Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Film Review: 8-Bit Christmas (HBO Max)


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I like movies that can surprise you.  And 8-Bit Christmas surprised me.

The story is simple enough.  A father (Neil Patrick Harris) named Jake tells his daughter (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) the story of how he got his first Nintendo.  The story is told mostly in flashback in the mid 1980's.  Young Jake (Winslow Fegley) is the most middling suburban kid imaginable.  He is not the most popular nor the most alienated.  His family is firmly middle-middle class.  His father (Steve Zahn) is constantly involved in unfinished construction projects around the house.  His mother (June Diane Raphael) is an overworked teacher.  His little sister (Bellaluna Resnick) seems to get everything she wants.  But Jake and his friends spend their weekends and afternoons trying to get invited to the rich kid's house (Chandler Dean) so that they can play the only Nintendo in town.  When that system gets destroyed, they conspire to find a way to get a Nintendo for themselves.

On the surface, this movie is merely a remake of A Christmas Story set in the 1980's.  We have: an adult narrator, a plot centered around attaining a Christmas gift,  a playground bully, and parents who don't understand the obsession.  Jake's father, in particular, tries to impart the importance of getting out into the fresh air when all Jake wants to do is play video games.

But this is a better movie than A Christmas Story.

Now, there are many people who hold up A Christmas Story as a holiday classic.  There is a reason that this movie stood out from all other Christmas films.  In that movie, Ralphie begins the film with an all-consuming, selfish desire for his Red-Rider BB-gun.  Many Christmas movies start off like this, but what makes this movie so bold is that Ralphie never learns the real meaning of Christmas.  He is selfish and materialistic at the beginning and remains so until the end, with no real lesson learned.  It is such as shocking turn that it is unique among many Christmas movies.

8-Bit Christmas seems like a similar cynical nostalgia-fest focusing on the joys of material gain at the holidays.  And to be fair, the movie leans heavily into this feeling.  It is a very childish mindset, but one that is reflective of a lot of our early Christmas experiences.  How many of us when we were young loved the presents and the candy and things like going to church and gatherings with relatives?  8-Bit Christmas lets you get caught up in the Nintendo craze as well as other insane toy fads like Cabbage Patch Kids.  

But 8-Bit Christmas has something A Christmas Story does not: heart.

I do not want to spoil anything, but there is more to 8-Bit Christmas than the silly comedy and Nintendo nostalgia.  There was something truly heartfelt about how the story progressed.  I was not expecting to find this movie so touching.

This movie will be most especially appreciated by people who grew up in this era.  Everything about this will be familiar: the gigantic student that no one quite knew, the huddling around the radio listening for snow days, the rich kid who had all the cool toys, the kid who would constantly make up stories, losing retainers, losing siblings in the mall, power gloves, and everything in between.  While everything was over-the-top, there was something authentic about how director Michael Dowse captured everything.  He keeps the movie moving at a fast, fun clip.  He gets you into the mindset of a child who gets wowed by a house with a built-in intercom system.

The performances by the child actors are perfectly acceptable as child actors.  Harris always brings his charisma to everything he does.  Raphael is a very funny actress that has been hovering around the edges of stardom.  I'm really hoping she gets a big breakthrough because she is wonderful in this and should get more recognition.  But for me the standout is Zahn.  He doesn't seemed to have aged in 20 years, but he has matured.  There is something very real and flawed about the portrayal of Jake's father that is incredibly funny and moving.  He is angry all the time without coming off as a bully or abusive.  He has that distance that a lot of us felt with our dads when we were little because his world and his worries seemed so alien to us.  But Zahn finds the heart of the character to not only elicit laughs and pull at the heartstrings.

I am going to watch this movie again next holiday season and see if it holds up.  But now, even after several weeks, I still leaves me with a smile.

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