8-Bit Christmas (2021)

If you've seen the trailer, I won't need to explain what this is. The movie is very upfront about the premise: a homage to A Christmas Story that's virtually a remake set in the '80s, with the Nintendo Entertainment System talking the place of the infamous Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle.

I want to be crystal clear about something before continuing: this is infinitely better than A Christmas Story. Most movies look good compared to that, though - the real question is how well this fares on its own merits.

And the answer to that question is pretty well. This is a solid, funny Christmas flick, ready-made to be left on in the background while cleaning, cooking, or disposing of bodies: whatever your holiday traditions necessitate. I think it stops short of greatness, however, due to the ending. I want to acknowledge that I'm not entirely certain about this: the movie hinges on a twist that feels unearned after one viewing but might improve upon rewatching. Let's step back and start from the beginning, though.

While the movie's primary reference is of course A Christmas Story, it opens with a frame story that's almost certainly an homage to The Princess Bride. Oddly, it's one of two streaming Christmas movies to premier Thanksgiving weekend to do so (the other being A Boy Called Christmas). Not sure why that's in the zeitgeist right now, but no complaints: it's a welcome addition to both movies.

At any rate, the storyteller is Jake, played by Neil Patrick Harris in the present and some kid in the past. His daughter is fixated on getting a cell phone for Christmas, a device she's probably old enough to have but Jake seems adamant about denying her for some reason. They're visiting his parents' house for the holidays, which gives him an opportunity to show her his old Nintendo and tell her the story of how he met her mother.

Sorry, wrong NPH project. Obviously, it's the story of how he obtained his Nintendo. Or more accurately, how he didn't, but that's part of the end twist (also, kind of similar to the way How I Met Your Mother wrapped up, assuming I understand the synopsis I skimmed).

The story is set in December of 1988, though the movie is initially cagey as to the exact year. They make it clear Jake's not telling the story exactly the way it happened, both because he doesn't recall everything perfectly and because he doesn't want to admit how dangerous and stupid aspects of his childhood were. It's a clever choice that's both amusing in the moment and provides a setup to justify some obviously over-the-top comedy later (such as casting a 17-year-old to play a middle-school bully).

Like the movie it's inspired by, 8-Bit Christmas's plot is fairly disjointed. It's certainly more focused than A Christmas Story, but can still be broken into a series of chapters representing different mini-stories, both centering around the Nintendo and other factors. There's also a relatively substantial subplot about getting Jake's younger sister a Cabbage Patch Kid, which is what she wants more than anything.

The Nintendo story mostly boils down to three sections: the initial story concerning the neighborhood's infatuation with the gaming system, Jake's attempt to win an NES by selling wreaths, and a sort of heist section where the kids pool resources and clandestinely buy one against their parents' wishes.

All the sections are funny, with the culmination being the highpoint (though anyone squeamish around vomit should approach with caution).

The heist section is satisfying - we get to see all the kids' skills, knowledge, and planning come together, and they almost pull it off. Unfortunately, things go sideways at the last minute, and the newly acquired McGuffin drops under the wheels of a bus and is utterly destroyed.

Because, as I said at the beginning, this isn't actually the story of Jake getting a Nintendo - we find out at the end he earned enough the next summer to buy one - it's the story where his dad surprised him with a tree fort at Christmas, which turned out to be a better gift than the Nintendo would have been. This changed their relationship and kicked off years of Jake and his dad building together, which is particularly significant as we quickly learn that the year he's telling the story is the first Christmas since his father's passing.

And if you're scratching your head as to why I didn't mention Jake's dad earlier...

Okay, here's where things get complicated, because Jake's father had been in the movie throughout. In fact, if you know what to look for, they seeded the idea of the treehouse, its location, and its significance well in advance. On paper, they did the work. Chekhov would be proud.

Emotionally, however, it doesn't click, at least not after one viewing. The movie prioritizes not spoiling the twist, so everything around Jake's dad feels joking, insincere, and lacking weight. In contrast, Jake's relationship with his friends grows and changes as they come together as a team to nearly accomplish something incredibly impressive. You're left feeling like they've formed a lifelong bond.

As a result, the ending feels out of place. Again, maybe that will change on subsequent viewings now that it's clear the father-son relationship is supposed to be relevant, but at this point, the components are technically present but emotionally empty.

Fortunately, that doesn't invalidate the movie's merits. It's still an entertaining, engaging updated take on A Christmas Story that outshines the '83 movie in literally every way imaginable.

That pretty much covers everything important I have to say about this. It does not, however, cover everything I'm going to say, because... well....

Okay, I know none of this next part matters. I know adherence to historical accuracy doesn't mean a damn thing when it comes to discussing whether a movie is good or bad, and people not understanding that is one of several factors killing film criticism.

However, all that being said, this movie was clearly conceived of, greenlit, and marketed on the basis of nostalgia for a very particular era. Specifically, it was made to appeal to people precisely as old as I am, who remember the Cabbage Patch shortages, the appeal of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the pushback against video games, and the '80s in general.

So... knowing that, why is the timeline completely wrong?

While the beginning of the movie is unclear, the ending informs us (thanks to a video recorder) this was specifically set in 1988. The most trivial detail of which concerns the presence of the Power Glove, which wouldn't exist for another year. I can overlook that (hell, I had to look it up), but the rest of the movie is premised on stuff that's more obvious to those of us who lived through it. 

First, the idea Nintendos were rare in 1988 is absurd. Not everyone had one, but you knew multiple people who did. Hell, the Genesis was almost out by then. Also, this is all years after the Cabbage Patch craze. That was early '80s, not late.

Again, this is a side rant, not actual criticism. They did a good job capturing the mystique of early videogaming, even if they were off by a few years. On top of that, the movie does establish at the top this story wasn't entirely accurate - they literally show things changing as Jake adjusts his story - so take everything with a grain of salt. It still feels odd to me they didn't bother making the timeline work: it really wouldn't have been that hard.

I'm kind of torn on how enthusiastically to recommend this. It's definitely good enough to justify watching, but I wouldn't describe it as required viewing or anything. It's fun, well made, and entertaining, but ultimately pretty disposable due to the disconnect between the story and resolution. At least I think it is. This might be one of those movies I come back to in a few years and wonder why I didn't rate it higher.

But for now, let's leave it at "pretty good."