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.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses


Mall Santa


           His routine was always the same. Up while it was still dark outside, drinking a mug of hot chocolate and eating a single hard-boiled egg, sometimes with toast. He would read the paper, shaking his head and making a clicking sound. Sometimes a story would move him to tears but most of the time he sat with a stony expression on his bearded face.

            He was an old man, fat and tired. He would get a few stares from those who thought his looks to be Santa-esque, and indeed he played Santa Claus at the Haverford Mall outside of town. There he would sit for hours with lines of children eager to see him.

            Mostly though he was ignored as old men often are. He walked with a wooden cane, his joints aching and his movements stiff. He had no friends that anyone knew about – not that anybody cared enough to inquire. His mail came addressed to George Seaton and that was the name he went by.

            He had played the Santa role from time to time over the years but this year was much different. Where it had been joy to sit with children on his knee, now it seemed dreary and tiresome. Always the same requests, always about me, me, me! The toys they asked for had grown increasingly more expensive; some wanted iPads, some wanted computers, others wanted Nintendos and X-Boxes and Playstations – sometimes all three. They wanted the latest and the greatest and having been bombarded with advertisements on televisions for these treasures he supposed he could hardly blame them but he had a sense about such things – for the most part it was naked greed.

            The era had become defined by greed. He had been a department store Santa during the Second World War; he had become disillusioned by the killing and the cruelty then too but this was the Greatest generation and he had discovered a willingness to sacrifice, and a genuine desire for the war to end. More kids wanted their dads and older brothers to come home than wanted toys. It had given him hope and kept him out of the affairs of the day for more than 70 years.

            George Seaton wasn’t his real name of course. It was the name of a man long dead whose movie he had come to admire. His name was much older and much better known; it suited him to take the name of a forgotten film director as a manner of tribute. The man who directed Miracle on 34th Street should not be forgotten.

            He had made the mistake of using his own name back in 1942. It had led to a brouhaha that screenwriter Valentine Davis had heard about from a friend in the New York attorney general’s office; the affair had been kept quiet but had inspired Davis to write the story that would become the film. He’d wound up swearing he wouldn’t do that again.

            Now he felt the same kind of shame as greed had taken the world over. People had become so self-centered and so all about their own needs that they had forgotten that they share the world with others. They had forgotten that they were merely there for a short while, caretakers of a planet that didn’t belong to them but that they were at best temporary residents of. He had seen the signs and decided to do what he had done once before back in 1942 – to determine whether the world was still worthy of him.

            It wasn’t that he thought so highly of himself, but he knew what his gift was to the world; the gift of joy, the gift of hope. However, if his despair continued he would fade into nothingness and the world would be without him permanently. At least this way he could simply lie down and sleep, waiting for the people of the world to grow up – or disappear entirely.

            He had been charged with a terrible burden years ago – to be the embodiment of the Christmas spirit. At least, it wasn’t a burden back then. It had been an honor and his great joy. The smiles and the genuine gratefulness had made it worthwhile. He never for one moment forgot why he was doing what he did, and why it was important that he did it.

            But now it was different. The requests for gifts had become demands and if the children didn’t get what they wanted they went from being disappointed to being downright angry. The parents were little better. They spent the year fobbing off parental responsibilities on teachers, coaches, day care centers and activities and when they did have the kids at home they tended to ignore them, telling their kids to go play or sit them down with a DVD or a videogame while they themselves surfed the web. No wonder the children had changed.

            He hadn’t and he wondered as he trudged to work if perhaps he was no better than a dinosaur, a being who had outlived his usefulness to the world. Perhaps Christmas was dead after all.

            It was Christmas eve and so far he hadn’t found a single child that had given him any hope for the future, only more of the same greed and egotistical self-centeredness that infected the world. As he put on his suit and the bored temp workers who played his elves put on theirs he felt like he was merely going through the motions. He already knew in his heart his quest was futile. He would take his leave this night and Santa Claus would be gone from the world, possibly forever. He wished he could shed a tear over the enormity of that, but he suspected he wouldn’t be missed much.

            He sat down on his wooden chair that was supposed to be his throne – as if he would ever need a throne. Back at home he had only chairs. Still he waited patiently as each child climbed on his knee, whispered in his ear all the toys and games they wanted and a picture was snapped. Some would hug him, usually at their mother’s directions but the hugs were never genuine.

