Ah, the hazy, crazy days of youth!
Specifically the late 1980s when kids definitely wore bike helmets – shhhhh, no, they didn’t but don’t tell today’s kids that – and the biggest, baddest Christmas present goals out there were, beside getting a freckled Cabbage Patch Kid, was securing your very own Nintendo entertainment system.
It was a THING, and so desperately did people want these toys that they were prepared to do pretty much anything to get them, including, as in the case of 8-Bit Christmas, a surprisingly emotional resonant piece of nostalgia-tinged festive filmmaking that feels like a pleasing mix of The Wonder Years and The Princess Bride, selling Christmas wreathes to unsuspecting old folks and developing a class-wide conspiracy to steal away from a school excursion in the midst of Chicago.
Starring Neil Patrick Harris as the present incarnation of Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) the kid in the story which takes up the bulk of the narrative, 8-Bit Christmas is a fun-filled, mischievously surreal at times, look back at the kinds of things that mattered to us as kids and how some sage lessons along the way caused us to reassess what was most important to us.
At the time of the story’s setting in 1987 or 1988 – adult Jake’s memory is not coming to the party and after some impatient “we don’t have time for you to work out the year” muttering from his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) he settles on a vague late ’80s time period -Jake is a reasonably popular kid at school with a bunch of stalwart nerdy friends including Mikey Trotter (Che Tafari), bee and pasta allergic Evan Olsen (Santino Barnard), habitual liar Jeff Farmer (Max Malas), and twins Tammy and Teddy Hodges (Brielle and Braelyn Rankins) who lives, with the rest of his class, for an invite to rich kid Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean) on a Saturday morning to play Nintendo.
It’s the hottest ticket in town, and with many of Batavia, Illinois’s parents buying into the fevered silliness of video games as a gateway drug to crime and drugs (yeah, Twitter didn’t start those ridiculously ill-informed debates, people), the only choice kids have is to be one of the 10 people let into Timmy’s Aladdin’s cave of pop tarts, popcorn making machines and yes, the Nintendo system.
Granted the video game bans follow some rather unfortunate, and comical events at Timmy’s place that did not end well for the family’s pet dog, but there wasn’t really much hope of Jake getting a Nintendo before that anyway with his mum and dad, Kathy and John ((June Diane Raphael and Steve Zahn respectively) opposed to him owning something that would keep him inside when the outside world beckoned,
True, the path to the outside was paved with dog turds defecated with enthusiasm by said dog, but hey, it was sunshine, and freezing cold and Good Things (press parents on what these were exactly and you’d come up empty save for airily-pronounced assurances that outside was Good, inside with video games Bad) and how could a Nintendo ever be better than that?
Well, if you asked Jake and his friends, the latter option was better by a considerable margin thank you and much of the slapstick fun and gentle, nostalgia-fuzzed over the top hilarity of 8-Bit Christmas are the lengths that they go to make their video gaming dreams come true.
Whether its selling wreaths in a competition for the local scout-ish group, which comes with Nintendo as the promised first prize or concocting a plan with the elegance and obsessive construction of an Ocean’s franchise plot, Jake is determined to get that Nintendo from which all happiness and childhood fulfilment flows.
So, he believes anyway, and when the Nintendo promotional system at Marshalls talks to him in one of the movie’s more whimsical scenes and convinces him that playing a game is more important than babysitting younger sister Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick), who in the whole of greater Chicago, to which the family goes for its annual, stress-filled Christmas shopping trip, is he to argue?
It’s all very silly and a whole lot of fun, all narrated by adult Jake to his daughter who moves from proto-teenage disinterest to being really invested in the story while they play the Nintendo system at Jake’s parents place, capturing with energetic, playful earnestness about how childhood is often consumed by life-or-death moments, like getting a Nintendo for Christmas, that in retrospect weren’t that big a deal.
But when you are a kid, they are EVERYTHING, and 8-Bit Christmas honours that beautifully with buoyant humour, a sense of the grounded ridiculous and a surprising amount of poignancy, honouring the fact that when you’re a kid the world pivots on a whole different set of priorities.
As a distillation of childhood and particularly one set on that gloriously analogue time known as the ’80s, 8-Bit Christmas is a very funny, warm-and-fuzzy triumph; it’s great achievement though is to go beyond that, investing the story with some sagely moving observations with more emotional resonance than you might be expecting.
In fact, the final few scenes of this riotously charming and affectionate romp through retro childhood actually cut straight to the heart, both in 1988 and the present as Jake learns in a way that is thankfully a million miles away from a saccharine sweet and festive movie messaging earnest, what really matters in life.
So deftly are these life lessons inserted in a film that sports fine writing and nuanced performances that aren’t as slapstick corny as you might think from a film from the nostalgic Christmas genre, that 8-Bit Christmas never once feels it’s trying to have wacky cake and heartfelt messaging too.
It makes you feel a great deal, true, but not at the expense of the wonderful nostalgia and lighthearted fun of the film that treats the priorities of childhood as valuable while having a huge amount of empathetic fun with the understandably myopic perspectives of childhood all in a festive setting that feels like opening the presents on Christmas morning and finding just what you needed, and after an exhaustingly trying year, just what your heart needs to feel better about the world.