WedNESday: The Wizard (1989) - Because Nintendo Dominated the Late 80's

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Through the years since the release of Star Wars and the way it changed movie marketing forever, Hollywood has reinforced its interminable willingness to make a movie out of and into just about anything.  This is especially the case when that ‘anything’ involves a popular brand or label tie-in that makes the studio more money through product placement without having to deal with pesky things like talent, creativity and all-around good taste.  Enter the late 80’s: It may be impossible for younger gamers today to know just how insane Nintendomania was in the Neon Decade.  Video games are now accepted as a ubiquitous part of popular culture, but after the games industry struck Nintendo down in 1984, it became more powerful than anyone could have possibly imagined!

Nintendo watches, t-shirts, lunchboxes... Cereal!  It was everywhere!  You can still buy many of these things today but they aren’t marketed to the extreme the way they were in 1988!  There were ads for Nintendo games or products that lasted nearly a minute and a half (that’s long for a TV ad, especially one aimed at kids) and there was real a effort to keep Nintendo at #1 in gaming, a position it would hold for years.  Because of this craze I suppose it was inevitable that a motion picture studio would leap to be the first to capitalize.  Animation studios had success in television, so why would movie studios not try things out on the big screen?  Well…

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The Wizard needed to do three things well: Engage the audience, present Nintendo’s latest products, and tie things into a solid story.  It did one of those things (guess which one).  The plot doesn’t really matter here but simply… (Deep breath) … A son of a divorcé named Corey (Fred Savage) living with his father and older brother learns his half brother, Jimmy (who is traumatized because his twin sister drowned in a river), may be relocated to a care facility by his mother and stepfather, so he kidnaps “Jimmy-boy” and they start a journey across the country to California.  Along the way they meet up with a teenager traveling alone named Haley who joins them after convincing Corey to get Jimmy to enter a Nintendo championship in Universal Studios Hollywood when they discover he is a sort of Nintendo prodigy who mastered Ninja Gaiden, pointed out in stilted dialogue; “It’s his second time through and he hasn’t even taken a hit yet!  He’s a wizard!”.  Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mother and stepfather hire a runaway retrieval specialist to get Jimmy back while Corey’s father and brother (Played by Beau Bridges and Christian Slater) decide to try to find them first.  Lastly, there is another villain by the name of Lucas who is also somewhat of a video game pro and becomes the Apollo Creed to Jimmy’s ‘Rocky’ (I gasp for breath).  Interestingly, Lucas has an entourage of tagalongs, one of whom is played by a young, pre-fame Tobey Maguire.

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If all of that sounded like a Lifetime Original road trip, you wouldn’t be too far off.  The Wizard is tonally-strange in a way that is difficult to explain.  Mixed in with the random product placement that is scattered throughout this movie, there are these moments of drama and the occasional bits of humor; and I would say that is the weirdest part of the Wizard: This isn’t a comedy and it is barely about video games at all.  I’m pretty sure the people involved in the project wanted it to be, and despite a few gags at the expense of the runaway-catcher villain, there is rarely any comedy in this movie at all.  It is essentially a bland melodrama, complete with an overlong opening scene of Jimmy walking alone on a desert highway with credits set to a BoDeans song.  If I were to compare the tone of another movie I would say a good example would be Stand By Me, only without the dead kid, or the story... or the acting.  It is a coming-of-age flick about young people interacting with each other and their bonds grow through as they travel away from home (sort of).

I would say The Wizard’s biggest crime is it is just too boring for a movie made specifically to sell video games.  This is a movie about Nintendo, during the age of Nintendo, and it is almost entirely lacking in excitement for much of the movie.  A majority of scenes involve the characters talking about getting to California, getting on a truck, stopping at a location, then talking about getting to California again.  Things really do not pick up until the third act, at which point the film overcompensates with absurd bombast that is entirely out of left field.  This movie that spends about two-thirds of its running time in drab, dusty desert towns all of a sudden becomes a “hip and happenin'”, almost Ferris-Bueller-esque pseudo-comedy, only without the wit and charm.  Add to that the modern trope of kids acting like adults and you get a very, very creepy movie.

