The recent Nintendo World Championships reboot immediately made me flash back to 1989’s The Wizard, a movie whose finale was anchored by a video game contest, Video Armageddon. For any Nintendo-obsessed kid in the late-’80s, this movie was pretty much heaven: Not only was it full of familiar game references (Double Dragon! Metroid! Ninja Gaiden! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!), but it was also where we had our first glimpse of the then-forthcoming Super Mario Bros. 3. In fact, most of the movie’s appeal centered around the moment when game savant Jimmy “The Wizard” Woods (Luke Edwards) had to conquer the game totally cold in order to win Video Armageddon. To this day, I vividly recall the anxiety-inducing, chaotic big reveal, when a wall rose up dramatically to reveal the Super Mario Bros. 3 opening screens beamed onto a gigantic TVs.
Before revisiting the movie, that’s about the only portion of the entire film I remembered. Although The Wizard cast featured plenty of appealing ’80s stars (Fred Savage, Jenny Lewis, Christian Slater) and respected actors (Beau Bridges), the finer, non-Nintendo points of the story line didn’t stick with me through the years. Perhaps this is why critical consensus tended to consider the movie as nothing more than an elaborate Nintendo ad—or, as Roger Ebert concisely put it in his one-star review, “a thinly disguised commercial for Nintendo video games and the Universal studio tour.”
In reality, the blatant product placement doesn’t really kick in until the last half-hour of the movie, when 9-year-old Jimmy, his 13-year-old brother Corey (Savage), and tough-as-nails pal Haley (Lewis) finally reach Video Armageddon in Los Angeles after hitchhiking from Utah. At this event, which comes across like a slightly dystopian version of a Nickelodeon game show, the squat gray NES boxes are everywhere, matched in tone and hue by industrial-looking design flourishes. Prior to this dramatic climax, the movie creates conflict by having various groups chase after the wayward trio. On one side, there’s Corey’s older brother Nick (Slater) and dad Sam (Bridges); on the other, there’s the runaway bounty hunter Putnam (Will Seltzer) hired by Corey and Jimmy’s mom Christine (Wendy Phillips) and her new husband, their morally bankrupt stepdad Bateman (Sam McMurray).
To muddy the plot even more, these two factions are racing against each other to find Jimmy, and have their own individual catfights and tussles along the way. Yet despite these twists and turns, this convoluted trek West is needlessly drawn-out and, frankly, rather boring: Even the tense moments—the kids having what amounts to petty cash stolen by truckers hauling cattle; Sam pummeling Putnam’s car with a shovel; angry teenage hoodlums snookered by Jimmy’s arcade skills—are mostly just lame slapstick. In fact, in many ways, The Wizard’s insistence on drumming up unnecessary or preposterous drama is its downfall: Even Video Armageddon’s final showdown with Super Mario Bros. 3 can’t happen before Putnam chases the kids through Universal Studios Hollywood’s attractions and characters.
Of course, these examples don’t even address The Wizard’s generally inexplicable premise: Three kids hide in plain sight for well over a week, eluding both police and Good Samaritans, and somehow manage to both travel safely and hone Jimmy’s video game skills. To watch this movie requires a rather healthy willing suspension of disbelief, if not endless patience. (Believe it or not, director Todd Holland told Nintendo Life in 2009 that the original script was even longer: “The first assembly of all the footage was two and a half hours long. I ended up cutting an hour out of the film for my director’s cut just to reach a length suitable for a family film.”)
The most poignant part of the journey occurs when the kids are picked up by a pack of gruff but benevolent motorcyclists for a ride, which lets them slow down and absorb gorgeous summertime scenery such as an idyllic carnival and verdant farmland. But for the most part, like many ’80s movies, The Wizard’s adults end up being the ones inflicting pain on the kids. Haley’s mom has a gambling problem and her dad is down on his luck, which makes her street-wise and forces her to grow up quickly; Nick and Corey are angry at their dad for not stepping in to help Jimmy; there are residual disagreements and anger all around due to the divorce and Christine’s remarriage. Unfortunately, these elements aren’t explored in any great depth: Instead, we just have to infer that Haley’s so self-sufficient because of her rocky family life, or that Nick’s moodiness is due to his disdain for his family’s split.
