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edge staff writer


Now you’re playing with power – ‘8-Bit Christmas’

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Nostalgia is big business when it comes to entertainment. And perhaps nowhere is that nostalgia as keenly felt as it is within the movie industry. Now more than ever, studios are seeking to cash in on our feelings about what has come before, monetizing our memories and generally profiting on the past.

That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing. Some perfectly enjoyable works have sprung from that desire, even if those works themselves sprung from the pursuit of profit. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but there’s still joy to be found.

Take “8-Bit Christmas,” a new film currently streaming on HBO Max. Directed by Michael Dowse from a screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (who adapted his own novel of the same name), it’s the story of a young man in Chicago in the late 1980s and his all-consuming Christmastime quest to get his hands on the one thing that will make his life truly complete:

A Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s a film that will undeniably ring familiar – you’ve seen just about all of this before, in some way, shape or form – but when you’re talking about this kind of holiday fare, the familiarity is the point. There’s something warm and comforting about these readily recognizable beats – sure, you won’t be surprised, but you’ll probably be charmed.

It’s Christmastime and Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) is taking his daughter Annie to Jake’s childhood home for the holiday. There’s some conflict between the two – Annie wants her own cell phone, Jake says no way – so there’s tension when they arrive, only to find that no one is there. The two make their way up to Jake’s childhood bedroom, where he unearths his old Nintendo. This leads to him telling the story of how he got it.

Flashback to the late ‘80s. Jake (Winslow Fegley) lives in the suburbs with his dad John (Steve Zahn), who’s constantly remodeling the house, his mom Kathy (June Diane Rafael) and his little sister Lizzie (Bellaluna Resnick). Every Saturday, Jake – along with just about every other kid in town – flocks to stand outside the house of Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean). Timmy’s a jerk and no one likes him, but he has something that outweighs all of that. See, Timmy is the only kid in the neighborhood with a Nintendo.

Jake wants to play it, as do his buddies: his best friend Mikey (Che Tafari), the Hodges twins Tammy (Brielle Rankins) and Teddy (Braelyn Rankins), nervous worrier Evan (Santino Bernard) … and pathological liar Farmer (Max Malas), who isn’t really their friend but he’s always around. They’ll do whatever they have to to get picked to join Timmy Keane in his awesome basement.

But what they really want is a Nintendo of their own.

Jake thinks he’s figured out how to get his parents to agree to get him one for Christmas, but that plan isn’t as solid as he initially thought. He’s left to try and come up with other methods to get what he wants, but those plans – individually-driven and group-minded alike – all come with their own complications. He’s got the support of his friends, but no matter what they try, they keep running into obstacles that are beyond their control.

All the while, he’s trying to duck oversized school bully Josh Jagorski (Cyrus Arnold) and avoid getting teased for wearing the girls’ boots his mom got for him because they were on sale. Oh, and he’s going to have to clean up the dog poop in the backyard eventually.

“8-Bit Christmas” is a lightweight charmer of a film, a family-friendly trifle that is no less entertaining for its lack of heft. The joy of films like this one is that they elevate their stakes in just the way that kids do – to a child, everything is the biggest deal in the world. That outsized conception of the world is front and center in this film, resulting in something that is cute and uncomplicated.

As I said, there are no surprises in this film – seriously, you can replace “Nintendo” with “Red Ryder BB gun” and you’ve basically got “A Christmas Story” – but that’s OK. The filmmakers lean into the nostalgic impulse fully and unapologetically, crafting a tale that the fortysomethings of the world (and their kids) will find charming and memorable in a nostalgia-tinged way.

(Full disclosure: I am one of those fortysomethings. I was a touch older than these kids, but I DEFINITELY yearned for a Nintendo and my receiving one was an absolute highlight of my childhood Christmases. They could not have targeted me more specifically if they tried.)

Stylistically, “8-Bit Christmas” does a good job of elevating the scale of the proceedings to match the overwrought desires of the characters. There are moments – the gathering outside Timmy Keane’s house, a game of King of the Mountain, a third-act heist-type sequence – that really evoke the larger-than-life feelings that spring from a child’s perspective.

The performances generally work. Fegley does solid work considering the expectations laid on him; he’s really very good throughout. Honestly, the kids are all pretty good, which is somewhat surprising; there’s usually at least one weak link when you have this many, but not this time (special shout out to Malas, who perfectly captures the energy of that liar kid that we all knew). Zahn and Rafael are charming and tonally spot-on as Jake’s parents; Zahn especially brings a big Dad Energy that is a lot of fun. Harris is a perfect choice to serve as our storyteller, engaging us with his narration. David Cross also pops up to have some fun as a toy blackmarketeer.

“8-Bit Christmas” is slight, but no less enjoyable because of that. If you ever hoped for that gift you wanted more than anything, if you remember being a kid and seeing your heart’s desire just out of reach, well – now you’re playing with power. The power … of nostalgia.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 December 2021 13:32


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