Director: Todd Holland
I'll be the first one to admit that I'm a child of the '80s. And growing up in the era before Microsoft and Sony dominated the video game market, there was nothing cooler than the Nintendo Entertainment System. The little black-and-gray box that revitalized the sagging video game industry when it hit North American stores in 1985 was a source of hours of fun for my generation. Its popularity knew no bounds, to the point that many people (the ones I knew, anyway) began referring to video games on any console as "Nintendo games." By the end of the '80s, the Nintendo name had branched out into cartoons, breakfast cereals, and all kinds of other merchandise. But perhaps the most bizarre thing affiliated with the house Super Mario built was a 1989 film titled The Wizard. With a story that's an odd amalgam of Rain Man and The Who's rock opera Tommy, The Wizard features so much product placement from Nintendo that it might as well be titled Please Buy Our Stuff: The Nintendo Movie. The giant Nintendo flag that The Wizard flies does give it a certain charm, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good movie.
Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) is a little boy with a big ol' bucket of issues. The emotional and psychological trauma he suffered after watching his beloved twin sister drown two years earlier has caused him to develop a mental disorder similar to autism, rendering him virtually catatonic. Perpetually clutching a little metal lunchbox for reasons unbeknownst to his loved ones, he has become obsessed with California to the point that not only does the state's name comprise the bulk of his vocabulary, but he's made a pretty annoying habit out of trying to run away to California.
The poor kid's worsening condition has actually led to the fracturing of his family. Jimmy, who lives with his mother and scumbag stepfather (Wendy Phillips and Sam McMurray), has little to no contact with his half-brothers Corey (Fred Savage) and Nick (Christian Slater), who live with their father Sam (Beau Bridges). When Jimmy's mother and stepfather have Jimmy put in an institution rather than deal with his odd behavior themselves, Corey is the only one to respond to the news with righteous indignation. He breaks Jimmy out of the institution, and the two runaways hit the road for the Golden State. And hot on their trails is Sam and Nick, as well as a rather sleazy fellow by the name of Putnam (Will Seltzer), a bounty hunter hired by Jimmy's mother and stepfather to bring him in by any means necessary. And when I say this guy is sleazy, I mean it. He's more weasel than man.
While embarking upon their trek, Corey and Jimmy cross paths with Haley Brooks (Jenny Lewis), a free-spirited adolescent con artist who herself is hitchhiking towards the bright lights of Reno. But after Jimmy posts an incredible high score at a bus stop's arcade, Corey and Haley realize that they're in the presence of a gaming prodigy and immediately change their plans. They pool what meager resources they have and start hitchhiking across the country to Los Angeles, the location of a high-stakes video game tournament with a grand prize of 50,000 dollars. But to get there, the three runaways will have to stay one step ahead of those who wish to end their adventure while butting heads with Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), a Power Glove-wielding punk that has mastered the fine art of all things Nintendo. Though no matter what obstacles stand in their way, the trio remain undaunted in their quest to enter Jimmy in the tournament and prove that he doesn't belong in an institution.
If you've seen it, then you know that The Wizard is a weird movie. And to tell you the truth, it's easily one of the most preposterous pieces of cinema that I've ever seen. Maybe the fact that I'm reviewing the movie after watching it as an adult in 2007, instead of as a kid circa 1989, is screwing with my perception. If I was currently within the proper demographic for The Wizard, this review would be, "Dude, this movie is awesome! Nintendo is awesome! Universal Studios Hollywood is awesome! The Power Glove is awesome! The whole flippin' thing is awesome! Wheeeeeee!" But now, I'm all, "Dude, those three kids are gonna get kidnapped and molested and killed and molested again and buried in a shallow grave somewhere. This isn't going to end well at all." I mean, when you start realistically thinking about the idea of three kids hitchhiking from Utah to California, the movie becomes more and more illogical. (That's the thing about adulthood; you develop the ability to discern the weirder, more unsettling subtexts of movies intended for younger audiences.) But then I remember that it's a family movie that is essentially a gigantic commercial for Nintendo, with references to and blatant placement for Hostess, Dairy Queen, Frosted Flakes, Universal Studios Hollywood, 7-Eleven, Pepsi, Cosmopolitan magazine, Hollywood Squares, and the city of Reno, Nevada. So yeah, it'll have a happy ending and nothing bad is going to happen to anybody but the villains. I was seven years old when the movie came out, so I probably would have been better off reviewing it then.
