Ever since 1989 I have been curious what the deal is with this “THE WIZARD” Nintendosploitation movie starring Fred Savage. But back then I was pretty busy having Batmania, so I remember I said “I better wait for Shout Factory to release a remastered 2-disc collector’s edition Blu-Ray.” And now that day has come.
The movie opens with Jimmy (Luke Edwards, I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN, NEWSIES, LITTLE BIG LEAGUE, JEEPERS CREEPERS 2), a seemingly autistic boy, walking along a desert highway. He must’ve been walking for a while, because there’s a small plane looking for him. When a cop comes and gets him, all the poor kid will say is “California.”
His motives are mysterious, but we’re told he’s been horribly traumatized, so it must have something to do with that. That doesn’t make his jerky stepdad (Sam McMurray, C.H.U.D., STONE COLD, CLASS ACT) any more patient with his wandering, so he decides to put Jimmy in what everyone keeps referring to as “a home.” That especially pisses off Jimmy’s brother or half-brother or whatever, Corey (Savage, director of DADDY DAY CAMP), who lives with his older brother Nick (Christian Slater, HE WAS A QUIET MAN) and drunk loser dad (Beau Bridges, MAX PAYNE).
Corey takes a backpack and skateboard to “the home” and sneaks Jimmy out. They try to buy a bus ticket to California, but don’t have enough money. Luckily they meet tough talking streetwise cynical sunglasses-wearing wisegal youth Haley (Jenny Lewis, who I honestly don’t know from her popular band Rilo Kiley, but I get a crush on her every December when I see her as the singing hotel bar waitress in A Very Murray Christmas). I don’t really understand exactly why she’s on the road by herself, but it has something to do with her dad being a trucker. She mentions that frequently. And she can’t believe Jimmy is better than her at Double Dragon, so the three end up hitchhiking together to enter him in the Video Armageddon competition, where he could win a prize of “fifty-thousand smackaroos” and save the children’s center.
I’m just kidding, there’s no children’s center. They’re not trying to save anything. They would spend it on Nintendo games and Vision Street Wear is my guess, ’cause that’s what half the kids in the movie wear. Corey also carries a Vision skateboard for the whole trip, but I think he only uses it once?
Hell of a place, the road. All dusty highways and truck stops populated by people willing to bet money they can beat an autistic boy at video games and then get furious when they lose. The Nintendo product placement is what makes this movie famous, but what makes it funny is its bizarre idea of how children and adults interact. This is a world where not one, not two, but several random, separate adults are willing to let little kid strangers ride long distance in the backs of their trucks. Possibly across state lines. In one case when they notice the kids counting up $21 in small bills they immediately pull over, steal the money and abandon the kids in the middle of nowhere. Inappropriate, in my opinion.
There are also adults – well, the credits call them “tough teens,” but they look at least 25 – who will chase and beat up the little kids. Savage would’ve been around 12 when filming, but Corey is tough beyond his boyish appearance, because in my opinion when you’re 12 and a grown adult punches you in the fucking face and steals your money and you have a bloody nose it’s okay to cry. He doesn’t even seem very upset. Just kind of, “An adult beat me up and robbed me because of a video game and there’s blood dripping out of me, oh well, that’s thug life.”
Thankfully there’s one line that’s not allowed to be crossed, and Haley is clever enough to take advantage of that fact: when Putnam (Will Seltzer, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a nerdy bounty hunter hired by the stepdad, catches up to them in public, she gets rid of him by screaming “HE. TOUCHED. MY. BREAST!”
Haley exists in that only-in-the-movies reality where every detail of her bio is pretty much a super power. Her dad is a trucker = she can summon several semi trucks to appear and surround an enemy. She’s from Reno and her mom has a gambling addiction = she knows the magic formula for winning a bunch of money at craps. She just has to stand off in the… I don’t know, children’s area of the casino(?) yelling instructions to dad’s trucker friend Spankey (Frank McRae from LICENCE TO KILL and LOCK UP) that nobody else seems to hear.
Meanwhile, older brother Nick and his dad are on the road trying to find them. Mr. Woods has pens and pencils in his shirt pocket like an engineer, but he runs a landscaping company. That’s why he has a single tree upright in the back of his pickup for the entire movie. I wonder if he regrets not taking that out when they stopped at the house to get their coats.
It’s never really addressed if Jimmy is supposed to be on the spectrum. Various bullies sense that he’s different and say shitty things to him. I guess it’s kind of nice that they never directly connect that with his video game skills in that THE ACCOUNTANT autism-as-super-power way that can be offensive.
There are trace elements of nuance here and there, possibly by accident. I like that it doesn’t spell out why Nick is so angry at their mom (Wendy Phillips, MIDNIGHT RUN). I sort of liked how Nick was trying to make peace with his dad, but it’s hard to take seriously after dad turns nice from getting addicted to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the Nintendo Nick brought along. (They act like he’s some kind of crafty electronics prodigy because he knows how to hook it up to different TVs.) Lewis is also a very good child actor, investing Haley with a little more emotional weight than you’d expect from a ridiculous character who explains the absence of her mom like this: “She packed it in. She was a showgirl. Great legs.”
The funniest villain is Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson, BREAKING THE RULES). He’s the local hotshot gamer of some arid, sparsely populated town along the way. The locals says he’s “rad” and bring Jimmy to him, sitting on a porch clearly very proud of his Ray Bans. He takes them off and asks, “So. You the wizard?”