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The Nintendo elements that do make it into the film are the introduction of the notorious Power Glove and the glorious reveal of what is arguably the best game on the NES: Super Mario Bros. 3.  When Mario 3 showed up in this movie upon release, there were rumors that it was fake and didn’t exist until it finally did show up in a new copy of Nintendo Power.  Keep in mind that in the 80’s, the Internet was primitive and most people did not have consumer-level access until the 90’s, with only the most tech savvy using message boards and peer-to-peer connections to communicate with others online.  So a vast majority of video game news came largely from TV ads and magazines.  The magazine that ruled them all was Nintendo Power, while other sources like Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro had a less substantial share of the games publication market at the time.  If Super Mario Bros. 3 did not show up in Nintendo Power or on store shelves, it did not exist in the eyes of many young gamers.

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Other Nintendo touches reveal gameplay from Super Mario Bros. 2, Rad Racer, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It’s all also largely in clip show format, which only adds to the feeling that this is more of a commercial than it is an actual motion picture.  How this blends with the tone, I think, is somewhat intentional despite backfiring dramatically.  Nintendo wanted to be the exciting escape from the bland reality of their world, but it just didn’t work.  There’s this potential energy building up that explodes in the movie’s climax (and I use that term loosely), but by then it’s too late to make me care.  The entire thing feels like it’s going to break out into a fruit juice commercial any minute, but never does.  It is honestly a wasted premise.  I could get behind a fun romp where kids hitchhike across the country to get to an explosive video game competition, but not this.

The games championship, laughably named “Video Armageddon”, is more overwrought and overcompensating than a South Korean Pro-Starcraft event and the announcer comes off as a coke-addled lunatic who I am pretty sure moonlights as a fire-and-brimstone street preacher.  There is also this sudden turn of all of the adult side-characters who were ruthlessly pursuing the three lead kids all converging on the event to cheery Jimmy on.  It is so much of a copout that it erases all of the conflict and consequences up to that point.  It would have been an interesting turn if they would have taken the Bad News Bears route and had Jimmy lose to Lucas.  I say this because it would have felt less contrived and would have actually carried some weight, but instead he is victorious in the way which all of these movies have the “good guys” win.

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Video games, in theory, are about push and pull.  When you pull off a great victory in a game that has nearly broken you, it feels like a real accomplishment.  This is why games are fun; it’s the challenge.  If every game just carried you and let you cakewalk through every level, there would be no gratification for victory, so seeing this kid dominate through the entire movie and win in the end, barely facing any challenge from his competitors or the games themselves, makes every Nintendo product featured in the movie seem more boring than they really are.  I can tell you, as someone who has beaten Ninja Gaiden back in the day, it is an achievement.  Beating a modern game is simple.  You get a checkpoint every ten minutes and you can take a lot of punishment.  Not in the 80’s, though; You had limited lives and continues and you had to make do (unless you used cheats, of course).  The sheer flawlessness of Jimmy’s NES adventures throughout the movie make him an undefeatable force.  Like Thanos in The Infinity Gauntlet series, it takes the combined power of the very gods of the Universe to even match his power, only since Jimmy is mostly quiet through the movie, it lacks the gravitas.

The Wizard has some nostalgia value for gamers from the 80’s, and I can understand why.  This is arguably the first movie that shows gamers in an honest light.  While the Wizard isn’t exactly realistic, it does try to convey the feeling of being a kid growing up at a time where Nintendo was super-giant, casting its glow across an already-energized entertainment landscape.  So, if you are younger, and you are curious to see what it was like to be a young gamer at the time, this movie will definitely get that message across, but do not expect to be blown away by “great graphics”.