Picture this-the year, 1989. The movie, The Wizard. The cast, a motley crew of late ‘80s icons consisting of the likes of Fred Savage, Christian Slater, Beau Bridges, Luke Edwards, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Edwards and the guy who played Chandler’s boss on Friends. The premise? A severely traumatized young boy embarks on a cross-country runaway adventure with his older stepbrother, during which it’s discovered that the latter possesses a genius level of expertise at video games. Could a major upcoming California-based gaming competition be the key to proving that Jimmy doesn’t need to be institutionalized? Will this trip finally provide an answer as to why the mostly-mute Jimmy utters the word “California” from time to time? Is it possible that audiences will at long last learn how to get past the dam level in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without losing at least one character? Only in a viewing of The Wizard will your queries be resolved.
I was seven years old when The Wizard graced the silver screen, and although I never did make it to the nearest cinema during The Wizard’s theatrical run, I did eventually rent it sometime later on VHS, the results of which were one of the more impactful experiences I’ve had watching a movie during my young life. Make no mistake-The Wizard’s shell, helped exponentially by its marketing, does indeed exude a story focused on video games, but at its core is a surprisingly emotional journey involving loss, grief, broken families and the wish to move on with one’s life in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. As the titular character, given the eponymous nickname due to his skills with a game controller, Luke Edwards conveys a surprising amount of depth as Jimmy Woods, delivering a performance that make the most of a blank stare that speaks volumes when one takes into account the tragic event that brought him to this state-it is in this role that the rare moments when he does utter a word or two become all the more meaningful. Fred Savage, who receives top billing as his stepbrother Corey, isn’t too far removed from what he brought to his star-making role on The Wonder Years, but nonetheless adapts Kevin Arnold into his Wizard performance well.
The rest of the cast is just as fantastic as its leads-Christian Slater is perfectly late-‘80s Christian Slater as Corey’s brother Nick, who sets out on his own quest to find the boys alongside his father Sam (Beau Bridges), both of whom carry their own baggage that find their own resolutions throughout the movie-yes, the movie does find them manning an NES control pad on more than one occasion, but it’s clear as time goes by that the strained relationship the two share at the beginning undergoes a transformation that fits in with the overall story arc well. As Haley, a streetwise girl who teams with Corey & Nick early in the film, Jenny Lewis, a person who’s only other acting appearance I can recall is in a late-‘80s Corn Pops commercial but who has since carved out an impressive music career as frontwoman for indie darlings Rilo Kiley in addition to similar groups such as The Postal Service, does an excellent job balancing her Artful Dodger-esque persona with-you guessed it-yet another depressing background that, fortunately, is kept nicely balanced with the equal amounts of sad that surround the cast.
Even supporting roles, such as those handled by Sam McMurray as Jimmy’s emotionless stepfather, Wendy Phillips as Jimmy’s depressed mother, and Will Seltzer as Putnam, the bounty hunter hired by Jimmy’s parents to track down the runaways, are played to a T, with Seltzer delivering some much-needed comedy especially in his run-ins with Slater & Bridges. Frank McRae, the former Bears defensive tackle who also appears in 1987’s *batteries not included and memorably in 1993’s Last Action Hero, is here as well, as a kindhearted trucker ally of Haley; there’s also an overexcited gentleman portraying the person who registers Jimmy for the gaming tournament whom my dad and I still quote to this day, a textbook example of a glorified extra making the most of his few lines. Oh, and keep your eyes open for a young Tobey Maguire around this point in the film as well. We all have to start somewhere.
When it comes to the villain(s) of The Wizard, one could make a case for Putnam, and he does indeed bring a fair amount of menace to his role, but it would be impossible to ignore Jackey Vinson as Lucas, another gaming hotshot whom Jimmy, Corey & Haley encounter on their travels and who’s responsible for, quite possibly, the only time in history when failed NES accessory The Power Glove actually looked like something worth buying. Watching Lucas man the virtual steering wheel of Rad Racer before uttering one of the film’s most memorable lines is still a scene I hold in high regard, as ridiculous as it may be to most.
I can’t forget the soundtrack. Though peppered with cuts from the likes of the legendary Patsy Cline and Paul Anka, The Wizard boasts a rather catchy assortment of period-specific tunes overall, with BoDeans classic You Don’t Get Much opening the film, another BoDeans tune called Red River backing a scene where Slater & Bridges travel the open road and not one but two New Kids On The Block megahits gracing The Wizard as well-apparently, those in charge of choosing the artists like their songs in pairs. Additionally, if the synth on that Send Me An Angel song doesn’t earworm its way into your brain upon first listen, I don’t know what to tell you.
What surprised me the most as a child about The Wizard was that core-fully expecting an exciting trip through the world of Nintendo, as was to be expected from a movie that lists the gaming giant as a producer, I couldn’t help but find myself blindsided by The Wizard’s heavy backstory, one that might very well have been one of the first true experiences I’ve had watching a movie that contained within its walls a considerable amount of depth. Never mind that the scenes at Universal Studios Hollywood, where the aptly-named Video Armageddon tournament takes place, are both fast-paced and adrenaline-pumping (especially when they find themselves face-to-face with the animatronic ape himself on the King Kong ride), or the numerous moments of actual video gameplay exist as a major wink to gaming fans through glimpses of such iconic titles as Double Dragon, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Contra, Mega Man 2, Metroid, R.C. Pro-Am and the final two proper NES Mario sequels, among others-when you factor in the emotional weight of roughly every character that inhabit The Wizard’s 100 minute runtime, what you receive is a film that skews more toward the dramatic, from the low-key opening to the tear-jerking final scenes, as perfect a conclusion as you’ll find in modern cinema.
However, those now expecting a downtrodden excuse of a movie shouldn’t worry-in addition to Putnam, everyone gets their moments to bring levity to the film, whether through Putnam’s aforementioned encounters with Slater & Bridges or a peek inside the fictionalized Nintendo Gameplay headquarters, which kicks off The Wizard’s very own Rocky training montage. Though I still have to wonder at what point did Jimmy, ever the gaming phenom, learn of the secret Warp Whistle hidden within the World 1 fortress of the as-yet unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3, such details are easily cast aside as the movie moves along at its easily digestible pace.
There seems to be a division of camps when it comes to The Wizard’s legacy-some view it with affectionate nostalgia as I do, while others have written it off as nothing more than an extended commercial for video gaming. I have to challenge those who see it through the latter lenses to take another look at the film-with any luck, they’ll find something much, much more. Director Todd Holland found success on the small screen following his work on The Wizard, having directed episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle and 30 Rock, while the movie itself has achieved the same sort of cult following that surrounds other gems I hold near to my heart as The Rocketeer and Hook. It’s a different movie, to be sure, but another hallmark of my childhood, when video games served as an escape and family was what mattered most. Of all the movies I cherish, The Wizard may be the most special.