Ultrasonic’s thoughts: The Wizard (1989)

“They’re on a cross-country adventure to the world’s greatest video championship.

But for these three, it’s more than a game…
It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

To any kid who was around at the height of Nintendo-mania in the late eighties, these words resonated.

Now granted, when one first looks at the film – whether it be back then or now – one could think that it is just nothing more than a ninety-odd minute Nintendo Entertainment System commercial, but when one begins to watch the film more closely, one may find that it is a bit more than that.

But before I get to that part, let’s go back in time to an era where big hair and ripped jeans were still the norm.  The video game industry had been fully resurrected from the infamous crash several years before, but unlike the Atari-era, this was a brand new phenomenon brought about by a video game system that didn’t look like anything that had come before, and with games that looked and played like nothing we had ever seen before.  I know, because when I first saw Super Mario Bros. on my babysitter’s TV-set at the age of 5, I was bit by the video game bug right then and there.

NES Plsying With Power Poster

 

But to describe Nintendo-mania isn’t something that can be talked about, it’s something that can only be felt.  And from all the games I had the pleasure of playing to seeing a film that even now holds a special place in my heart – let me tell you, the feels were all there.

The genesis of this film is still something I haven’t been able to completely piece together, but from what I’ve been able to find, it’s pretty interesting.

For Nintendo, it all started when an executive from Universal Studios named Tom Pollock approached them with an idea for a video game movie, and Nintendo’s marketing team immediately saw a huge opportunity to promote the titles on their system – whose success was through the stratosphere – as well as generate hype around a game they were working on but hadn’t been released yet: Super Mario Bros. 3.  Needless to say, they agreed.

Now came the search for a director, and the studio found one in the form of Todd Holland.  Now this is where it gets very ironic because while the film revolves around interactive entertainment, Holland himself is not a fan of video games.

Todd Holland The Wizard

“When I was selling myself to Universal Studios to direct the film, I basically said that I hated video games so I’m the perfect director for it.  If I can make these things interesting to me then I can make them interesting to anyone.” – Todd Holland

The studio agreed, and within the span of a weekend Holland was at the helm of the film.  However, he didn’t have much time to get settled in because within five weeks after he was hired cameras started to roll, and the reason was because of child actor Fred Savage’s schedule on “The Wonder Years”.  According to Holland, Savage only had a few weeks off to shoot the film so they had to get things done quickly.  At that point Savage was the only actor attached to the project so Holland had no time to waste in assembling the cast.  Hiring casting director Mali Finn – who would go on to cast actors in “The Matrix” films and “Titanic”, among his other film credits in later years – Holland began casting his actors in earnest.  Once he had Beau Bridges cast, the director was then able to bring in Christian Slater, who was interested in working with Beau after having worked with Beau’s brother Jeff Bridges.

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“Christian was terrific.  He liked to have fun in his time off and slept so late that he had to be shaken awake by a production assistant every morning because no alarm clock would wake him.  But he was hard working and a real team player; he and Beau were great together.” – Todd Holland

With Beau Bridges, you really had an actor that really helped ground the film in the best way possible in his character Sam Woods, which shows that Beau could carry a picture just as effectively as his more famous brother Jeff Bridges.

“Beau is the consummate pro, he was the big movie star in our cast and really raised the bar for everyone.  Beau always understood how I wanted the film to work on an emotional level; there were a lot of complex layers suggested in the script but the trick was to make it all real and keep it at the right level for a family film about video games.  No one was smarter than Beau about finding that level.” – Todd Holland

The story begins with a kid named Jimmy (played by Luke Edwards) who is seen walking along an open road by himself with nothing but a small lunchbox in hand. Eventually he gets picked up by a police officer who asks him where he is going and Jimmy replies, “California.” Now you wonder why Jimmy says this but there is an actual plot point to this, even though this is pretty much the only word Jimmy says for most of the film.

