In 1989, Nintendo was beginning to take over the world, and had done so right out of the wake of the video game crash of the eighties. With arcades fading, Nintendo was one of the strongest competitors for home gaming consoles, and in 1989 they were juggernauts of pop culture. Back in that era, just about everything was TMNT, The Simpsons, and Nintendo, and the latter had taken the minds and hearts of gamers and tech geeks everywhere that loved a good challenging platformer or run and gunner. In 1989, Nintendo finally branched out in to the wider arena of pop culture by basically helping to fuel a kids’ movie that would become a cult classic.
Was it a shameless commercial for Nintendo? Sure. Did it hype Nintendo as the unmatched gods of entertainment? Yes. Did it falsely advertise the really awful Power Glove? God yes. Was “The Wizard” a good movie? Well… yes and no. Back in the 1989, Fred Savage was still a prominent child actor who was a few years away from being known as Kevin Arnold, and he took center stage in what could easily be described as a PG rated version of “Rain Man.”
In place of Tom Cruise were Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis, while in place of Dustin Hoffman was Luke Edwards. Todd Holland’s kids adventure film stars Savage as Corey, a young boy who frees his little brother Jimmy from a mental institution after suffering PTSD from the loss of his sister. After breaking him out, he plans to go to California with Jimmy, whose repeated declaration of “Cal-i-forn-ia!” gives him motivation to fulfill his brother’s wishes, for reasons Corey can’t quite figure out.
Against his father Sam’s wishes, Corey sets out with his brother Jimmy to go to California, and now it’s up to Sam and Corey’s older brother Nick (Christian Slater) to find him. They’re racing against a bounty hunter who’s been hired by Jimmy’s emotionally closed off parents to find Jimmy and bust Corey. Along the way though, Corey learns that Jimmy has a knack for video games. In fact, he’s a prodigy and can master just about any and every Nintendo game that he comes across. While traveling they meet Haley, a runaway who takes a liking to Jimmy and Corey. With Corey finding ways to mine the talents Jimmy has with video games like Double Dragon and Rad Racer, Haley convinces Corey to enter Jimmy in to an international video game competition known as Video Armageddon.
The prize is $50,000, which they see as their ticket to freedom from adult tyranny. “The Wizard” is a perfectly fine road trip drama with Jenny Lewis and Fred Savage basically carrying the whole kit and caboodle with their enthusiastic performances. There’s also the very good supporting turns by Christian Slater, and Beau Bridges, both of whom not only bond on the way to find Corey and Jimmy, but also learn about the pleasure that is the Nintendo Entertainment System. Apparently in 1989, a lot of people traveled with Nintendos in their cars and on the road, and here Nick and every other character are almost always wandering around with their very own Nintendo Systems at the ready.
The film’s antagonist Lucas, even has his own box of Nintendo cartridges and his own Power Glove, which he uses to master Rad Racer with ease. With “The Wizard,” we all knew what the movie was, and we loved it anyway. We knew Nintendo had formed their own cinematic vehicle to tout their current and future titles as well as anything else that could make the company seem magical. Every title was exciting and action packed, every kid wanted to be at Video Armageddon, and the unveiling of Super Mario Bros. 3 was amazing.
Not only did the game look fun, but unlike the Power Glove, it was fun and ended up being one of the most iconic titles from the NES library. Despite the blatant ad that was “The Wizard,” the film was groundbreaking in that it depicted girls as gamers, and potentially better gamers than Jimmy. At that time Nintendo and other companies were trying to push the idea that only boys enjoyed playing video games, so it was interesting to see many girls at the Video Armageddon gaming competition. One of Jimmy’s more talented adversaries in the final three for the big tournament ends up being the bespectacled Mora, who even walks around with her own posse in tow.
When “The Wizard” was released on VHS in the early nineties we must have watched it at least five or six times a week. It had just about everything from the cool Savage and Slater (I was a major Slater fan as a kid, sue me), the dreamy Jenny Lewis, and so much Nintendo paraphernalia that never failed to inspire some salivation from us here and there.
Thirty years later video game tournaments are arguably considered a legitimate sport, “Super Mario 3” is still great, Nintendo is still a giant, the Power Glove was an embarrassment, Fred Savage is still relevant, and “The Wizard” is still a solid adventure that watches even better with the nostalgia goggles on, I’m not ashamed to confess that.