Oh, The Wizard, you’re such a quirky, obnoxious, sweet movie. Often accused of being nothing more than a shameless, feature-length Nintendo commercial (it is), The Wizard actually has a really lovely story about family at its center. Jimmy (Luke Edwards) saw his sister drown and now doesn’t speak or function on a normal social level. Jimmy’s parents (Beau Bridges and Wendy Phillips) have split up, and his older brothers Corey (Fred Savage) and Nick (Christian Slater) have grown increasingly frustrated and isolated from each other. The family is broken, but no one knows how to fix it because no one wants to look at what’s wrong. Corey is concerned about the decision their mom has made to place Jimmy in a mental institution, so he convinces his lil’ brother to run away with him to California. Along the way, they discover Jimmy’s hidden talent as a video game savant, run into a young drifter named Haley (Jenny Lewis), and change their plans to enter Jimmy into “Video Armageddon,” a national video game championship. The rest of the family is hot on their heels, but so is a douche bag named Putnam (Will Seltzer) who is essentially a bounty hunter that brings back lost or runaway children by any means necessary.
Heathers the year before, and was on the cusp of becoming a household name. Jenny Lewis—the future singer of the band Rilo Kiley--had been in a ton of television guest spots, and was now given a real chance to shine in a major role. The biggest star of the film is undoubtedly a young sensation named NINTENDO. By this time, Nintendo was the absolute king of video games and Mario was on everything from lunch boxes to magazines to the television with his own cartoon. My friends and I spent most of our time talking about the latest Nintendo games and who had beat what level, studying maps, and trading cartridges back and forth. In 1989, this movie was as cool as cool could be.
I really loved this movie back then, but I can’t remember seeing it at all between the time of its release and adulthood. I’ve always had the warm fuzzies for it, but we all know it can be tricky to revisit movies you loved when you were a kid but haven’t seen in decades. This review doesn’t come solely from a place of nostalgia, as I was able to revisit it as an adult with fresh, open eyes and give it a fair shake. What struck me first and foremost is that the story is basically Rain Man for kids. I mean, think about it: you have the death of a family member, one brother escorting another brother on a road trip into the west, and a mentally handicapped savant with an uncanny ability that stems from his condition and which can be exploited for hustling unsuspecting players. Someone went to see Rain Man in 1988 and suddenly had an idea for a great family film, probably the screenwriter, David Chisholm. This is his only theatrically released screenplay.
Similarities to Rain Man aside, The Wizard does some things that I give it a lot of credit for. It places these children in real peril and allows them to truly experience independence. They sleep in the hollowed remains of an old 18-wheeler, hitch rides with motorcycle gangs, and hustle the craps tables in Reno. Through it all, you feel like something bad could happen at any moment. This is a film that lets a little girl drown and then deals with the fallout and emotional wreckage of that loss. The movie doesn’t talk down to the audience or the child actors in the movie, and therefore gives that audience a sense of ownership and power. That’s why movies like The Goonies resonated with so many of us, even though they’re not technically great films. They allowed us to have an adventure with real stakes and real danger. They trusted us, and we could tell that they weren’t patronizing us. They let us into a larger, more exciting world and didn’t hold our hand too tightly.
The performances are mixed, but mostly good. Fred Savage is doing that thing that Fred Savage always does, which is act like a forty year old man in the body of a kid and get exasperated a lot. Sometimes he says dirty words with the conviction of seasoned stock broker. Other times he does that thing where he makes his scalp move a fraction of an inch. Luke Edwards is fine as Jimmy, though there’s not a lot for him to do because the character doesn’t really talk and mostly just stares into the middle distance. The real standouts for me are Christian Slater and Jenny Lewis. First, I’ve always thought Christian Slater was cool and I’ve always been really jealous of his hair. Here he get also gets to deliver a performance as a guy that’s worried about his family but also really damaged by that family. He wants to bond with his dad and be able to talk to him, but that’s not really who his dad is. This isn’t The Waltons, but I suppose that’s a good thing because no one can relate to The Waltons. Meanwhile, Jenny Lewis is pretty fantastic here. Even though she’s only a kid, she’s a strong female presence who is more than just a foil for the male characters. She has secrets as well as a fair measure of depth, and her character in the movie actually has more power and guile than anyone else, including the adults. There’s so much going on with her character, so much hinted about her past that we can only guess about, and so much potential about where she can go. There should be more characters in movies like the one Jenny Lewis plays here.
I have to shout out a scene where Christian Slater wakes up in the middle of the night to find his dad playing his Nintendo, and I swear it’s one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like watching someone have a seizure. I was looking around for a spoon to stick in Beau Bridges’ mouth so he didn’t swallow his tongue. The guy had clearly never touched a Nintendo controller in his life, which is fine, but maybe he could have tried as part of his research for the role? That is, unless Todd Holland’s direction was “BEES! They’re all over you!” There’s another scene where a truck driver is behind the wheel of his big rig, and if he were really on the road, everyone within a mile would be dead. It’s the worst “driving acting” I’ve ever seen.
I remember specific conversations I had with my friends about this movie and the big reveal at the end when Jimmy gets to play Super Mario Bros. 3. In case you weren’t there or you don’t remember, there was a big chip shortage in the late ‘80s which slowed down production of Nintendo games and ultimately delayed Super Mario Bros. 3 from 1989 to 1990 in America. We all knew it was coming, we’d heard it was going to be the best game ever, and we couldn’t wait to get our hands on it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, someone told Nintendo that it would be a good idea for them to do some product placement of the game so that they could build hype for it, therefore The Wizard culminates with three finalists playing this highly-anticipated game that no one in America had ever laid a finger on! This takes place on absolutely massive screens about the size of those at a movie theater. You couldn’t ask for a bigger reveal for a game, and it was amazing. Subsequently, when Super Mario Bros. 3 did debut in February of 1990, it immediately became one of Nintendo’s biggest successes. To this day, the game is revered as one of the highest points of gaming ever, and I think The Wizard has at least something to do with that.
The Wizard is available in on DVD via Amazon and in high definition on iTunes.