Producers: Tim White, Trevor White, Allan Mandelbaum, Nick Nantell, Jonathan Sadowski Director: Michael Dowse Screenplay: Kevin Jakubowski Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, David Cross, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Bellaluna Resnick, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Chandler Dean, Katia Smith and Tom Rooney Distributor: HBO Max
It’s probably impossible to make a Christmas movie anymore that isn’t derivative to some extent, but Michael Dowse’s HBO Max original is more so than most. Essentially it’s a version of Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story” set in 1989 rather than the 1940s, but that story is told as a flashback from a cutesy contemporary father-daughter conversation inspired by “The Princess Bride” (and/or “The Wonder Years”). To add to that, a subplot about a frantic search for a popular toy recalls “Jingle All the Way.” And the entire thing is set in suburban Chicago to give it a John Hughes “Home Alone” vibe (though since it was shot in Toronto, it has no real sense of place).
The present-day narration is delivered by Jack Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris), who, to explain to his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) why he won’t get her the phone she wants for Christmas, tells her about the year he—and his buddies Mikey (Che Tafari), Teddy (Braelyn Rankins), Tammy (Brielle Rankins), and Evan (Santino Barnard), as well as tag-along pathological liar Jeff (Max Malas)—vied along with the town’s other kids for the chance to play with the Nintendo owned by snooty rich kid Timmy (Chandler Dean). Naturally they all want their own, but Jakes parents John and Kathy (Steve Zahn and June Diane Raphael) refuse to get him one, though they’re so anxious to find the out-of-stock Cabbage Patch Kid doll Jake’s sister Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick) wants that John even looks up a guy selling them out of his car (David Cross) to buy one.
That’s the basic set-up, but Kevin Jakubowski, who adapted the screenplay from his novel, gussies it up with all sorts of sidebars. There’s a wreath-selling contest with a Nintendo as a prize that all the kids throw themselves into, only to have it sabotaged by an anti-video game crusade led, for complicated reasons, by Timmy’s parents (Tom Rooney and Katia Smith). And a subplot about the gorilla-like school bully (Cyrus Arnold) who threatens all his smaller classmates. Nor are Jake’s parents forgotten: Zahn plays John as an affable doofus who spends years household building projects he never finishes, though he manages to complete one that serves as the basis for a predictably sentimental finale designed to teach that—no surprise—family is way more important than any crass gift.
Nonetheless, some of the episodes Jakubowski has contrived on the way to delivering this lesson are pretty weird. Perhaps the oddest is one in which young Jake actually has a conversation with a seductive Nintendo console in a toy store—and loses his sister as a result. (He also mislays, in a rather nauseating adjunct, his expensive retainer.) The dialogue between boy and machine might remind you queasily of Everett Sloane’s being led on by a malignant slot machine in that old Twilight Zone episode “The Fever.”
And the movie makes sure to include the trifecta designed to ensure acceptance by the younger set nowadays—fart jokes, poop gags and, for good measure, a couple of prolonged bouts of vomiting. The last is a major element of a scheme the kids hatch to buy a Nintendo during a school trip to Chicago’s Loop, which of course looks nothing like the real thing here.
“8-Bit Christmas” will appeal to nostalgia-hungry parents who can remember lusting after a Nintendo during the time it was at its peak popularity, and being disappointed by its poorly-functioning accessory the Power Glove, which plays a part in instigating the campaign against video games here. Other adults, though, will find it too familiar for words. Youngsters who have no memory of such antique devices, and perhaps have never seen the movies this one is copying, should find it on a par with the made-for-cable features they encounter on the small screen, and enjoy the hijinks.
The young cast, led by Fegley, whom you might remember from “Come Play” (he was the semi-villain there), is agreeable enough, except for Arnold and Dean, whom Dowse has encouraged to go completely for broke. Malas is especially sharp as the kid who finds it impossible not to lie—a trait he seems to share with some contemporary politicians. (as Ko-ko would say, the task of filling in the blanks I’d rather leave to you.) Zahn is an old hand at playing obtuse, and Harris, while no Peter Falk, carries off his recitations adequately if smugly. The technical contributions are okay, no better or worse than usual in such fare.
Though no Christmas classic, “8-Bit” is innocuous, a plausible option for those searching for something to kill a couple of hours of family time during the holidays. And if you have HBO Max, it’s free, as the Nintendo system certainly was not.