But seriously, the movie has Nintendo's fingerprints all over it. Nintendo's best sellers at the time famous titles such as Double Dragon, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Metroid, Super Mario Brothers 2, and Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest are all shown or referenced, the Power Glove is lauded like it's the holy grail, and the movie's grand finale might as well be footage of a giant neon sign advising viewers to go purchase Super Mario Brothers 3, which was released two months after The Wizard hit theaters. Even the movie's catering was done by a company called Mario's Catering. Watch the closing credits if you don't believe me. The only thing from the late-'80s Nintendo catalog that's missing is the "Rob the Robot" accessory. And if you're the kind to partake in such, why not turn The Wizard into a drinking game? Here's the rules: take a shot every time Jimmy says "California" in that spaced-out little voice of his, and another shot whenever there's some form of product placement for a product or company that isn't Nintendo. I would say to take a shot every time you see or hear a Nintendo reference, but then you'll have died of alcohol poisoning by the end of the movie.
The Wizard may be a mediocre movie that time may not have been kind to, but it is a hard movie to hate. Even if you're less than impressed, I doubt you'll come away calling it the worst movie you've ever seen. Part of the reason why is the direction by Todd Holland. Though he and cinematographer Robert Yeoman film the movie with all the production value of a cheap made-for-television movie, they still manage to bring forth a certain liveliness that improves the movie's quality. Nobody is ever going to accuse Holland's work here of deserving any awards, but it's definitely serviceable. My only real problem is the number of bloopers, especially involving the games. A lot of them aren't really going to matter if you aren't too familiar with the games, nor do they really take away from the movie, but some of them are so obvious that it's a bit distracting. I'm not really going to get too in depth about the bloopers, since you can easily find a list of them via a search on Google or IMDB. But you'd think a movie intended to sell you video games would have a little more accuracy in regards to those games.
Another part of the charm comes from the script penned by David Chisholm. I've said a few times in the review already that The Wizard is a 100-minute commercial for the Nintendo Entertainment System, with product placement to the point that nearly becomes Nintendo-sponsored propaganda. But that's not the only thing the movie has going for it. It also has an absolutely ridiculous plot that's crammed chock full of the schlockiest melodrama this side of the Lifetime Channel. The plot is way too sappy and contrived, while Chisholm has written goofy dialogue ("I love the Power Glove. It's so bad.") and scenes that make little to no sense (how can Corey and Haley give Jimmy advice on how to play Super Mario Brothers 3 when none of them knew the game existed prior to the contest?), and has a plot that seems mostly cribbed from other, better movies. And let's not forget the underage cigarette girl pitching trays full of candy during the sequence in Reno. Throw in the fact that the Nintendo stuff horribly dates things, and you've got a movie that doesn't really sound all that good. But somehow, despite being material that isn't all that strong, it's actually fun in a kitschy kind of way. Plus all the Nintendo stuff that gets worked into the story makes it a fun look back at an innocent time when everybody was a gamer, not just nerds.
But perhaps the most charming element of all is the cast. The highlight would have to be Fred Savage, who was more than likely cast due to the success of The Wonder Years. He does turn in a decent, likeable performance, really overcoming the flaws in the material. Jenny Lewis is also quite fun as the feisty counterbalance to Savage's character, the silliness to his seriousness. And then there's Luke Edwards, the final member of our team of three. Practically nothing is asked of him, and he spends the movie playing a character that, for the most part, doesn't really do anything at all besides sit in front of arcade machines. It's almost like someone told him to imitate Judith O'Dea's performance in the original Night of the Living Dead. If he wasn't a necessary part of the story, you'd almost forget he was there. Christian Slater and Beau Bridges are also really good, but they're both better than the material. Lastly are Will Seltzer and Jackey Vinson as the slimy bounty hunter and cocky gaming whiz, playing their characters as so unlikable that they make you want to jump into the movie and pelt them with assorted fruits and vegetables.
I don't believe anyone who's seen it will argue that The Wizard is a work of art. But it's just too silly to not enjoy at least a little bit. And while the younger gamers that only really know the PlayStation and the Xbox won't get what makes The Wizard so fun, it's a thoroughly fun look back at why kids my age had it so well as the '80s came to a close. With Nintendo everywhere, a last act featuring a chase through Universal Studios Hollywood, two New Kids on the Block songs on the soundtrack, and a young, mullet-sporting Tobey Maguire in a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo, The Wizard has earned its cult status among lovers of the '80s retro movement. It's not great, it's barely good, but it is most certainly engaging and, frankly, a real guilty pleasure. So I'll give it two and a half stars, and a recommendation to those who wish to wax nostalgic about the Big N's glory days. Go check it out.
Final Rating: **½