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Thursday, November 25, 2021

8-Bit Christmas


Michael Dowse's 8-Bit Christmas borrows more than a little from Bob Clark's A Christmas Story from 1983, but it knows just what to borrow, and earns a few genuine big laughs to go with the nostalgia.  The nostalgia this time stems from the late 80s (1988, to be specific), and a young boy's quest to obtain what every red-blooded young boy at the time wanted, a Nintendo Entertainment System.

The screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (adapting from his own novel) wisely mixes the throwbacks of the era his story is set in (roller rinks, G.I. Joe walkie talkies, and Cabbage Patch Kid mania) with genuine heart and humor, making for an experience that is easy to enjoy, even if it's not all that original.  It gets a few of the period details mixed up here and there, but I don't think those who were children at the time will object to much here.  Besides, it gets a lot of details right, such as driving with the family to the big city mall for the day for Christmas shopping, and the kids mostly get to act like genuine kids here.  They're not written as wise-cracking mini-adults, and they don't rely on vulgarity or shock humor so the film can be edgy.  Sure, we get a projectile vomit joke late in the film, but I was quite impressed with how much the film got right overall.  You can tell that the filmmakers lived through this time period, and have a genuine affection for it.

The hero of this story is 11-year-old Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley), who dreams of owning his own Nintendo.  At the moment, the only person in his neighborhood who has one is the obnoxious rich kid, and Jake and his friends are stuck having to hope they will get the chance to watch him play it from afar.  With the holidays approaching, young Jake starts dropping hints to his overworked mom (June Diane Raphael) and hard-headed dad (Steve Zahn) that he wants one of his own.  Unfortunately, the world seems to be against Jake getting a Nintendo.  Due to a recent incident at the rich kid's house, the neighborhood parents are now convinced that video games lead to violent acts, and are now forbidding their kids from getting one.  A wreath-selling contest in Jake's Boy Scout group is offering a Nintendo as the top prize, which seems to be his best opportunity.  However, he will have to deal with bratty little sisters, a school bully who looks like the only kid in Elementary School who shaves, and other humiliations to obtain his goal.

This story is told through the eyes of the adult Jake (portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris), relating the tale to his preteen daughter.  His narration could have been lifted from out of A Christmas Story, which as noted is the obvious inspiration here.  Some of the situations and characters seem to be taken directly from that film, though not enough that it feels like a cut and paste job, only updating the time period.  Besides, 8-Bit Christmas adds enough to make it stand out, such as giving us a wide range of kids who are instantly recognizable.  There's the weird kid nobody really gets, the pathological liar who is always making stuff up to seem cooler than he really is, the brainy overachiever, and the kid whose parents let them watch R-rated films.  While I wouldn't call any of these kids fleshed out, they're still given qualities that I recognized from kids I grew up with.  They're not over the top caricatures, but seem to come from an honest place in the writer's memory.  Plus, the movie hits on some of the genuine fears of childhood at the time.  What kid who had a retainer in their mouth back in the day didn't dread of losing it?

Even if a lot of it is familiar, the film doesn't play up the nostalgia to the level that it feels like it's talking down to the audience.  And while some details might be off (Did any kid back in the day have a poster of the failed Mad Magazine movie, Up the Academy, on their wall?), a lot of the notes it does hit feel right.  The movie also adds some genuine heart to its final moments that I will not reveal here, but again, seem to come from a genuine place within the writer, rather than forced audience manipulation.  Ultimately, this is not just a movie selling itself on the past, as I initially feared.  It wants to tell a genuine story, and the characters here are honest enough that I was on board.  It's obvious that there were some limitations to the license the filmmakers could get here (only two actual Nintendo games from the era, Paperboy and Rampage, are depicted), but they work around it well enough.


For someone like me who actually collects vintage Nintendo, it's nice to have a movie representing the time period that's not the 1989 guilty pleasure The Wizard8-Bit Christmas is genuinely entertaining, heartfelt, and funny.  In other words, everything that the Fred Savage movie from over 30 years ago is not.

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