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Not only that but it turns out that this isn’t the first time Jimmy has run off, and that it has been a constant thing with the boy since something had happened to him two years ago which traumatized him to where he’s taken a self-imposed vow of silence, only saying “California” and trying to build monuments of something really big when he gets the chance, though no one’s been able to figure out what.

Because there haven’t been any improvements since that trauma Jimmy’s mother and foster father feel that the school they’ve sent him to has done all it could and they are considering having Jimmy institutionalized.  Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with Jimmy’s half-brother Corey Woods (Fred Savage), who feels that Jimmy doesn’t deserve to be put in an institution and unable to find support from his older brother Nick (Christian Slater) or his own father Sam (Beau Bridges) decides to take matters into his own hands and take his younger sibling away from the institution and go on a cross-country trip to California, even though they don’t have any idea how to get there.

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The duo manage to make it through the first night with no problem, but once they arrive at a bus stop Corey finds out real quick that the little money he has managed to put together isn’t enough to get them to California and so he has to come up with another idea.  However, in the midst of this he discovers that when he had Jimmy play an arcade game called “Double Dragon” to pass the time the younger brother had managed to rack up an unbelievable high score in a short amount of time.  This also ends up gaining the attention of a girl named Hayley who is also at the bus stop and at first doesn’t believe that Jimmy has the gaming skills until she sees it, nicknaming Jimmy a “Wizard” shortly after.  Initially Corey tries to bet Jimmy’s skills over Hayley’s bus ticket to gain more ticket money but once that plan fizzles Hayley then comes up with an idea of her own: Since the two brothers are headed to California and Corey is determined to prove Jimmy doesn’t belong in a home, would anybody still have the boy committed if he was to win a video game contest that just so happens to be taking place there?  Corey doesn’t seem keen on the idea at first and even when Hayley calls him out on his lack of faith in his own brother Corey simply retorts why she’s suddenly so eager to convince them to go through with this, given that she doesn’t know anything about them and Hayley simply replies that it’s a business deal, nothing more.  If she gets them to California and Jimmy wins the whole thing, then they split the $50,000 prize.

The Wizard Hayley Jimmy Corey

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Corey ultimately agrees and what follows for most of the film is a cross-country adventure that could qualify as an adventure/RPG game in and of itself, with our trio of misfits hitching rides on trucks and making money on Jimmy’s gaming skills to pick up some spare change as well as making some enemies/rivals along the way, chief among them being a kid named Lucas Barton.

But even with all this, this isn’t counting Corey and Jimmy’s families trying to find them and bring them home, with Jimmy’s mother hiring a bounty hunter named Putnam to track them down and Corey’s brother and father also hitting the road to find the duo, with some unpleasant yet hilarious encounters resulting between Putnam and Nick and Sam.  Interestingly enough Mr. Woods takes notice of a NES Nick had found in the back of his father’s truck during the whole trip and begins playing it himself, creating an addiction that only die-hard NES fans would understand.

But like with every quest, there does come a pivotal point where our trio of heroes almost call the whole thing off, but when Jimmy unexpectedly speaks up and says more than one word (specifically him not wanting to quit) Corey and Hayley come back to their senses and with a renewed fire continue their journey to California.

