now.
I went into 8-Bit Christmas thinking it’d be the single story of Jake on his journey and while there’s definitely a quest, the film is broken down into a series of adventures where he nearly gets his hands on the great prize but it’s always just out of reach. We meet a rich kid who has the only Nintendo in town, and while he may have everything ‘cool’, he’s not exactly together in a psychological sense. There’s also an amusing narrative about video-game violence and how everyone thought this was causing the troubles in society, which we know continues to be a fallacy – and ignores everything adult that’s out there already, so beneath the surface of the main narrative, there’s other flickers of reflection.
In truth, the film resonated with me in more ways than I ever expected. If you’re a kid of the late 80s or thereabouts, you’ll find connection, but I do think it’d work for a younger audience as well, as the story at the centre is a positive, fun one. I also loved that Jake’s family are a little dysfunctional but not in an extreme way, just enough to show us that not everyone in their life knows what they’re doing, but we’re all trying to get by – it’s a real-life family that isn’t always shared in the film world.
8-Bit Christmas also stands up because of a great cast, Jake’s Mum is played by June Diane Raphael, who’s very funny and although struggling with certain things, she’s also strong and trying to ‘suck it up and get on with the work.’ His Dad is played by Steve Zahn, who gives a genuinely funny and honest performance. His comedy timing is impeccable, and it adds to the equal measure of chaos and normality. I specifically enjoyed that the 80s vibe meant we’ve got some silly comedy violence, a nod to the lack of health and safety, and also how we all lived pretty successfully without technology everywhere, which is more than true.
Young Winslow Fegley also stands out as Jake, he’s expressive, likeable and oddly reminded me of a young John Cusack in terms of energy and nuance. The youthful ensemble are terrific, with an especially strong performance from Max Malas as Jeff, plus keep an eye out for David Cross as a black market toy seller. I also appreciated the nod to The Blues Brothers as the family dog is called Elwood: Dan Aykroyd’s character from the classic comedy duo.
8-Bit Christmas has that warmth you find in Arthur Christmas, plus a definite touch of A Christmas Story. It’s got all the right intentions and is a very easy watch whilst being reflective but not overly sentimental. I really enjoyed it!