Jimmy is intimated and runs off before his turn in a not-necessarily-friendly game of Rad Racer. This must be one of the most famous product placements of its era: Lucas plays using a Nintendo Power Glove. The VR-inspired controller captured the imagination of children by looking so futuristic, but reportedly didn’t work very well and only had two games designed for it. I have to say, though, that one of those games sounds appealing. It’s called Bad Street Brawler and according to Wikipedia it stars “Duke Davis, who goes from stage to stage beating up gangsters that get in his way, dressed in a yellow tank top, sunglasses, and yellow pants. He is described as a former punk rocker and the ‘world’s coolest’ martial artist… the player fights a variety of enemies, such as gorillas and circus dwarves who throw hammers…”
I like that they promoted the Power Glove by accurately portraying it as some bullshit that a spoiled asshole kid would use to lord over others. Everybody knows if he was a real man he’d play Rad Racer with the red and blue 3D glasses. Anyway, the important thing is that two years later there was a Power Glove joke in FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE.
Surprisingly, THE WIZARD wasn’t Nintendo’s idea. Universal Studios chairman Tom Pollack, who in his entertainment lawyer days got George Lucas the merchandising rights for STAR WARS, noticed the growing cultural phenomenon of home video games and wanted to BREAKIN’ that shit. So he approached Nintendo and gave them script approval. They were able to advertise the Power Glove and the then-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3 (seen in the climactic competition), but the joke was on them – kids already knew about that shit and would see a movie just to get a glimpse of them.
Another of the company’s trademarks on display is the “Nintendo Game Counselors,” hotline operators they had to help kids if they got stuck in their games. Haley stays on the line for what must be 2-3 weeks because she’s able to copy down everything from a counselor’s thick binders of tricks for every known game. Now that I think about it Haley is a game counselor herself – she did the same thing for Spankey at the craps table in Reno.
Universal got in on the product placement themselves, using their theme park as the venue for the tournament. I’m not very familiar with that place but the geography doesn’t seem to make sense; the competition is inside “The Square of Warriors” (a rebuilt set from SPARTACUS) but also underground beneath the KING KONG ride. The coolest thing about this is that you get a very clear look at the animatronic King Kong from down below, not hiding the machinery or that he has no lower body. There are also some bits involving Universal Monsters costumed characters who are weirdly harassing. Seems like that would be more in character for Woody Woodpecker and Girl Woody Woodpecker, but you only see them in the background.
Speaking of movies with third acts that take place on studio backlots, they also visit the same dinosaur roadside attraction seen in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, I think with the real interior this time. THE WIZARD is also connected to OVER THE TOP in that Spankey can be seen driving Lincoln Hawk’s truck, Hawk Hauling logo and everything. According to Wikipedia the same truck (repainted) appeared in MESSENGER OF DEATH and TANK GIRL.
Anyway, in the end, video games bring everybody together. Even the stepdad gets excited when he finds out that Jimmy is good at a thing that impresses other people. Hooray for Nintendo.
Director Todd Holland is not the guy who did CHILD’S PLAY, that’s Tom Holland. This was Todd’s feature directing debut, followed by KRIPPENDORF’S TRIBE (1998) and FIREHOUSE DOG (2007), if that gives you an idea. But he worked more extensively in TV, and honestly his track record for doing shows that were quirky or innovative for their time is impressive: Amazing Stories, Max Headroom, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, My So-Called Life, The Larry Sanders Show, Maximum Bob, something called “Felicity,” Tracey Takes On…, Wonderfalls, Malcolm in the Middle, 30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt… and apparently there was a live action Bill & Ted TV series that he did one episode of?
I didn’t watch that many of the extras, but there are tons of deleted scenes filling in the background (like the crucial part where Corey and his friends, including Rufio, made Nick and his friend pay them $16 to not narc on them for sneaking out with the truck, then they buy pizza the next day, but the Nick and his friend find them on the bleachers and chase them…)
There’s also an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A with Holland and producer Ken Topolsky, who went on to produce and direct The Wonder Years starring Savage. Holland (who calls the movie “the gamer, cult-classic, The Wizard” in his self-written IMDb bio) admits that he didn’t know what Nintendo was when he was pitched the movie as “THE KARATE KID with Nintendo.” But Topolsky has talked to enough people who grew up on the movie that it seems to have taken on an elevated loftiness in his mind. Not that he necessarily thinks it’s a masterpiece, but that it tapped into something important about a generation that he says plays video games as their form of self expression. Something a little more weighty than “they liked it because they got to see Mario 3 early.”
The producer was a music production manager who started his movie career as music coordinator for FLASHDANCE. He also did KILLER PARTY. So it makes sense that the movie has some ultimate-‘80s-pop-rock, including a prominent placement of “Send Me An Angel” by Real Life. That’s a funny choice because it had already been in RAD, which sought to exploit BMX much the way THE WIZARD exploits Nintendo. TEEN WOLF TOO also beat them to it.
But the score is by J. Peter Robinson, who I know for scoring American versions of Jackie Chan movies like THE PROTECTOR, POLICE STORY 2, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, etc., so there is some serious guitar and keyboard action music too.
I would not consider it to be a good looking movie, but cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman went on to shoot all of Wes Anderson’s live action movies. At this point he had already worked with William Friedkin (C.A.T. SQUAD, RAMPAGE) and Gus Van Sant (DRUGSTORE COWBOY), and had done DEAD HEAT, so it’s not like he was nobody. However, Tobey Maguire was nobody, and he’s in it (uncredited) as one of Lucas’s stooges standing around at Universal Studios. Only ten years later he’d already been directed by Ang Lee, Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam and Lasse Hallstrom, and a couple years after that he was Spider-man. He was a big deal. I realized around the time of THE GREAT GATSBY, and especially after MOLLY’S GAME (which he does not appear in, so read the review to find out why) that I don’t like him very much. But if he went all Tom Hardy and really immersed himself in the role of Duke Davis in BAD STREET BRAWLER: THE MOVIE I would reconsider.