The fantastically nostalgic, consistently funny, mischief-laden and genuinely touching “8-Bit Christmas” (now on HBO Max) reminds me of “A Christmas Story” — with a touch of the storytelling device employed in “A Princess Bride.”
As a generic radio-announcer voice says, “Good morning, Chicago, the big question for Santa is can he handle the Chicago weather?”, our story kicks off in present day, with the amiable Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) and his daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) making the trek to the Batavia house where Jake grew up. As they await the arrival of the rest of the family and Annie complains about not getting a smartphone for Christmas, Jake shows her the clunky, bulky, old-timey Nintendo Home Entertainment System from his youth and begins to spin the tale of how he came to acquire that prized possession against all odds.
“The year was 1987, or was it ’88?” says Dad, and off we go to the late 1980s, a time when fifth-grader Jake (Winslow Fegley) and his lovable, diverse, rag-tag collection of buddies are toting their Trapper Keepers to Mary Todd Lincoln Elementary School while the sounds of “Obsession” by Animotion set the tone for the times. Jake and his pals have to contend with a gigantic bully named Josh Jagorski (Cyrus Arnold), who looks like a middle school version of Andre the Giant; a spoiled rich kid named Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean), who has the ultimate basement and allows only a chosen few inside every day, and a group of parents who believe video games are the devil’s work — but nothing will stop them from hatching the ultimate plan to obtain the Holy Grail of home entertainment.
June Diane Raphael has impeccable comic timing as Jake’s mom, Kathy. (When told the milk in the fridge has expired, she says, “No, that’s a suggestion, it’s fine.”) Steve Zahn is perfectly cast as Jake’s dad, John, who is forever working on home improvement projects even though he’s borderline incompetent with tools in his hand. Mostly, though, this is the story of Jake and his friends, who think getting a Nintendo will be the most cherished memory of their young lives when they’re making the REAL lasting memories just by hanging out with one another. The 1980s! What a time.