1980s nostalgia is nowhere near enough to keep this project afloat.
To quote Mystery Science Theater 3000, “It’s the 80s! Do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reagan!”
Yes, it’s time for another modern Hollywood movie obsessed with the 1980s. 8-Bit Christmas, arriving on the heels of everything from Ready Player One to the first It, doesn’t just feel late to the party. The party’s been over for hours, even the clean-up crew has gone home. The jokes about leg warmers and Flashdance have been done to death. There are no more gags to be mined from this era, especially if you’re just going to reference the same few safe pop culture touchstones all these movies nod to.
But here we are again, another feature-length commercial for the 1980s, this time with a Christmas twist. The endless homages begin right away with grown man Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) deciding to tell his cell phone obsessed daughter about a Yuletide childhood memory from 1988. This framing device is a clear tribute to the same one from The Princess Bride. That older film, though, didn’t feel the need to have Fred Savage constantly talk about how awesome the story he was listening to was. It had enough confidence in its story to not feel like it needed to have characters pat its screenplay on the back.
Most of the film takes place in the past when younger Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) wants nothing more for Christmas than a Nintendo Entertainment System. However, his parents (June Diane Raphael and Steve Zahn) are convinced video games will turn a child’s brain to mush. If you’ve seen A Christmas Story, then you know what happens. Doyle’s going to do anything to get his dream gift. Nobody, not even controlling parents or anti-video game protestors, will get in his way.
Director Michale Dowse and screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski would like to have their cake and eat it too with 8-Bit Christmas. On the one hand, this is as much a commercial for old Nintendo products as The Internship was an ad for Google. Doyle talks in voice-over about the unbelievable coolness and sleekness of this video game console. Only the Power Glove gets treated with anything less than the rhetoric you’d find in an old issue of Nintendo Power. This movie loves objects from the 80s it can mine for some quick doses of nostalgia.
This materialism gets juxtaposed against a plot that ends up imparting a moral about not defining Christmas by objects, and also wagging a finger at kids today being so fixated on their phones. There’s a tug-of-war at play in Jakubowski’s writing that never gets reconciled. 8-Bit Christmas both wants to revel in, and condemn being obsessed with presents. Going one way or the other fully wouldn’t have turned this into the next Elf. However, it would have made the proceedings more cohesive, or at least less irritatingly hypocritical.
The rare moments of fun here come when Jakubowski and Dowse lean on the idea that we’re not watching a recreation of the 80s but rather a vision of it that can be altered at will. A handful of gags inspire a chuckle by having Doyle adjust details (like how he didn’t wear a helmet when biking) on the fly to make it appropriate for his 21st-century daughter. A few other darker comic details, like a poem from a Vietnam veteran entitled “A Tie is Not a Loss,” also wring smiles from the viewer by intruding on the otherwise rose-colored view of this era.
Unfortunately, those details are the lone inspired parts of 8-Bit Christmas. The rest of the proceedings aren’t painful to watch, but it’s just the kind of movie that ABC Family’s Days of Christmas programming line-up would’ve relegated to early morning airtime alongside Jack Frost. It’s all so forgettable and just doesn’t have anything to offer beyond acknowledging that various pieces of pop culture from the 1980s did indeed exist. Christmas movies have often been in touch with cinema of the past, but they don’t work if they can’t function for present-day moviegoers.
8-Bit Christmas both wants to revel in, and condemn being obsessed with presents.
It’s downright puzzling to figure out who the movie is aimed at. Modern-day kids should be the prime demo given the project’s PG-rating. This demographic, though, will be bored by an overlong comedy built exclusively on nods to pop culture properties they only have fleeting knowledge of. Meanwhile, adults who may have liked past Dowse comedies like Goon will be disappointed by the lack of memorable gags. If you’re a die-hard fan of David Cross, maybe you’ll get a kick out of his brief presence in the feature. Otherwise, 8-Bit Christmas aims to be a crowdpleaser for all but never manages to appeal to anyone.
The generic nature of the proceedings lets down a cast that could’ve easily injected some personality into 8-Bit Christmas. Steve Zahn is especially wasted as Doyle’s father, with the role never giving this actor a chance to utilize his greatest skills as a performer. Meanwhile, Neil Patrick Harris has a pleasant enough voice to serve as a narrator, but it’s shocking how little distinctive personality he lends his role. Not all of Harris’s performances have been perfect, but he’s never faded into the background quite like this before.
The epitome of how much 8-Bit Christmas misses the mark comes in its final ten minutes when it decides it wants to be a schmaltzy father/son story. It’s a baffling turn considering how little set-up there’s been for this dynamic in the preceding screentime. But the script and performances play everything straight, with the final five minutes being devoid of even attempts at gags as a result. If there’s an upside to this forgettable stab at poignancy, it’s that it’ll make you appreciate the ways better Christmas movies effectively tugged at your heartstrings. You can’t just turn on some festive lights and sad music and expect us all to reach for the Kleenex.
Or maybe this ending will just make you want to turn on the Hobgoblins episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now that’s how you do pop culture references to the 1980s properly!
8-Bit Christmas is now playing on HBO Max.