Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Heath Holland On...The Wizard

by Heath Holland
What do you get when you combine Fred Savage, a story about the loss of a sibling, a road trip, and a butt-load of Nintendo game references? You either get the weirdest episode of The Wonder Years EVER, or you get 1989’s The Wizard.

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.
For me, director Todd Holland’s (no relation to yours truly, as far as I know) film came along at just the right time and packed SO MANY things that were breaking out in pop culture into a relatively unique package; most everything this movie does is taken from another, better movie, but it’s combined in a really charming way and targeted at an audience that hadn’t really seen anything like this before. Fred Savage was a burgeoning star, coming off the success of The Princess Bride and the hit TV show The Wonder Years. “What would you do/if I sang out of tune/would you stand up and take your little brother to California for a video game competition on me?” Christian Slater had done 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.
I love the road trip aspect of this movie. I’m always a sucker for that sort of thing, and there are lots of shots that feature the desert landscapes of Nevada and California. We get to see tons of Americana as these kids travel the road, and the film even shoots its climax at the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a southern California landmark that you might recognize from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. These locations and sights give the movie a ton of production value and add scope to that sense of adventure I was talking about. You really feel like they’ve gone on a journey and are far outside of what is safe and familiar. Plus, I have to give a shout-out to the soundtrack, which is both dated and awesome. It has not one but TWO New Kids on the Block songs, two songs from The BoDeans, and “Send Me an Angel ‘89”, by Real Life. Pretty eclectic stuff, but it really works in the movie.

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.
So about those accusations of commercialism…it’s true, all of it…the Dark Side…a Jedi…sorry, I went somewhere else. Yeah, this movie really, really, really wants you to buy Nintendo stuff. There are clips from a bunch of classic NES games, like Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Rad Racer It’s absolutely Nintendo porn in the dirtiest way, but I don’t even care because I’m so on board. They even find a way to shill Nintendo’s Power Glove, a really cool looking (but mostly useless) glove that you could wear that also served as a controller. I never actually knew anyone who owned a Power Glove, but we kids thought it was the greatest LOOKING thing ever. It seemed like something out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and the kid wearing it in this movie is a total p-i-m-p. As if the shameless Nintendo product placement wasn’t enough, this is a Universal movie, so the third act actually takes place at Universal Studios Hollywood. They film in the park! Frankenstein is in a scene, and so is the entire climax of the King Kong ride. Kids, remember to tell your parents to buy you Nintendo games and take you to Universal Studios for vacation. If you don’t, your sibling could die!

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 was made on the cheap and had a relatively modest theatrical run and brief life on video before slipping into obscurity. This is understandable, especially since that original Nintendo had became really dated by 1991 or 1992 and its core audience had moved on to the Super Nintendo and eventually Playstation and Xbox. It’s natural that something so steeped in the promotion of a dead video game system could only have limited appeal for a mainstream audience, but lately things have started to turn around. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a Retro Movement that’s slowly growing as people rediscover the joy found in the popular entertainment of times now gone. This film is being rediscovered and gaining new fans as it slowly turns into a cult classic. Now it’s a reminder of a time before everything was laced with irony, before the Internet, when arcades were still around, games were in their golden age, and kids could still strike out on the highway for parts unknown, even though they didn’t have cell phones or GPS. It’s weird to look back on this movie and see how far we’ve come in the 26 years since it was released. We’re in a very different place than we were in 1989, but the world represented in The Wizard feels like the world I grew up in, and sometimes I wish I could go back. I suppose I can, whenever I watch The Wizard.

The Wizard is available in on DVD via Amazon and in high definition on iTunes.


  1. This is why I love F This Movie so much. It's the willingness to highlight gems like The Wizard, probably my favorite nostalgic guilty pleasure that I own. I know that it's nothing but a giant, glorified Nintendo commercial, but damnit if I don't love it for the way it makes me feel and the glory days of my childhood and countless hours playing the NES that if allows me to relive...even if the Power Glove was "bad." Great work, Heath! I appreciate your writing about this!

  2. This early morning nostalgia megadose may impact my ability to function the rest of the day. Great article Heath. I'd like to think that in addition to being a big Power Glove ad, The Wizard helped the critical thinking skills of an entire generation of kids. I mean, we had to sort through the cognitive dissonance of experiencing this film and then actually playing with a Power Glove.