Welcome back to another installment of LRM’s Retro-Specs! Video game movies always get major slack. It’s been a tough go for many of them. Super Mario Bros., Doom, Assassin’s Creed, Double-Dragon, and Street Fighter just haven’t seemed to make it! We have films like the original Mortal Kombat (and the new one is about to kick-ass) and the original Resident Evil that did make it. However, there is one that stands above the rest. Alright, so some may argue that it isn’t a movie based on a specific video game, but it sure as hell is a major plug for Nintendo surrounded by video games. That counts right? It should! Anyways, we can argue semantics, but let’s take a look back to 1989 for what should be considered a top video game movie: The Wizard!
More Than A Mega-Commercial
The film is directed by Tom Holland, who originally is not a huge video game fan. He was not opposed to them, but also felt he was the best choice. If he could use the help of some video game experts and make it interesting to him, he would be able to reach a larger audience. While many see the film as a film-length commercial for Nintendo, it honestly was more than that. It has a unique 80s storyline. It has tragedy and heart ache with a mix of adventure and feel goods.
The story is about 9-year-old Jimmy who is borderline mute since the drowning of his twin sister a few years prior. The death did not only impact Jimmy, but leads to a split of his family as well. This is extremely heartbreaking. The family splits, but not due to their own undoing. Family divide in this scenario comes due to the trauma they endure. How they come to deal with this PTSD is the actual foundation of this film.
Jimmy lives with his mother and step-father. His brothers Nick and Corey live with their and Jimmy’s father, Sam. Jimmy’s mother and step-father, unsure of how to handle his new state, enroll him in an institution. From there his brother Corey breaks him out as they set off, on foot, to California. (Lovers of the film will definitely remember the “Californiaaaa” line!)
The two meet Haley Brooks at a bus station where they also realize that Jimmy is a gaming prodigy! She informs them of Video Armageddon being held at Universal Studios. What does the winner get? A hefty $50,000! The begin to make the trek through California so Jimmy can showcase his talents. Meanwhile, Sam and Nick go on the search for the boys. Unfortunately, so does Mr. Putman. A man Jimmy’s mother and step-father pay to find him.
On the journey the most notable stop is Lucas. He is a gaming bad-boy. Once he showcases his skills and Nintendo accessories (more on that later) he informs the group that he will be entering Video Armageddon as well. While at Universal, they are chased by Putman, but Jimmy still enters the tournament. After dismantling the competition he takes on Lucas and one other girl in the final. Jimmy of course wins in the closing seconds!
The entire family is there to watch him win. Jimmy and Corey’s disappearance is what brings the family back together. They cannot lose anyone else. What makes this film different than others is that it does not end with the idealistic happy ending. Yes, the family comes back together because they all share the need of something only Jimmy will be able to show them. This does not mean it is a happily ever after, but progress in moving forward.
As the drive home together, Jimmy becomes uncomfortable and wants the car to stop. As he gets out, he runs to one of the dinosaurs at Cabazon Dinosaurs. Here he places a lunchbox he carries the entire film. Inside? Photos and memorabilia of he and his twin sister. One photo being at that exact spot, where they were last happy. Did Jimmy want the $50,000? No. He wanted closure and connection to his sister. This is what the entire family need.
Even though Jimmy does not speak much, his actions bring the family together to show them what they all need in order to begin the healing. What they need to move forward. If that doesn’t make you tear up, I don’t know what will! This depth of story with the support of Nintendo placement is what makes it the best Video Game-centric movie.
Did you know the plot is based loosely on a previous film? Now I do mean loosely based. However, there is a 1975 film with the title Tommy. The film is about a troubled child who is also a pinball champion. It is also a rock opera based on an album by the Who.
The casting for The Wizard is a strong 80s powerhouse. Luke Edwards plays Jimmy Woods, The Wizard. In 1989 he is a relative newcomer, but makes appearances in 21 Jump Street and Roseanne. After The Wizard his main films include Newsies and Little Big League. What other star power does the film bring in to help this relative newcomer?
Fred Savage is Jimmy’s brother, Corey. By this time he already has The Princess Bride, Little Monsters, and The Wonder Years on his resume. Along with many others. He is definitely a known face as is Jenny Lewis who plays Haley Brooks. By 1989 Lewis makes appearances in shows such as The Golden Girls, Mr. Belvedere, and Just the Ten of Us. More notable is her lead roll in Troop Beverly Hills in March of 1989.
Rounding out the credibility of the cast are Christian Slater and Beau Bridges. That’s right, THE Christian Slater. This is 1989, so he is the credible heart-throb brought into the mix. Slater plays Jimmy and Corey’s older brother Nick. By this time he is known for his rolls in Ryan’s Hope and Heathers.
Jimmy, Corey, and Nick’s father, Sam, is played by Beau Bridges. The actor had quite the resume leading into the film, mainly in TV series, dating back to 1949.
How did this cast come together? Tom Holland speaks to Arcade Attack in 2019 and discusses casting for The Wizard:
“The only actor attached was Fred. So, I hired casting director Mali Finn (later to become very famous for casting all The Matrix films, Titanic, and dozens of brilliant movies…) and she and I cast the film. We found Luke fairly early. I met with Beau and convinced him – and then once I had Beau, I was able to convince Christian (who had just made a splash in Heathers) because he was interested in working with Beau (having done a film with Beau’s brother, Jeff Bridges).”
