8-Bit Christmas

NPH: Home for the holidays.

(2021) Holiday Comedy (HBO Max) Neil Patrick Harris, Winslow Fegley, Steve Zahn, June Diane Raphael, Bellaluna Resnick, Sophia Reid-Gantzert, Che Tafari, Santino Barnard, Max Malas, Brielle Rankins, Braelyn Rankins, Cyrus Arnold, Chandler Dean, Jacob Laval, Katia Smith, Tom Rooney, David Cross, Kathryn Greenwood, Louise Nicol, Erica Levene, David MacInnis, Monica Dottor. Directed by Michael Dowse

At this time of year, the airwaves – or to be more precise, the streaming services – are flooded with Christmas themed movies, the bulk of them rom-coms with nearly identical plots about how the magic of Christmas serves as a kind of love potion. There are so many of them this year that Cinema365 chose not to list any of them in the Coming Soon preview section. If you want to see one, you won’t have far to look and one is pretty much just like the others.

To be dead honest, making a good, original Christmas movie is truly hard. Walking the line between genuine sentiment and overwrought treacle is tricky at best, and most movies seem to fall off the line into a vat of maudlin faux emotion that leaves you feeling like you just binged on a big bag of Sugar Babies. Some movies, though, manage to avoid that fate. Is this one of them?

Jake Doyle (Harris) is a single dad taking his young daughter Lizzy (Resnick) to his childhood home for the holidays. There is some tension between the two; Lizzy wants a new cell phone for Christmas, but Jake isn’t keen on getting her one. When they get to grandmother’s house (having gone over the river and through the woods), they find nobody home. Jake finds his old Nintendo Entertainment System in his bedroom and invites Lizzy to play a few games with him. Lizzy is about as enthusiastic as you would imagine any modern kid would be to play a game system that is thirty years obsolete. Jake offers to tell her the story of how he met her mother….oh, not quite right…how he acquired his Nintendo.

Young Jake (Fegley) wants a Nintendo more than anything at Christmastime 1988. Only one kid in the neighborhood has one – spoiled rich kid Timmy Keane (Dean) who chooses ten kids from the horde gathered outside his home to come in and play…or, more to the point, watch HIM play. Jake and his friends Mikey Trotter (Tafari), twins Tammy and Teddy Hodges (the Rankins twins), uptight Evan (Barnard) and pathological liar Farmer (Malas) whom nobody really likes but who hangs around anyway, are all eager to get a Nintendo of their own and free themselves of the tyranny of Timmy. A tragic accident involving a Power Glove and the Keane family dog leads Timmy’s mom and dad to embark on a crusade to ban the gaming system, making Jake’s quest even more difficult.

\He tries to cajole his parents – John (Zahn) and Kathy (Raphael) to buy him one for Christmas but they’re not having it. Mom is extremely budget-minded, constantly looking for bargains no matter how they end up causing Jake all sorts of torture, like the girl’s boots she buys him to wear because they were on sale. Jake is also trying to avoid the school bully Josh Jagorski (Arnold) who takes particular delight in torturing Jake.

Every scheme that Jake comes up to get a Nintendo ends up in disaster and with the big day looming, Jake starts to become desperate. How far will Jake go to get his hands on a Nintendo? Will he find success or disappointment? Will his father and mother ever figure out how much this game system means to him? The answer might surprise you a bit.

Most who read the plot synopsis and have a fair amount of film knowledge might see distinct similarities in plot to the Bob Clark 1983 classic A Christmas Story, substituting only the era and the object of the main character’s desire – at least nobody is lecturing Jake that he’ll put an eye out with his Nintendo. However, his parents (particularly his dad) have their own preconceptions of the damage a Nintendo would do to their son. They were, perhaps, not far wrong.

The juvenile actors are actually okay for the most part; at least they aren’t wooden, or worse – act like they’re acting. The late 80s are captured fairly well, although there are a few details that are missing; why are no kids watching either Nickelodeon or MTV? Also the fashions and hair styles don’t scream the era. And yes, while the movie was shot in Toronto, it was supposed to be set in Chicago and to be quite honest, doesn’t have the feel of the Windy City, which is one of the things that made the films of John Hughes such a delight.

I hadn’t expected to like this much, particularly since the plot was seemingly so derivative but something very odd happened; the more I watched the movie, the more I got into it and the more I was captured by its spell. By the end of the movie, I was actually quite misty-eyed and that’s quite a feat when you consider how jaded I am about Christmas movies. This is one of the better ones to come down the pike in recent years and if you have a subscription to HBO Max and have a yen to watch a holiday film, this should be near the top of your list.

REASONS TO SEE: Harris and Zahn are welcome additions to any movie. Grows on you to the point where you might be misty-eyed by the end.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit been-there, done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is mild profanity, rude humor and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is written by veteran writer Kevin Jakubowski, based on his own debut novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses

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