It's PG, but 1980s PG. That's a very different beast. Yeah, still completely tailored to kids. I think the '80s aimed movies at children my kids' age, but didn't really care about what was considered appropriate. My anecdotal evidence is that I turned out fine, but there were a handful of really cringey moments, like when a preteen screamed out that she was sexually assaulted by the antagonist in a crowded casino and the director probably put that in there for laughs? Also, just casual language. You were totally allowed to swear in kids' movies in the '80s. Regardless, PG.
DIRECTOR: Todd Holland
I did it. You see this? I went back to my childhood to a movie I knew wouldn't hold up and decided to challenge its cult status. It's because I have nothing to lose. My blog is still in Facebook jail and isolation is bringing the worst out of us. So I'm just going to sit here, on a Friday, and write about The Wizard. People my age love being the one to remember The Wizard. It's on par with dropping a Denver the Last Dinosaur reference in conversation. Those people who were just emotionally moved by what I just wrote, you know exactly what I'm talking about. My generation gets blamed for being nostalgia hounds. We are, but other generations are as well. It's just really easy to jump back into our generation of nostalgia because it's so easy to get a hold of.
As everyone points out about The Wizard, it's a Nintendo commercial as a movie. We all remember the poster child for the '80s, Fred Savage, going to a tournament and having to see a Power Glove coupled with Super Mario Bros. 3. (Odd true story: I got an advance copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 from the video store somehow. It didn't have a box and it was already tagged with a "Be Kind, Rewind" sticker on it, but I played that thing, like, two days before anyone else did. This sound spurious, but I'm fairly certain that happened.) Well, the Power Glove and the Mario 3 thing weren't in the same scene and it wasn't Fred Savage who was playing. Also, you probably completely forgot that the movie also starred Beau Bridges and Christian Slater. At least I forgot that stuff.
The Wizard almost could exist as a movie. There's this thing where I see this director wanting to make the next Rain Man. I won't be dancing around the Rain Man comparison. He's got this story and he's got a pretty impressive cast. People are immediately reeling from the phenomenon that is Rain Man and imagine if it was with children? Geez, that's got to be a punch to the heart, right? There are so many moments where I see Holland trying to craft something marvelous. He's got this kid, walking down the highway, hauntingly chanting "California." (I, after seeing this movie as a kid, would walk around my house also chanting "California" because I haven't changed a bit.) There's this story of child endangerment and abuse. There's a story of friendship. He's got a bit of a budget. But, and it's not the first time I've griped about the studio system and corporate America, he's got these financial overlords just looming over him. If you ever watched the later seasons of Chuck, you'll know how bad sponsorship can get. I know that that the suits behind this movie wanted to capitalize on Nintendo. I know it. It was probably even pitched to Holland with that premise. But I'm sure that he thought he could rein it in.
What ends up happening is that The Wizard ends up being a cautionary tale that Hollywood has only heeded on occasion. Sometimes, cross-promotion can be too much. I remember watching CastAway and I would just get actively annoyed how many FedEx things showed up in that movie. All the boxes looked amazing and they all were side up. The Cheerios box in Superman: The Movie keeps pivoting to hit the ray of sunlight through Ma Kent's window. But I don't think anything takes the cake like The Wizard. There actually might be something of meat behind the Nintendo swag. Yeah, going across the country to enter a video game tournament seems pretty pandering, even for the '80s. But at the heart of the movie is a desperate attempt to discuss the complexities of family. I'm sure that some of the suits would have killed to find a way to talk about how Nintendo brings families together. There's a little bit of that inside The Wizard. But ultimately, there's a story about these kids and how no one understands them. One of them is in criminal need of bonding and the world keeps using him as a pawn. At its core, there is something really moving about The Wizard. But every time the movie exposes some degree of vulnerability, Fred Savage has to say something about "getting 50,000 points in Double Dragon."
This is silly of me to bring up, but does it feel like The Wizard was made by someone who genuinely does not understand video games. I know. It had to be a screenwriter. Nintendo probably gave him a list of games to mention: Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rad Racer. But when these moments come on the screen, you really learn about as much from these games as watching a commercial for the game. No one was playing Double Dragon for the score. I know that cabinets thrive on the idea that, if your score was high enough, you got to put your name into it. But Jimmy was playing that cabinet for a few minutes. If it came down to score, those kids would have noticed just the hours that he had been playing that machine. The value that The Wizard holds to today's society is the idea that video games became mainstream. Very much like how Hackers was an inaccurate portrayal of "hacking culture", The Wizard oh-so-desperately tried to pan to an audience who wanted to have their seminal film break box office records. But what actually happened? I don't know if hardcore gamers worship at the feet of The Wizard, but I get the vibe that they don't. The movie drops these video game references in without an actual love for the product they are selling.
When I watched Wreck-It Ralph, I knew that the people who made the movie were genuine video game fans. There's so many references, but a lot of them are stuff that was clearly precious to them. Yeah, Sonic shows up for a second. But really, the movie is full of notes to classic titles. These are things that the creators grew up with and wanted to share. It becomes something made out of love versus something made out of necessity. Now, I'm not the biggest NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fan in the world. I really got the vibe that the references that Beau Bridges throws out are completely and utterly made up. Who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. What I do know about the NES Ninja Turtles is that there is no way that Beau Bridges would get hooked on Nintendo based on that very rage-quitty game. There's one thing that you can really take away from that game and that is the fact that it is almost unplayable. They even show in the film the infamous underwater level. You know that first time gamer Beau Bridges was playing that water level and saying, "You know what, I get it now." Nope, he'd be shattering that controller into a million pieces and probably growing more distant from Christian Slater as opposed to closer to him.
I was going to ask this movie why it was so afraid to be vulnerable, but I think we all know the answer to that. As I have stated, the studio wanted something poppy and commercial. They had this sponsor with Nintendo, who wanted to move as many bits of product as possible, including this mythic new Power Glove (that worked nothing like it did in the game. Trust me. I know from experience) and they had these titles that needed advertisement, including the super rad Super Mario Bros. 3. There was a director who had a loose outline of a touching story and if it was finessed just a little bit, it could turn into something important. But I'm sure that the studio kept peeking in and pushing a little more in. Then Universal Studios showed up and then offered more money. Despite the fact that the central focus of this essay is The Wizard as a cautionary tale, it did exactly what it was supposed to. Do you understand that everyone my age remembers The Wizard to a certain extent? The movie wanted money, but it also didn't want us to forget the awesomeness that was Nintendo. Yeah, there's no one shooting for those legacy points, but The Wizard permeated culture way more than it had any right to. Even the most general analysis of this movie would deem it a Rain Man knock off. The more accurate interpretation is that it is an hour-and-a-half commercial for Nintendo.
And yet...I watched it as an adult. I introduced my kids to it. And I'm weirdly okay that I did.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.