“One of my big coups was casting Will Seltzer as the bounty hunter. Will and I were in acting class together – I was taking acting to sharpen my skills directing actors – and I thought Will was hilarious and fresh and really unexpected for the villain. And Mali and I sold Universal on it.”
For what is often given the label as nothing more than an extended commercial, the film definitely brings in some known faces, especially for the time. And they do not disappoint!
Side note: did you know this was Tobey Maguire’s first film? That’s right. Star power. (And look at that mullet!)
Even with the great story, yes, we cannot ignore that The Wizard can be viewed as a big commercial. And what a great commercial it is! Remember, this is well before social media, streaming and really massive cable TV channels. No Amazon. Most of what we rely on in the 80s are the select commercials and catalogues. Now while there is Nintendo Power, this film takes it to a whole new level. We have to remember that product placement was not as in-your-face as it is not. Holland suggests this when he expresses:
“Today, no one even blinks at Transformers being a wall-to-wall GM commercial. We expect on–screen characters to be drinking Coca-Cola and using Apple computers. We expect Jack Bauer to dial on his Nokia brand phone. That’s just the way everything is done now. But that kind of product placement was news then.”
So moving this route is new for the time. They say that kids at the time loved Nintendo and Fred Savage and decided to put them all together. And that’s how we get The Wizard. Nintendo has product placements all over the film. Beau Bridges parodies the addictive nature of Nintendo. In a hotel room while they are looking for Jimmy we find him staying up all night playing one of the well-known difficult games: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (damn that underwater level!).
The Power Glove
One of the key parts in The Wizard has the runway three meet up with hardcore gamer Lucas. What does he have? THE coveted Power Glove! In it’s own precious box, as it should be. He shows it off. And he must be one hell of a gamer to be THAT good with the power glove. Listen, I love Jimmy, but this guy should have won the entire thing. Did you see how good he is with the Power Glove? Me? I was a hot mess when playing my friend’s Power Glove. Just try and land the plane in Top Gun with it, much like the Angry Video Game Nerd parodies in one of his episodes!
Is anybody good with this thing? Seriously, if you are, let us know your secrets. Now for whatever reason, individuals who own the Power Glove still earned mad respect. Looking back, I am not sure how seeing how bad it is. However, you look like an 80’s badass with it on. I still prefer the Power Pad. At least if I did crappy on it, I still got a decent workout from sprinting my butt off.
Holland states that they and Nintendo had a good working relationship. He also adds,
“Nintendo never told us what scene to put the Power Glove. in…. But they did send a ‘Power Glove’ rep to the set to watch over it (it was very top secret then) and to make sure we presented it in a respectful ‘proper light'”.
Hmm… “proper light”. It looks like the writing was on the wall that it was a mess and they would have to use some movie magic to make it look amazing.
As the characters head to Video Armageddon, there are glimpses of other well-known games. Finally though, it leads to something that blew all of our minds in 1989…
The Big Reveal!
The idea of trailers for video games, or blasting news about them other than gaming magazines really are not around in the 80s. What Nintendo did with The Wizard is astounding for the time. At the end of Video Armageddon the three best-performing gamers are tasked with the unthinkable. They must play a never-before released game! This puts them all on the same playing field. What game is it? Super Mario Bros. 3!!
That’s right. This is the big, first reveal of the game. Some individuals even went to see the film for the first time, or return, just to see glimpses of the game! Such a smart marketing move, and I truly feel this move helped the game’s popularity. (Aside from it already being on of the best Mario games to this day.)
Of course some parts do not make sense. Like since this is the first time anyone has seen or played the game, how did Haley know where the magic flute is in the castle? We can overlook that, right? Especially since it makes people aware to be looking for them when they run to their favorite toy store to purchase the game and play it.
I remember seeing this and having the “oh crap!” moment of shock and excitement. The only other time that paralleled this was when my parents took my sister and me to see Back to the Future II and it had the trailer for the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Nothing like this had been done before. Yes, the game is released in Japan a year earlier, but this was completely unexpected for the time. Good movie, Nintendo. Well done indeed.
Every 80s Kid’s Dream
How isn’t The Wizard every 80s kid’s dream? Today people have their YouTube channels and subscribers to watch (shoutout to Rhyukar). However, in the 80s we would flood to arcades with bags full of quarters to try and advance our skills. Then Nintendo hit and kids would have loved to have been a professional gamer. Which is what this film is showcasing! This film is great. A cross-country adventure with friends. The feeling of freedom. Goonies-style adventure, and non-stop video games!
Another reason why this is one of the best video game films is because Roger Ebert hated it. Now I do respect the man, but usually when he hated a film, it was actually going to be good. I mean, the man didn’t like the characters of Batman 89! With that said, he thought it was nothing more than a commercial for Nintendo. There is some truth to that. But it was a damn good, ahead of its time, and has a moving story!
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If you are a kid of the 80s, you know what it is like at an arcade watching those individuals who appear to be professionals at the games. We would aspire to be at those levels. The Wizard is just that. And best of all, the underdog wins yet again! While going through some of my old stuff I even found The Wizard VHS! Let me know if you still have a VHS I can borrow to watch it…
Do you remember The Wizard? Do you like the movie? What is the best part? Do you consider it a video game movie? Leave your thoughts in the usual spot, and thanks for reading!