I had a feeling when I saw the trailer for this movie that it would hit all the right nostalgia notes. Like A Christmas Story for kids born in the 80s, it seemed to be that rare film that would actually be a justified update to a modern classic for the holidays, transferring that same sense of wonder for a bygone era to a new generation that was now sharing memories with their own children.
What I didn’t expect was a genuinely heartwarming, earnest bit of escapism couched within an absolute balls-to-the-wall laugh riot. I did not expect to see poignant reminders of just how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we’re still going. I didn’t expect just how hard this movie was willing to hit you right in the feels. I didn’t expect top level, fully-committed performances.
But 8-Bit Christmas delivered all of these. This isn’t just a cute distraction during the holidays, it’s by far the best Christmas movie I’ve seen in years, and sure to become a classic in its own right.
Neil Patrick Harris stars as Jake Doyle, visiting his family in Chicago for Xmas. He and his daughter, Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) arrive early, so they have time to kill before everyone else shows up. Jake, desperate to get Annie’s mind off of getting her own smartphone (she uses his phone to text all her friends), takes her up to his old bedroom and plays video games with her, showing her his original Nintendo Entertainment System (right down to blowing into the cartridges and acknowledging that we all did it, even though it had absolutely no effect on anything), and sharing the story about how he got it.
To the clever observer, this scene sets up every moment to come, both happy and sad. Jake insists that Annie won’t be getting a phone for Christmas, so by telling the story of his NES, we know how it’ll end. The absence of the rest of the family prepares us for some people to be missing later on. Even the simple act of blowing into the game cartridge is a step above most nostalgia trips, because it’s not just a box tick. The film could have left it at a simple blow pass to tell the crowd, “Yup, that’s a thing you know,” but it goes that little extra bit further in two ways. One, they comment on it, so it’s more than just a wink, but a gentle fun poke at one of the absurdities of our collective youth. Two, the game works instantly after Jake does this, which we all know is bullshit. It was never that simple. It always took at least three or four attempts, some head cleaner, and maybe blowing into the console itself before the game started properly. I even had a trick where I would cram in a second game on top to make sure the spring-loaded holder stayed in place. There’s no way after 35 years it would work that quickly, but rather than using such a cut to infuriate us, it’s a nod to all the exaggerated shenanigans we’re about to witness, making sure we’re in on the fun from the outset.
And for what it’s worth, Neil Patrick Harris is about the most perfect person to cast in this role. His narration isn’t as good as Jean Shepherd’s (the one area where this film doesn’t surpass its spiritual predecessor), mostly because Shepherd’s voice was so distinct and the fact that Harris narrates every scene like it’s an epic moment when the situation doesn’t always call for it. But apart from that tiny criticism (seriously, it maybe docks him from a 100 score to a 98), there’s no better person to take on a part like this.
For one thing, Harris was a child star who we all watched grow up on screen, so it’s entirely believable that he lived in this era and could have either had these adventures or knew someone who did. We have that image of him as part of our collective consciousness, and can easily apply it to the younger version of the character. Only a handful of actors could bring that kind of credibility from appearance alone (maybe Jason Bateman?). It’s the ultra-rare scenario where seeing the actor rather than the character actually enhances your connection to them rather than degrading it. Second, and most importantly, Harris is great with children. A lot of you might know this from the slew of interviews he’s given over the years about how much he and husband David Burtka love being dads. They could both retire tomorrow and live happily just being fathers. It really means that much to them.
I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes, so permit me a brief diversion for Story Time! A few years ago I worked with two of my best friends on a kids game show called Genius Junior, which Neil hosted. My friends and I were the Games team, meaning we were in charge of creating all the material that the kids studied during the competition, as well as writing and executing all the questions and puzzles in the show. I even have a picture of us with Neil at the wrap party that I had taken as a gift for my mother. Throughout the run of the show, I watched him interact with the young contestants. He was genuinely engaged in all the stories they had to tell, and they hanged on his every word when he had stuff to tell them. The only times he was even remotely curt were when he had to be, like a member of the crew talking into his earpiece that he couldn’t hear because one of the kids was trying to get his attention. And even in those moments he was entirely jovial and polite, squatting down to their height to let them know he had to excuse himself for a moment, then picking right back up when he was done.
A production delay meant stretching the shoot out for a couple more days, into an unexpected extra weekend. He apologized for the additional work we all had to do (even though it was the network that made the decision, not him), but at the same time he was giddy that he could fly David and the kids out to Los Angeles so they could come to the set and watch the taping. He was doing this gig in between stints in Vancouver shooting A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, and hadn’t seen his kids in weeks. This was mid-August, but it might as well have been Christmas for how happy he was to show his twins around. I got to see all of this first-hand, so yeah, if you want to make sure you have an actor playing a believably loving dad, you can hardly do better.