            Some were shy but once they started listing their toys the greed would take over. It was monotonous, different children but listing the same toys over and over again. A new Barbie doll. The latest videogame. Action figures and Transformers and Superheroes and radio-controlled helicopters. It wasn’t even lunchtime and he wanted nothing more than to leave.

            After lunch it grew much worse. The shoppers knew the mall would be closing early as people moved on from shopping for presents to wrapping them and the line was large and the moms frantic. An air of desperation had taken over as people shopped for last minute gifts. There was no sense of joy but of obligation only. He wanted to scream.

            At last the line began to dwindle as the hour grew short. One more child was left, one more list to listen to and he would leave; not returning to the meager apartment where George Seaton lived but back to the ether of oblivion, where he would stay, slumbering until he was required again – which might never happen as far as he could tell. The human race was getting worse, not better and had refused to grow into wisdom and maturity as a species. It was all so very depressing.

            The kid scrambled into his lap, a tow-headed boy with blue eyes which were strangely calm. Many of the eyes that stared back at him were eager, or shy. Not so this one. His helper elf, a pretty young high school girl wearing the too-short elf skirt introduced the boy as Jason Christopher. The boy wore a pair of blue jeans, store-brand sneakers and a red sweater with a snowflake pattern in white.

            The old man had always been able to tell instantly if the kids had been good and he knew at once this one had been better than nearly every kid he had sat with. His chuckle, so fake all season long, was genuine as he asked Jason what he wanted.

            The boy looked at him and said “I don’t know if you can give me what I really want.” The kid looked about ten years old but sounded much older than that. The old man smiled and said “Well why don’t you tell Santa what you really want and I’ll see what I can do.” The kid shook his head gently as if he were talking to a very young child. “I don’t think you can do anything but I’ll tell you anyway.”

            The boy paused as if weighing his words carefully and the man who was Santa Claus suddenly grew nervous himself. The fate of Christmas rode on this one boy and he didn’t even know it, but the man did and he was frightened all of a sudden, terrified that something so wonderful and magic might leave the world forever.

            The boy spoke. “I want peace.” The man in the Santa suit frowned. “You mean an end to the war?” he asked the boy. The boy shook his head impatiently. “An end to all war,” he said with a sad smile. He then continued, the words coming out in a torrent. “I want peace in every heart so that people don’t want more than they need. I want people to think of others before they think of themselves and to stop being so mean to one another. I want us to clean up the world so that we still have a good planet to live on. I want peace.”

            The boy looked down, almost embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I know that’s too much but I just want everyone to be happy and it seems so few are.” The man was speechless for a moment but at last he spoke. “You’re right, young man, few people are happy nowadays and perhaps they might be if they weren’t so involved with themselves. I wish more people had your wisdom.”

            The boy smiled at him and said “I wish more people were like you, Santa.” and the man realized that the boy didn’t think he was Santa he knew he was and a great joy took his heart. Perhaps there was hope after all. “I can’t give you what you want, Jason. People have to give that to you for themselves but I can tell you that you can lead by example. Carry the spirit of giving in your heart all year round and perhaps you can make a difference. I could use the help.”

            The boy nodded and impulsively through his arms around Santa. The man held him tight and after a few moments the boy hopped off of his lap and disappeared with his mother into the dwindling crowd.

            The intercom crackled. “The mall is closing so that our employees might spend Christmas Eve with their families. All customers please complete your purchases and make your way to the exits. On behalf of the Haverford Mall we’d like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and thank you for shopping at the Haverford Mall.”

            Soon the mall had emptied out and Santa and his elves went back to the changing room to get out of their outfits. He put on his clothes and walked out into the evening. “Hey Santa!” and he turned around to see the young girl who had been his lead elf. She wore a pair of jeans and a nice Christmas sweater and without all the elf make-up looked quite pretty. She walked up to him quickly and gave him a hug. “That last kid was something special wasn’t he?” Santa nodded. “He was one of a kind, Sarah.”

            She smiled at him. “My family always has Christmas eve dinner together. You’re welcome to join us…if you don’t have somewhere else to go.” He beamed at the young girl. “Thank you very much for the offer and I might take you up on that sometime…but I’ll be very busy tonight.”

            Impulsively she gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll bet you are…Santa. I hope I see you again next year.” He smiled and nodded and she walked away, whistling “Away in a Manger.”

            He walked out of the empty parking lot but nobody saw where he went. He had, after all, a lot of work to do.