In a world where everyone seems to have an opinion and they’re all too happy to force it upon others, it’s worth remembering that when judging something (be it a book, film or videogame) it all depends on your connection with that particular piece of media. For example, watching a film at the correct time can elevate even the worst pieces of cinematic entertainment. 1989’s The Wizard is (for me at least) one such movie; the timing was perfect as I was just beginning my tempestuous love affair with video gaming and the idea of watching what was essentially an advert for Nintendo products that lasted for over 90 minutes naturally appealed to my 10 year old mind.
Much has been written about how awful this movie is over the past decade or so, and while I’m not going to argue that it’s likely to challenge Citizen Kane in the ‘greatest cinematic achievement’ stakes, I feel the criticism is harsh and unfair. The Wizard, when witnessed with the correct frame of mind, is a hugely enjoyable slice of late ‘80s/early ‘90s entertainment; it’s throwaway stuff in the same way many other family films of the time period tended to be.
NOTE: Potential plot spoilers follow!
The plot is actually pretty deep for this kind of movie. Corey Woods’ (Fred Savage) family is falling apart at the seams. His parents are separated, his father Sam (Beau Bridges) tries hard but is ultimately hopeless at bringing up his kids, he feels detached from his older brother Nick (Christian Slater) and to top it all off his younger half brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) has mental problems related to him witnessing the death of his twin sister, and spends all of his time building towers out of boxes in a mental institution and uttering the word ‘California’ every now and then. In short, life isn’t great.
Corey eventually decides that enough is enough and proceeds to bust his brother out of the mental facility he’s held in and head off to sunny California, which appears to be the object of Jimmy’s obsession. Although there’s no long-term plan beyond that, their paths converge with that of feisty teen runaway Haley, played by Jenny Lewis (who would later go on to find fame in American indie band Kilo Riley).
Corey and Haley are shocked to discover that although he’s something of a damaged individual, Jimmy is a dab hand at videogames, effortlessly beating high scores on a wide range of arcade games (including Double Dragon) as they hitch-hike across America. The kids never seem to question why all of the arcade games they’re pushing quarters into are clearly NES titles, but that’s probably just me being a bit picky.
After using Jimmy’s considerable talent to fleece a few elderly gamers for some easy cash, the gang eventually gets word of an upcoming videogame tournament with a massive cash prize. Sensing that with his freakish skills Jimmy might be in with a good chance of winning said booty and thereby solving all of their collective problems, they make their way to the competition, crossing swords with odious super-geek Lucas Barton along the way.
Lucas is one of the better-known characters from the movie; a spoilt little brat who owns every NES game ever produced and knows them all inside out. He delivers what is arguably the most famous line from the entire movie (“I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad”) without even the slightest hint of irony. Needless to say, it’s classic stuff. I’m sure we all knew a ‘Lucas’ back in the glory days of the NES.
While all this is happening, Jimmy and Corey’s parents are obviously mightily concerned about their missing children. Sam and Nick decide to take matters into their own hands and track the kids down personally, but Corey and Jimmy’s estranged mother opts for a more ‘professional’ approach and employs the services of the malevolent but mercifully accident-prone Putnam, a bounty hunter who specializes in tracking down adolescent runaways. Sam and Nick predictably clash with Putman on several occasions, with predictably hilarious results.
After a series of unfortunate mishaps the wayward trio eventually succeed in making it to the competition but are shocked to discover that after all the nonstop videogame training (which includes endlessly dialing Nintendo’s official helpline for hints and tips – another shameless plug for the company there), the game Jimmy will have to play is Super Mario Bros. 3, a title that (at the time of the film’s release) was not officially available in the US. This is undoubtedly one of the coolest parts of the film, as Nintendo fanatics were seeing for the first time what would go on to become one of the best selling games in the history of the entire industry.
Although the infamous product placement of Nintendo games does become tiresome after a while, it’s a disservice to brand The Wizard overly commercial; the plot is actually quite mature and engaging (for a film aimed at 10 year olds, anyway). It would have been so easy to make Savage’s character the videogame expert, but in opting for Jimmy the creators of the film have made a bold choice; here is someone that has tremendous talent for videogames but tragically can’t openly communicate with others. Hopefully this isn’t an indication of what the filmmakers thought the average gamer was like, although they’re probably quite close.
Another thing that is notable is the involvement of a fresh-faced Christian Slater in one of his early starring roles. Although he doesn’t get a massive amount of screen time as Corey’s brother Nick, his chemistry with the always-brilliant Beau Bridges is one of the high points of the film.
The scene where the dysfunctional father and son duo spend a night sharing a bed in a sleazy motel whilst searching for Corey and Jimmy is particularly funny; having given up on trying to sleep Nick fetches his brother's battered NES console (which is inexplicably contained in the back of their truck) and hooks it up for a late night session of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, much to the displeasure of his father who snidely remarks that not much skill is required to play videogames. The scene fades out and by the time morning comes we see the roles have been hilariously reversed; Nick is fast asleep in bed and his father is frantically hammering the joypad and babbling incoherently about collecting ‘scroll weapons’ and defeating ‘the mega turtle’. It’s probably a scene that both Slater and Bridges would rather forget but it always makes me chuckle uncontrollably whenever I watch it.
Removing my rose-tinted specs for a moment, it’s clear that the passage of time hasn’t been kind to The Wizard; it looks and sounds dated (New Kids on the Block feature on the soundtrack) and the reliance on lots of NES footage only adds to this perception. Still, it ranks as essential viewing for Nintendo fans. Don’t listen to the haters. Not many films can boast that they grant extensive screen time to the Power Glove, can they?
The Wizard has been released on Region 1 DVD and can be purchased here. Go on, you know you want to.
Special thanks go to The Original Wizard Fansite for the screen grabs used in this feature.