But just before they get to Los Angeles, the trio head to Hayley’s home city of Reno to not only recharge their own batteries, but to use the arcade machines there to help Jimmy prepare for the competition.  Unfortunately Putnam manages to catch up to them and almost gets away with Jimmy but Hayley’s quick thinking manages to buy them time to get away and make it to Hayley’s house, which turns out to be anything but what Hayley made it out to be.  And here is where we get yet another character moment/goal but for Hayley this time around.  In Jimmy and Corey’s case their character moments came earlier and told from Corey himself.  It turns out that two years ago Jimmy’s twin sister Jennifer had drowned in a river right in front of him, which not only caused the boy to take his self-imposed vow of silence, but the family fell apart with Jimmy’s mother Christine divorcing Sam shortly after and taking custody of Jimmy in the process.  As such Corey has taken it upon himself to try to bridge the gap in some way so at least he and his brothers can still hang out and be family despite Christine’s issues with Sam and even with Nick to a lesser extent; With Hayley it turns out that the only real family she has is her father, with her mother having taken off years ago but the former’s life as a trucker causes him to be away for most of the time and while he loves taking his daughter cross-country, he doesn’t want his only child’s life to being strictly on the road and as such sends her back to their home which is nothing more than a simple trailer parked out in the middle of nowhere, and despite her age Hayley has enough sense to want more for her small family and sees the upcoming video game competition as a means to finally buy an actual house for her and her dad and have more of a life even though the odds of winning would be slim to none, unless one had the skills that Jimmy does, hence why she offered her assistance in getting them to California and pushing for Corey to enter his brother in the competition once she saw Jimmy’s talents firsthand.

After having yet another encounter with Putnam who managed to track them down, Corey, Hayley and Jimmy finally managed to get away from him long enough to make it to Los Angeles and enter Jimmy into the competition, and just in time for the last preliminary rounds.  Things go well and Jimmy manages to pass the preliminary round, but now the competition’s emcee announces that for the final round, Jimmy and the other competitors (Lucas being one of them) will have to play a game that no one has played before, which surprises everyone including our trio of heroes.

With the three finalists given a 15 minute intermission Lucas now realizes that Jimmy is indeed very skillful as a gamer and therefore an obstacle in his way, and while initially unable to find a way to get rid of him sees and recognizes Putnam from earlier in the film and quickly shouts out to him and points him to Jimmy, thus leading to another chase.  Fortunately Nick and Sam have also arrived at LA and quickly try to catch up but to no avail.

Eventually the trio manage to escape Putnam’s grasp and get Jimmy into the competition in a surprising way, and once Nick, Sam, and even Christine’s new husband join Corey and Hayley, they too find themselves genuinely cheering Jimmy on as he is playing the surprise game which turns out to be none other than…

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SUPER MARIO BROS. 3!

Needless to say, the “battle” gets very intense, and Jimmy does fall behind at a couple of points, but in the end he discovers the one of the game’s warp whistles, and makes it back to first place, ultimately winning the entire competition, leading to a round of applause from everybody, and the first on-screen smile from Jimmy in the entire film.

Now you would think the film would go to end credits after this but not yet, because just when it seems like our heroes are finally heading home (and will no doubt be probably grounded for the foreseeable future) Jimmy spots a giant dinosaur monument and starts yelling out “California” frantically, and quickly gets out of his foster father’s car once the latter slows it down and runs off toward the monument with his lunchbox in hand.  Corey, Hayley and everyone else tries to catch up with him wondering what the heck is going on, but once Corey finds Jimmy at the very end of the exhibit and sees the pictures Jimmy had in his lunchbox, that’s when all the pieces to the puzzle come together for Corey and he figures it out.  Everyone else is wondering what Jimmy is doing, and then Corey shows everyone the group picture of all of them (minus Christine’s current husband) from two years ago at that exact same place and that this is what Jimmy means when he says “California”.  Since this picture was taken during a time when everyone was at the their most happiest (Jimmy especially given his bond with his twin sister), it held a special place for the young boy and as such was the only thing he could focus on given that he didn’t have any other outlet for the pain he was going through and had been running away not to get away from everyone else, but because Jimmy wanted to leave his memories of his late sibling in a place where she was the most happiest.  That way he could finally let go and move forward with his life.

