Nostalgia-Heavy '80s Comedy Feels Too Familiar

There's a certain charm to 8-Bit Christmas. The heartwarming comedy joins the ranks of several classic features that use a nostalgic lens to view the holidays. The movie lends the genre a distinctly retro feel, celebrating '80s childhood icons — especially the cultural phenomenon that was the Nintendo Entertainment System. 8-Bit Christmas has a lot of heart, but the comedy struggles to stand out in a marketplace full of similar, established, holiday feature classics. Regardless, it offers enough of a unique spin on the genre to satisfy audiences — especially millennials.

8-Bit Christmas is the story of a young boy named Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) who is desperate to get his hands on a Nintendo (NES), the latest craze in late-'80s home entertainment. He and his other 11-year-old friends are obsessed with the new video game system, even going as far as competing with each other to hang out with the "rich kid" who owns a Nintendo — despite how over-the-top obnoxious he is. The film is bookended with present-day scenes of adult Jake (Neil Patrick Harris) telling the story to his daughter, who similarly wants her own new tech: a cell phone. The movie has fun with Jake being a potentially unreliable narrator, and Harris brings a lot of charisma to what could very well have been a forgettable role in the hands of a lesser actor.

Related: House Of Gucci Review: Lady Gaga Steals The Show In Underwhelming Melodrama

8-Bit Christmas was directed by Michael Dowse; however, this is arguably Kevin Jakubowski's movie. Jakubowski wrote the novel that 8-Bit Christmas is based on as well as the screenplay used for the film. In many respects, this feels like a personal story. Many millennials (especially those who grew up in small towns) will recognize elements of their own childhoods in the subtle moments throughout: the kids playing on a giant snow hill at recess, the thrill of going to the mall for Christmas shopping, or even listening to talk radio in the car with one's dad. Not everything in 8-Bit Christmas works, but the writing stands out as both fully realized and genuine. There is room for improvement — the plot is stretched thin and the comedy needs to be ramped up — but in terms of story structure and payoff, the film is technically very well done.

There's an ensemble cast in 8-Bit Christmas, and despite a lack of A-list names, the performances are all solid. Established character actors like David Cross and Steve Zahn shine in the film. Zahn, who plays Jake's father John Doyle, is the most consistently funny aspect of the film, channeling classic Christmas movie patriarchs like Clark in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Old Man Parker in A Christmas Story. Jake's mother Kathy (June Diane Raphael), an overworked teacher, also gets some good zingers. The best laugh-out-loud moments though come from Fegley as the young Jake, and some memorable one-liners from Harris' narration.

Where 8-Bit Christmas begins to falter is with the pacing and the production. Whether intentionally or not, 8-Bit Christmas draws comparisons to A Christmas Story, which shares the same basic conceit, just set a generation earlier. The problem is that A Christmas Story is much more successful in its execution. Not only did that movie feel fresh upon release — whereas 8-Bit Christmas feels like it's retreading familiar territory — but the 1983 Bob Clark movie also supplemented the core arc with various hilarious vignettes, taking an almost anthological approach to the movie. Yes, it's basically about Ralphie wanting a Red Ryder BB gun, but some of the most iconic, memorable moments have nothing to do with that arc — like the dad's leg lamp or Flick getting his tongue stuck to the flagpole. Conversely, everything in 8-Bit Christmas is part of Jake's "how I got a Nintendo" story.

It's unlikely that 8-Bit Christmas will go on to become a beloved holiday classic. While the movie offers some laughs and a pleasant story, it too often feels like a pale imitation of other properties. The '80s childhood shtick has been done to death in recent years, thanks to hits like The Goldbergs and Stranger Things, and too many of the story beats feel cribbed from other beloved holiday classics. 8-Bit Christmas, unfortunately, fails to make its mark in the crowded marketplaces of '80s nostalgia and Christmas comedies. Having said that, the movie does offer a personal appeal for millennials, and has the added bonus of being a family-friendly movie that parents and kids can enjoy.

 Next: Encanto Review: Disney Animation Is Familiar, But Still Heartwarming & Magical

8-Bit Christmas was released on HBO Max November 24, 2021. It is 97 minutes long and is rated PG for rude humor and some mild violence, language, and suggestive references.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5 (Good)
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About The Author
Sarah Bea Milner (317 Articles Published)

Sarah Milner is the Weekend Lead Editor for Screen Rant's Film/Television features (SR Originals) division. She is a writer, editor and folk musician. Her culture writing has appeared in Exclaim!, GameRant, Bluegrass Canada, and Electric City Magazine. She often watches movies — sometimes she reviews them too. A graduate of Trent University, Sarah's MA thesis examines Frankenstein adaptations and their relationship with popular culture. She has a fierce love of all things "spooky," and a deep appreciation for classic cinema.

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