(Note: This movie contains no actual wizards.)
“The Wizard” is both a tender family comedy about a 9-year-old boy mourning the death of his twin sister, and a Nintendo commercial. You might have thought those two things could never be combined, but that’s why you’re just a whatever you are and not a successful Hollywood executive. You have to think outside the box, and by “box” I mean “bounds of good taste.”
The film, released in December 1989, includes footage from Super Mario Bros. 3, which would not be available in the United States for another few months. And when it finally went on sale, you can bet the eleven people who saw “The Wizard” were first in line!
Ostensibly, “The Wizard” is about a peculiar little boy named Jimmy (Luke Edwards) who has barely uttered a word since an Unnamed Tragedy occurred two years ago. (Spoiler: His twin sister drowned in a river.) What he does instead is wander around catatonically, clutching a lunchbox, and occasionally set out on foot toward California. He won’t say why he wants to go there, though it’s not hard to guess, considering he currently lives in rural Utah. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get out of there?
Jimmy’s mother and stepfather don’t know what to do with him, so they put him in an institution, presumably the Utah State Home for the Confused and Taciturn. (This is where we intend to put my mother, eventually.) This does not sit well with Jimmy’s 13-year-old half-brother, Corey (Fred Savage), who decides to bust Jimmy out of the place and take him to California, for reasons that are not altogether clear.
You would think that to get Jimmy out, Corey would have to get himself admitted to the institution, too, like on “Prison Break,” but it’s actually easier than that, and no full-body tattoos are required. Corey just has to walk in and take Jimmy out. They hide in the back of a Hostess delivery truck, and they’re on their way — on their way to CAVITYTOWN, that is!!
No, I kid. There’s no such place. They’re on their way west, through the Nevada desert, to California. Along the way, they ditch the Hostess truck — no reason is given — and lurk around a bus station, where they try to come up with the $200 required to buy two tickets to California and learn that the $20 they have on them is insufficient. This is a basic math problem and thus educational for young viewers.
They meet a girl named Haley (Jenny Lewis), who is Corey’s age and very streetwise (not Jodie-Foster-in-“Taxi-Driver” streetwise, though). Corey says Jimmy is “just shy,” and Haley responds, “Shy a few bricks, I’d say.” Yes, Haley, you would say that, if you were Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday.”
After seeing Jimmy play an arcade game at the bus station, Haley gets an idea. (“Say, fellas, I’ve got me a notion here, see?” is more or less how she phrases it.) Maybe he should enter the $50,000 video-game tournament being held three days from now in the great state of CALIFORNIA! Which is where they’re going ANYWAY! And in the meantime, for travel expenses, maybe Jimmy should go to video arcades and hustle strangers!
The first marks they approach are a pair of 45-year-old businessmen who are, for some reason, playing a video game in a diner. When Haley and Corey tell them that Jimmy can beat them at the game, they scoff. Who ever heard of a 9-year-old being better at video games than middle-aged men?! There is betting, there is gaming, and Jimmy and his pimps walk away victorious.
Meanwhile, everyone back home is frantically searching for Jimmy, and half-heartedly searching for Corey (who at 13 is presumably old enough to fend for himself, I guess). Oh, did I say everyone? Not everyone. For example, the police don’t seem to be involved. Mentally incompetent 9-year-olds roaming the desert highways of the Western states are beyond their purview. And Jimmy’s mother and stepfather aren’t really doing anything, either. But they did go to the trouble of hiring a man named Putnam (Will Seltzer), who is a professional locator of missing children. He’s not a private detective, because he doesn’t get paid if the missing kids show up on their own, or if they’re found by someone else. So he’s more like a bounty hunter. A bounty hunter for missing children.
Since his livelihood depends on finding the kids first, Putnam has a vested interest in preventing other people from locating them. Therefore, he works diligently to hamper the efforts of Jimmy and Corey’s own father, Sam (Beau Bridges), and their older brother, Nick (Christian Slater).** There are many scenes devoted to the hijinks and shenanigans that take place between Putnam and Sam and Nick — wrecking each other’s cars, endangering each other’s lives, that kind of thing. You know how it is: You want to locate your missing children, and the goon your ex-wife hired would rather kill you than let that happen. We’ve all been there!
In addition to racing Putnam to California, Sam and Nick are also busy strengthening their father/son bond through — you guessed it — Nintendo games. It seems Nick found some game cartridges and an old Nintendo console in the back of Sam’s pickup truck, and every time they stop somewhere, he hooks it up to the nearest TV and plays. Sam thinks this is ridiculous until he starts playing and becomes a video-game addict himself. Oh, Nintendo! Always bringing families together.
While those idiots are occupying the subplot, Corey, Jimmy, and Haley are making their way to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where the video-game contest is being held, and where there are many Universal Studios attractions they can visit in this, a film produced by Universal Pictures. They hitch a ride in a truck that’s hauling cattle, only to be assaulted by the drivers when they see that the kids have money. The kids run around the perimeter of truck, screaming, while the truckers grab at them and throw them around — but don’t worry, it’s accompanied by jaunty banjo music, so it’s hilarious, not terrifying.
The kids also meet a boy named Lucas (Jackey Vinson), who is, like, the best video-game player in the world, which is sort of like being the fattest nerd at a “Star Trek” convention. Lucas has the Power Glove, which in 1989 was the latest, greatest device Nintendo had to offer. “I love to Power Glove!” Lucas says, the only known instance “Power Glove” being used as a verb. “It’s so bad!”
Thanks to the Power Glove, Lucas proves a formidable opponent, and Jimmy’s confidence is shaken. Jimmy conveys this by continuing to not say or do anything or change the blank expression on his face. This is also how he conveys having a lot of confidence. Hanging out with Jimmy is like hanging out with a cat.
The adventures of Corey, Haley, and Jimmy continue. While loitering at a hotel resort in Nevada, they are nearly apprehended by Putnam. He grabs Jimmy and starts to carry him away, but Haley, thinking quickly, yells, “He touched my breast!” Horrified bystanders detail Putnam, and Jimmy and the others are able to escape. Remember, kids: False accusations of sexual abuse are the best way to avoid responsibility. Putnam is a sleazy character, but I felt bad for him here, at least until he muttered, outraged, “She doesn’t even HAVE breasts!”
Hey, movie? WHY ARE YOU SO REPULSIVE?
The film’s climax takes place at the Nintendo tournament at Universal Studios, where Jimmy breezes through the semi-finals to become one of the finalists, along with Lucas and some nerdy girl. Yes, this is a movie whose dramatic high point comes in the form of watching people play video games. You may well imagine how thrilling it is. It’s a brand-new game that they’ve never played before, too, a little something called Super Mario Bros. 3, and the crowd goes wild to see the familiar Italian plumbers doing things that were UNHEARD OF in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2. Why, in the older games, Mario and Luigi just ran around jumping on turtles and shooting fireballs. But in Super Mario Bros. 3, they run around jumping on turtles and shooting fireballs with different background music!
And who wins the big tournament? Well, I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but let me just say that $50,000 should buy a lot of therapy for these dopey kids and their dumb parents. (Did I stump you? OK, Jimmy wins.)
** Actually, Nick is only Jimmy’s half-brother. Sam was married to Nick and Corey’s mother, who died, whereupon he married another woman and produced Jimmy, but then they got divorced and Jimmy’s mother is now married to Jimmy’s stepfather. If the screenwriter had shown an early draft of his work to any English-speaking person, that person would have said, “You know, I don’t think the family’s backstory needs to be this complicated….” I’m just sayin’.