The Wizard (1989)

In 1990, my brother and I watched 1989’s “The Wizard” about thirty times a day and loved the movie every single time we popped it in to the VCR. When I was seven, I dreamed of two things. I dreamed of entering a video game competition and playing Super Mario 3, and travelling around the country with the gorgeous Jenny Lewis. Mostly I wanted the second, but playing Super Mario 3 was also a great prospect. There’s no way to discuss “The Wizard” without seeing it through nostalgia tinted glasses, but while most people claim “The Wizard” is nothing but a ninety minute commercial for Nintendo, I wouldn’t so much call it a commercial so much as a mirror on the culture in the eighties. In the late eighties and most of the nineties, Nintendo simply dominated the world.

With their release of the Nintendo system, every child wanted a Nintendo. Every child played Nintendo. Every child played games like Super Mario Brothers and Double Dragon with their friends and family. And, in spite of learning how pointless a device it was later on, every single child lusted after The Power Glove. They subscribed to “Nintendo Power,” called the hotlines, and lived and breathed by Mario. The movie accurately portrays a world of children that loved Nintendo. And when Super Nintendo was released, it was an even bigger world of children who couldn’t get enough. Objectively, “The Wizard” is still a solid and entertaining road film that is never cloying or abundantly sweet.

It’s also one of the many road films that spotlights a wide open world where children, with enough wits and ingenuity, could live on their own without adult interference or intrusion. Along the lines of “Rain Man” whether coincidentally or not, Fred Savage is Corey, one of three brothers in a broken family that have remained distant for years after their little sister accidentally drowned. When their little brother Jimmy is institutionalized with an unexplained mental disorder, Corey breaks his brother out and sets out to take him to California, where Jimmy is hell bent on returning to. Meanwhile, they meet young Haley, who is on the way to Reno, and teams up with her new comrades to compete in one of the biggest video game competitions in the country, when she and Corey learn Jimmy has a shocking skill for video games.

While traveling there, they have to avoid police, bullies, a sleazy bounty hunter, and Cory’s father and big brother. For a film centered on children for the most part, the performances from the child actors tend to be much more compelling than the adults. Beau Bridges and Christian Slater provide a lot of the levity as the killjoy adults on the hunt for their children, but Fred Savage and Jenny Wilson provide the best performances, offering deep and complex turns as these inadvertent heroes that go on a spiritual journey. Savage especially is at his best here, and he carries much of the innocence and frustration that brought him in to his iconic role in “The Wonder Years.”

The big centerpiece is the big video game tournament that allows viewers to watch how intense and exciting video games can be. Especially with a live audience cheering incessantly. Director Todd Holland films these scenes almost like an action film, and most likely made Nintendo’s chests swell with his cuts to big money shots of Nintendo products, and the unveiling of “Super Mario 3.” Despite being written off by some as a glorified commercial, “The Wizard” has so much more to offer than product placement. It has great acting, a touching story, and a bonafide look at how Nintendo ruled the world once upon a time.