The actors do their best to overcome this suspect source material, especially Lewis and Slater; the former’s inimitable outburst to prevent Putnam from grabbing Jimmy from a casino—“He touched my breast!”—remains the movie’s most memorable line. But The Wizard’s sluggish pacing, lack of character development, and facile strife overshadows its most subtle and engaging story line, which involves the source of Jimmy’s mysterious silence. At the start of the film, he’s found walking along a deserted desert highway, trying to get to California. Later, we find out Jimmy is “heavily traumatized” by something. As a result, he rarely speaks, carries around a lunchbox like a security blanket, and tends to spend his days stacking things. Because he’s viewed as unreachable, he’s institutionalized; the epic road trip actually starts because Corey finds this unfair, and decides to take him to California. His incredible video game skills emerge only after they’re on their way West.
Things don’t get much better on the road. Because Jimmy is primarily silent, he’s treated mostly with derision from those around him: He’s “handicapped,” a “space case,” and a “mental case,” among other things. One insensitive kid even asks, “Is he the poster child for someone?” When they meet Haley, she immediately asks, “What’s his problem?” When Corey responds, “He’s just shy,” she comes back with, “Shy a few bricks, I’d say.” That nearly everyone views his personal trauma and personality differences so callously is heartbreaking, especially after we find out Jimmy is the way he is because his twin sister drowned right in front of him several years before.
The movie’s ending, which explains both his fixation on California and helps soften his family’s disconnection, is touching and sentimental in a genuine, non-schmaltzy way. But before that, it’s tough to watch how brutally people ostracize and isolate someone who’s marginally different. Jimmy’s demeanor and response to his sister’s death, as well as how he’s treated for being what’s perceived as weird, is actually the most realistic aspect of The Wizard. He’s obviously in a huge amount of emotional pain, and very few people seem to notice or care, which makes him the most sympathetic figure in the movie. Jimmy’s prowess at Nintendo games is the least remarkable thing about him.
The main problem with The Wizard upon viewing it today is that it focuses on the wrong things, aiming for cheap, easy, commercial tie-ins and gimmicks instead of delving into how and why these characters are so emotionally bereft or fascinated by the reality escape video games provide. Instead, we get one-dimensional doofuses such as Lucas the Video Armageddon finalist, whose arrogance and hubris is about as unique as a Koopa Troopa. About the only thing he’s good for is unintentional humor, when he smugly unveils a pristine Power Glove to play Rad Racer with a smirk.
This obvious gesture aside, The Wizard’s Nintendo tie-ins oddly enough don’t feel that intrusive or crass today. (Save for the ridiculous times when Nick is depicted playing the NES he just so happened to bring on the road for the periods when he, say, finds a spare TV in an auto repair shop he can borrow.) The video game clips are more like background scenery adding color and plot movement, as Nintendo was inextricably baked into the pop-culture landscape of the time, while the “video game counselor” Haley calls actually existed in real life at places such as the Nintendo Power Line. What’s more galling is how fast and loose The Wizard is with its real-life video game references: The below YouTube clip spends nearly seven minutes documenting every error and inaccuracy present in the movie. Some mistakes are subtle, such as levels being mislabeled. Other gaffes are far more obvious: For example, Haley and Corey somehow know Jimmy can find a warp whistle in Super Mario Bros. 3, despite having never seen the game before.
The Wizard’s anemic box office—it grossed just $14.3 million—underscored that underestimating the gaming intelligence of audiences (or banking heavily on Super Mario Bros. 3’s appearance) backfired. However, the movie did successfully help drum up anticipation for the game’s impending arrival: Super Mario Bros. 3 went on to sell 18 million cartridges and became the bestselling game not bundled with a system. So as a marketing tool, The Wizard did end up a qualified success. And really, although re-watching it today felt like somewhat of a slog, there was still something magical about the moment when Super Mario Bros. 3 was unveiled at Video Armageddon. Although the game had been released in Japan in 1988, chances are most U.S. moviegoers hadn’t yet seen it in action. At this point, it’s so rare to be truly surprised by something, because so much entertainment comes with built-in preview snippets and spoilers. The Wizard brought me back to a time when something as simple as a new game about plumbers with magical powers represented the pinnacle of joy.