Once everyone else realizes this, it really does become cathartic since just about everyone had been wondering why Jimmy would constantly run away or why he never said much of anything until now.  And now that it’s all out in the open there’s a sense of relief for Corey’s family and Sam calls Jimmy to him and hugs him tearfully.  Christine even asks her ex-husband if he would take their boys home (thus acknowledging Corey as her son as well), finishing up with saying that they will talk more once they get back to town.  Sam agrees and then calls Corey to him and the two boys along with their father, Hayley and Nick all drive off back to Utah with Jimmy, Hayley and Corey sitting in the back of the pickup.  Hayley then gives both Corey and Jimmy a kiss with Jimmy then finishing up with a kiss of his own on Hayley’s cheek and the scene ends with them laughing as they drive off with an awesome 80s ballad playing in the background.

(The second video is the one with only the song.  Seriously, why hasn’t this tune been officially released in some way?)

So how does one begin to sum up this film?  Well, on the surface it would be easy to think that it is a video game commercial disguised as a movie, what with the blatant product placement and all.  And that of course was part of the appeal to a lot of us kids back in ’89.  However, having seen this film many times as an adult, I see now that there’s a lot more to this movie than just crass commercialism.  The thematic elements of family and mending the wounds that come from tragedy are there if you look at the film closely.  In fact, looking at how the main characters are, how they interact with each other and what their main goals are, you start to realize that this film is not just about video games, it’s also about coming to grips with tragedy and making peace with it, and as one fan put it best, it’s also about finding out who you are to some extents.  Whether it be as Hayley – the roadie girl with no family; or Corey – the guy who’s trying to find some way to bridge the distance between his fractured family members; or Jimmy – the boy who’s haunted by his sister’s death and is trying to find a way to not only deal with it, but find closure.  And as you see these characters progress through their “quest”, those thematic elements start to become much clearer which in turn leads to a terrific payoff in the end, or to coin a video game phrase, a 100% completion.

Despite not making much of an impact on the box office, the film has become a cult classic among many fans even to this very day, and rightfully so.  The fact that I had wanted to see this movie come to DVD was proof of how much it stayed in my own mind as a child watching it, even though only a few scenes stood out to me way back when.  Then around 2006 when I was at my local Wal-Mart I saw the movie on a shelf, and I quickly dropped everything and bought that DVD, feeling like I would never see it again if I didn’t get it, and boy was I not disappointed.  Sadly there are no special features but the fact that the movie itself is on DVD more than dispels the fact that it is a bare bones disc.  Plus the fact that this movie was released on DVD around the same time the Nintendo Wii was being released was also very interesting.  Coincidence?  Personally, I don’t think so, especially since one of the selling points of the Wii was the “Virtual Console” feature, which allowed players to download games from the NES, SNES, N64, Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 consoles which was, and still is the ultimate “Blast from the past” gift for us who grew up on those aforementioned consoles.

In a time where video game movies come out with little fanfare or critical response nowadays – Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph being the only real exception – it is good to know that this film has become a lot more appreciated as the years have gone by.  And we can only hope that this film will be re-released on DVD again and this time as a Director’s cut, with special features and the like, because there are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that not everyone knows about, which is my only real critique of the film – there was a total of two and a half fours’ worth of footage that was cut so as to fit a theatrical format.  As such there was a lot more footage that was shot than what we ended up seeing.

In all, if you were a kid from the NES-era, or if you just love video games from the 80s and 90s, you owe it to yourself to have this movie in your collection.  It’s more than just a blatant commercial.  And while you do have to suspend your disbelief that three kids could hitchhike their way across states with no one finding them, it is a very fun film that doesn’t take itself too seriously until it has to, and it is able to balance things out to where you don’t feel it drags or that it gets too melancholy.

Plus, if you ever wanted to wonder what it was like to experience video games back when they were a phenomenon and not as mainstream as now, and to wonder what it would be like to be a kid and have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something cool – and it didn’t involve sports – do not miss out on watching this film.  Movie critics may not understand this film, but we arcaders do, and I know that in this arcader’s mind, this film is a true classic!

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(Disclaimer: I found this last picture via Google images, so I don’t know who drew it.  But whoever did, awesome job!)


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