Okay, back to the movie. Once the present-day scene is set, Jake takes us back to his childhood in 1988, when the NES first became really popular, and introduces his motley gang of friends, with Winslow Fegley playing the young Jake. All of them have their core personality archetypes, from assertive Tammy and her more docile brother Teddy (actual siblings Brielle and Braelyn Rankins), to compulsive liar Jeff Farmer (Max Malas; we all had that one friend who made up stories that couldn’t possibly be true to try to impress us or seem cool), to the nerdy Evan (Santino Barnard) and cool customer Mikey Trotter (Che Tafari). Every afternoon they gather at the home of their wealthy classmate, Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean), who owns a Nintendo and lets a select few kids in to play with him, though in fairness, it’s mostly to watch him play and show off.
At this moment, the movie becomes much more real than I could have imagined. This happened. A LOT. I mentioned last month when I named this film’s trailer as a “Redemption Reel” that part of the resonance was that I got my NES in ’88 as the culmination of a year of wishing. Once I did, however, I didn’t have many games. I got maybe one or two a year, and with rare exceptions (like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link), they were the cheapest ones at the Toys “R” Us, because that’s what my mom and my grandmother could afford. Some games were as much as $80 a pop, so I almost always could only get $20 games like Dick Tracy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of my games, but it was already a small miracle that “Santa” (via my grandma) could muster the $100 for the system itself. I wasn’t going to press my luck on the more high-end titles.
So what ended up happening more often than not was that your neighborhood friends would form a hierarchy and hang out at each other’s houses based on what NES games you had. As the poor kid with the perceived lesser set, there were rarely people over at my house, and honestly I preferred it that way, as the Nintendo was hooked up to my mom’s TV in her bedroom, and I wasn’t about to let elementary school kids get into her things. So I went to other boys’ houses, ones where the parents had more disposable income, to see their games. And I mean only see them, because 90% of the time, you just sat around and watched them play. They only let you play when either a) they got bored, or b) knew you didn’t have the game, so they knew they could beat you at it.
It was the social order of the time, and I’m amazed at how honest the movie is about the less ideal aspects of owning this beautiful machine. The rich kids lorded their collection over us plebeians, the one kid who got the Power Glove almost instantly regretted it (take THAT, The Wizard!), and any time the host lost at their own game, the hissy fit to end all hissy fits would likely ensue, especially if he lost to a girl.
That’s just the setting of the stakes for the film, mind you. There’s a ton of other great, absurdist character work at play here. Jake’s parents (wonderful turns from June Diane Raphael and Steve Zahn) fill a similar role to Ralphie’s from so long ago, but they’re not defined by their era, nor are they social or ethnic stereotypes like before. Dad John is about working hard and making stuff with your hands, but he’s not a stern authoritarian. He doesn’t constantly tell Jake to clean up dog poop in the backyard just to be a hardass, but because Jake’s neglected his chores and the snow-covered yard looks like a minefield. Hell, in the exact opposite of the “tough dad” trope, he’s putty in his daughter’s hands whenever she wants to manipulate the situation, and he makes honest attempts to bond with his son through shared activity. Mom Kathy bakes cookies no one eats, which is a fun joke, but isn’t bound by any predetermined role as either a nurturer or disciplinarian, instead a perfect balance of both. They’re multifaceted characters, which makes their eventual crusade against video games all the more jarring, because otherwise reasonable people can become zealots for a certain cause if it hits their panic buttons in just the right way. Just look at (*gestures at everything happening in politics and society right now*) if you don’t believe me.
Jake’s sister, Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick), is also a fun and realistic character, because little sisters can be complete psychopaths to get one over on their brothers (ask my sister right now, she won’t deny it), and once again, the hyperbolic nature of her scheming is what makes it so enjoyable. But from a more grounded standpoint, it’s also worth noting that she has her own Christmas wish and story arc, hoping for a Cabbage Patch Kid (specifically a redhead with freckles), to show that it wasn’t just boys obsessing over video games. Every kid had their version of the NES, and just like me back in ’88, getting any kind of payoff for the hope is worth it, because even when we truly believe in Santa Claus – like I did back then – we still know that some tremendous set of circumstances had to come together to make it happen, and we’re all the more filled with gratitude and love when it does. Even if we don’t get exactly what we want, knowing that someone spared the thought really does count for a lot. Lizzy’s part in this story is a great, and surprisingly affecting example of just that.
