Universal // 1989 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Geoffrey Miller (Retired) // September 12th, 2006
"You got 50,000 on Double Dragon?!?!" -- Corey
You just had to be there to understand. Whenever anyone mentions the state of the modern video game industry, they throw around big numbers and proclamations about how it rivals Hollywood in revenue. But no matter how much money is involved, it will never top the fanatical cult Nintendo built in the '80s. Millions of kids hopelessly addicted to their NES subscribed to Nintendo Power, a shamelessly self-promoting rag that rivaled Pravda for the sheer audacity of its propaganda. On an average weekend morning in the mid-'80s, a young Nintendo lover could have the Nintendo Cereal System for breakfast, take a shower and wash their hair with Mario Shampoo, then watch The Super Mario Bros. Super Show on TV. If they weren't going to settle in a for long day of muscular atrophy playing games after that, they could pester their parents to go down to the movie theater to see The Wizard, one giant 100 minute commercial dedicated to Nintendo.
Jimmy is a troubled young boy living with his with mother and her new husband. Jimmy barely talks and is always running away from home; he has a disconnection from the real world similar to autism. Jimmy's two older brothers, Corey (Fred Savage, The Wonder Years) and Nick (Christian Slater, fresh off his breakout role in Heathers), live nearby with their father Sam (Beau Bridges, the lesser Bridges). After Corey finds out Jimmy's been put in an institution, he sneaks Jimmy out, and they escape in the back of a truck. At a bus station, Jimmy displays his heretofore-unknown mad gaming skills, impressing Corey and another runaway at the bus station, the shrewd and street-smart Haley (Jenny Lewis, now best known as the lead singer of indie-rock band Rilo Kiley). The threesome decides to head off to California to enter Jimmy in Video Armageddon, a video game tournament with a prize of $50,000. But there will be plenty of obstacles along the way: Sam and Nick are in hot pursuit to get Jimmy back, as is Putnam, a sleazy child hunter hired by Jimmy's mother; and then there's the little problem of Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), the only kid who might just be good enough to beat Jimmy.
Beyond its role as feature-length Nintendo advertisement, the most striking thing about The Wizard is how it cribs its entire plot from other sources. It's Tommy minus the rock opera, and Rain Man minus the Oscar-caliber acting and script. It also swipes the quirky road movie template of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, except Video Armageddon isn't half as cool a destination as the basement of the Alamo.
At its heart, though, The Wizard is a ridiculously cheesy pre-teen drama. It has all the major ingredients: broken homes, running away from parents who just don't understand, and coming to grips with budding sexuality. But The Wizard takes a step into a whole 'nother world of awesome cheesiness by shoving Nintendo product placement in whenever possible. When Corey equates Haley's family losing money because of her mother's gambling problem with playing Zelda, it's such an absurd moment that it's difficult to believe the cast and crew didn't just up and quit when they got to filming it.
Jumping from one absurd moment to the next is The Wizard's forte. Once they're on the road, the film mainly goes back and forth between the kids and Sam and Nick following them. Nick brings his NES along for the ride, hooking it up in dingy hotel rooms along the way, and Sam gets hooked. He starts playing all the time, at least when he's not taking his anger out the creepy Putnum.
Now let's stop for a minute and put this into perspective: Your troubled, possibly mentally handicapped child has run away, and you have no idea where he's gone. Which of the following is the best course of action:
a) Alert the authorities, stay calm, and try to find any clues as to your
b) Stay up all night trying to get past the third level of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then go all Walter Sobchak on the car of the other guy looking for your kid.
c) Fire your agent.
Even that can't top The Wizard's greatest moment: the introduction of Jimmy's gaming nemesis, Lucas Barton. Decked out in sunglasses and a curly mullet, Lucas brags about mastering "all 97" Nintendo games. He takes a Power Glove (the infamously craptacular controller worn as a glove) out of a metal suitcase, roars through the first level of Rad Racer, and utters, with a perfectly straight face, one of the best unintentionally comic lines in movie history: "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad."
The film finally reaches its climax at Video Armageddon, which features what surely lured more than a few Nintendo kids into theaters: footage of the then-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3. It's hard to see what the big deal is now; it amounts to few tantalizingly brief glimpses. (The game had actually been available in Japan over a year before The Wizard came out, but this fact was conveniently glossed over.) That the promise of seeing Super Mario Bros. 3 was part of The Wizard's advertising campaign says a lot about its questionable origins.
It's obvious that Universal didn't put much effort into putting The Wizard on DVD. The transfer on the disc is perfectly serviceable -- the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and the audio is Digital Dolby 2.0 -- but nothing more. There are absolutely no extras. A commentary would be too much to ask for; most of the principle cast and crew are probably too embarrassed and ashamed to even acknowledge the film's existence. But couldn't we at least have scans of the miniature version of Nintendo Power handed out at theaters? Maybe we'll get that when Criterion finally releases the definitive version.
First-hand knowledge of Nintendo's '80s reign is practically a requirement for enjoying The Wizard. No matter how much you love cheesy, bad movies, you just won't appreciate it if you're the sort of person who goes around the video game store on the mall every Christmas cluelessly asking about "the latest game tapes." But for children of the '80s who get waves of nostalgia whenever they hear the first notes of the Super Mario Bros. theme, The Wizard is an undeniably enjoyable ride, even if it is hackneyed and often outright awful.
The Wizard sets a new high score for campy fun!
Review content copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Miller; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Power Glove Commercial