Review: ‘8-Bit Christmas’ is a Two-Bit Holiday Film

Ever unwrap a gift and find precisely what you want inside? To anticipate taking that present out and really enjoying it? Then, when you do… it’s an utter letdown?

Friends and foes, I give you my experience with 8-Bit Christmas.

On paper, 8-Bit reads like A Christmas Story for the late Gen X/Xennial/geriatric Millennial set. Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) tells his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) the tale of the year he, as a tween (Winslow Fegley), wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for Christmas. But, unfortunately, thanks to two very video game opposed parents John (Steve Zahn) and Kathy (June Diane Raphael), young Jake has no choice but to engage in a series of increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts to get one himself.

8-Bit Christmas
Courtesy of HBO Max

Nostalgia and Christmas go together like a hand in a glove. Or perhaps a power glove (WINK!)? We are now about 25 years out from the film’s events, meaning plenty of adults around Jake’s age can remember the same feelings and cultural signifiers. Moreover, many of them have children of their own with whom they’ve no doubt shared some tales of that long-ago era. As a result, it has a four-quadrant crowd-pleaser written all over it. In practice, though, it is at best a mildly diverting watch.

The blame lies in the film spending entirely too much time with Jake and his friends trying to get that NES. Given the plot of the movie, that would seem to make sense. However, the film actually wants to be about something else, as revealed in the third act. Jake is telling Annie this story as a metaphor, you see. Except 8-Bit doesn’t let us in on that bit of information until the end either, rendering what is clearly meant as a tear-jerking climax more of a shrugging head-scratcher.

What’s worse is the other parts of the film, the Doyle’s home life in the 80s and Harris’s fatherly chemistry with Reid-Gantzert, generally play better than the pre-teen adventures of Jake, his friends, and his frenemies. As a result, 8-Bit consistently feels like it isn’t following through on the promises of its subplots. As a result, viewers get left wanting. It’s a servant of too many masters.

8-Bit Christmas
Courtesy of HBO Max

Jake’s childhood friends get the bulk of the attention in Kevin Jakubowski’s script. However, they entirely disappear for the film’s climax, where we realize the real reason why Jake and his daughter are playing an original Nintendo in his childhood home. One child character from the 80s makes a modern appearance, but they have about eight words in the flashbacks. 8-Bit is aching for a reunion or a Stand by Me-style narration recap, but it never comes.

The movie hints at its true central conceit very early on with a couple of lines of dialogue. It’s the kind of dialogue where a viewer can tell the characters aren’t saying something for no other reason than the filmmakers want to use it as a surprise later. However, holding back on the truth doesn’t help the film. Providing the audience with the necessary information in those opening minutes would change how they viewed the flashbacks. And change it in a way that would enhance, not detract from, the final reveal. Choosing to make it this unspoken thing, while not even lacing the emotional baggage throughout, denies the film an emotional core and the audience any basis for catharsis.

There are two, maybe three better films contained within the skin of 8-Bit Christmas. But, sadly, you can only grade the film you get, not the film you want. So, in the end, 8-Bit offers viewers much the same journey the Power Glove did back in the mid-’80s: so much potential, so little follow-through.

8-Bit Christmas is streaming now on HBO Max. 

8-Bit Christmas

6.1

here are two, maybe three better films contained within the skin of 8-Bit Christmas, but we get none of them.

6.1/10
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Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.