Anyway, after a hilarious accident renders Keane’s status null and void, Jake and his friends start putting together plans to obtain their own Nintendo. Once again, the shockingly accurate – while still hysterically over-the-top – vignettes of an 80s (and really, through the mid-90s) childhood are on full display. There’s a bully who everyone is sure was held back several times because he’s way bigger and dumber than anyone in the school, who dominates the low-level assault and battery demonstration that was the “King of the Mountain” recess game (Cyrus Arnold). Snowy days force Jake to change into “girl boots” (snow boots with pink and purple designs that his mom got because they were on sale at Kohl’s) in order to go outside, leaving him vulnerable to swift and devastating reprisals. The boys, as part of their scout troop, sell Christmas wreaths to raise money, with an NES as the prize for the top earner.
All of these happened to me and several other kids back then. We were conscripted – either by schools, youth groups, or both – to be unpaid salesmen for fundraisers, and there were always carrots dangled in front of us. I think for me I was selling fudge to earn a neon velcro wallet, where one, ONE, would have a $100 bill inside (otherwise known as more money than I had ever seen). Recess, especially in grades 4-6 for me, were rituals of pain, on hard blacktop, where every game was a chance to lightly maim one’s classmates, especially during the winter when snow and ice on the pavement added a new degree of difficulty. I never wore “girl boots,” but there was one year where my shoes wore completely out, but my mom couldn’t afford to even go to Payless and get what the kids in school called “Bobos” (Bobos, they make your feet feel fine!/Bobos, they cost a dollar ninety-nine!) until her next paycheck came in, so for a solid week I had to wear a pair of her hand-me-down Reeboks that had the women’s size printed on the side, so everyone knew I was wearing my mom’s sneakers (thankfully they at least fit, so I could run away if the mob got too close). This is all almost too real. I felt seen watching this movie, to the point that about halfway through I legitimately started to wonder if there were hidden cameras in my childhood home sending inspiration for the source material to writer Kevin Jakubowski.
All of this is hilarious and almost hauntingly accurate, but what stunned me the most was how sneakily profound it was in its messaging, and how heartfelt it all was. And I’m not just talking about the standard “God bless us, everyone” Christmas sentiment of family, gratefulness, and/or faith. The reason this resonates so much more than A Christmas Story from a thematic standpoint, is that between the two eras represented in these respective films, not much has truly changed about the childhood experience. In many ways what Jake goes through is the same as what Ralphie did. The girl boots are his bunny suit. The dog poop is the frozen pole. The parents protesting video game violence are the same as “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
But between the world of the 80s and now? A whole hell of a lot has changed, and we see that from the first minutes, where Annie is considered behind the times because she doesn’t have her own personal computer in her pocket and instead relies on her father’s device, even though at her age, he was enamored with two buttons and a directional pad connected by a small wire that meant you couldn’t sit more than a foot away from a CRT television that, if you were lucky and had cable, got you 50 channels instead of 5,000 (and that’s before you get to streaming and YouTube). The “girl boots” stigma is one that Annie and kids of her generation will hopefully never experience, because gender roles have blurred and the world is much more accepting of diverse beliefs, sexual identities, and fashion. There’s a commercial out right now where a young girl shops for pink sneakers, only to give them to her little brother for Christmas, and he’s happier than a pig in shit when he sees them, squeaking out an adorable, “THANK YOU!” as she hugs him, knowing she got the perfect gift for him. Not the perfect gift for any young boy, but for him. That would have never happened in the 80s, not by a long shot.
That’s the real emotional heft of this movie, and why it’ll almost certainly become a classic. It’s much more of a time capsule than a piece of pure silly nostalgia. Sure, the film trades in fan service quite a bit, but it’s done so with contextual commentary, and it shows just how far we’ve come in just a few decades. Whereas A Christmas Story (which I still love, by the way, I’m just using it as an example for the sake of contrast) was much more about the jokes with the emotional stuff almost a wholly separate entity, 8-Bit Christmas uses jokes to inform the sentiment for the youngest audience and teach them valuable lessons about friendship, family, and sacrifice (including the most genius use of David Cross in an off-putting role I’ve ever seen), all while letting the adults who lived this era reminisce and reflect with the wisdom of years and hindsight.
It’s rare when any comedy can pull off such a feat, but to do it in a Christmas movie that could have easily been phoned in as an updated Jingle All the Way is nothing short of inspired. I expected a light, enjoyable bit of cinematic comfort food so I could turn off my brain and giggle. What I got was the best holiday movie of the 21st century to date. This will likely be the lowest ranked film among those who get its grade level, because as the movie lives on it will become more of a lark than anything else, like all great Christmas traditions, and it’s not really aspiring to any sort of high artform. But don’t doubt for a second that it earned its mark, because just as Neil Patrick Harris’ Jake is a loving, committed teacher of life experience, so too is the movie itself.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Christmas movie? What was your “Nintendo?” Let me know!