Remember that movie with Fred Savage’s first on-screen kiss? Probably not. What about a Nintendo ad shaped like a film that coincided with the release of Super Mario 3? Not merely just the “best movie about the Nintendo game system,” The Wizard is a coming-of-age film set in the early days of gaming. It’s a family adventure about love and friendship, overcoming adversity, and kicking ass at Double Dragon.
Fred Savage plays Corey Woods, older brother to Jimmy. Jimmy’s apparent autism is actually the outward manifestation of severe emotional and psychological trauma. Jimmy’s twin sister drowned while he watched helpless from shore, and he hasn’t spoken a word since except to wistfully call out to California.
The film opens on Jimmy as he walks steadily westward, the vast expanse of the American Midwest laid out before him. “California,” he says by way of explanation to the Sheriff who rolls up, asking what he’s doing. We soon learn this is Jimmy’s MO, a behaviour which puts great stress on his family and which has finally landed him in an institution.
The Woods family isn’t any better off without Jimmy. The parents are divorced, bitter acrimony filling the space between them. Eldest son, Nick, has little respect for either parent and retreats into video games a way to escape his unhappy life. He drinks, too. Mom is remarried, Dad is trying to hold it together. In the midst of all this family strife, Corey takes off. He busts out his little brother and the two embark on a wild adventure that will take them all the way to California. Corey believes that, for whatever reason, California will cure Jimmy.
It wont. But California does have other things to offer, a healing of a different kind. As with other road movies, The Wizard is more about the journey than the destination.
Along the way, Corey discovers that Jimmy is a wiz at video games. The brothers team up with Haley, another unaccompanied minor, and together the three of them hustle their way across the US, fleecing teens and business men alike. They need the money to enter Jimmy into Video Armageddon, a video game tournament at Universal Studios. Whether Jimmy actually wants to compete isn’t addressed until Corey and Haley have a falling out. Only then does Jimmy voice his opinion. He wants to keep playing video games.
It’s unclear if video games offer an escape for Jimmy, and there’s no explanation as to why he’s so good. But for other members of the Woods family–for Nick and dad, Sam–gaming does offer a release from the stress of life. Shortly after Corey’s leaving, Sam and Nick climb into their truck, intent on finding him. Nick brings along his NES so that he doesn’t have to talk to his dad when they’re stopped for the night. After a violent encounter with a private investigator, a man named Putnam hired by Sam’s ex to find her sons, leaves Sam’s truck in the shop, Sam turns on the NES to relieve his boredom while Nick works on fixing their ride.
The implication that video games are for everyone is largely undermined by Nick and Sam’s role-reversal. Nick assumes the responsibility of getting their truck running again, while Sam grows increasingly addicted to the NES. In fact, Sam becomes so obsessed that Nick has to take it away. Gaming might be a fun way to pass the time, but it can also lead to addiction if not played responsibly.
But then what of Jimmy and the other child gamers in the movie? The Wizard might suggest that childhood gaming is risk-free, perhaps because kids are unfettered by responsibility or don’t game to escape or alleviate boredom thereby precluding addiction. Competitiveness, however, either against others or against the self, is still present. Jimmy’s main opponent is Lucas, a boy who’s dedicated his short life to gaming. Jimmy’s initial loss to Lucas is more painful for Corey and Haley, who have more riding on Jimmy than he does himself.
Lucas, for his part, is determined to win Video Armageddon and dismissed Jimmy as worthy competition. Unfamiliar with defeat, Jimmy doesn’t know what to make of it, and because of his near-muteness he is incapable of expressing his feelings. This leads Corey and Haley to conclude that Jimmy is more upset than he appears, which is more projection on their part than it is an accurate interpretation of Jimmy’s emotional state. Because Jimmy doesn’t really care.
Jimmy games not out of a love for video games but because Corey believes he can win. All Jimmy wants is to go to California, but Corey’s and Haley’s determination to reach Video Armageddon–which by chance happens to take place in LA–quickly supplants Jimmy’s psychological need to visit the west coast. Only when the situation turns dire, and it seems they won’t reach California after all, do relationships and psyches re-align themselves. Jimmy discovers in himself a desire to compete in Video Armageddon, not just to please Corey but because he honestly enjoys playing video games, and the challenges they present. Corey stops abusing Jimmy’s gift and, with Haley, finds a way to help him prepare for the competition.
Similarly, Sam and Nick’s relationship undergoes a transformation on the road. Where once father and son enjoyed a vaguely antagonistic acquaintance, they become supportive of one another. They’re bonding has more to do than a mutual concern for Corey and Jimmy, and is achieved through working together to find the boys before Putnam.
Putnam, the only main character who doesn’t game, is a sleazy child-finder who point-blank asks that Sam not go looking for his sons lest he find them first thereby depriving Putnam of a payday. Putnam constantly underestimates the kids, and resorts to property damage in order to delay Sam and Nick. His inability to relate to really anyone in the film is, in part, the result of his non-gaming status. As an outsider, Putnam can’t fathom the determination that drives the Woods boys–a character trait that is common to all the gamers in the film.
Whatever statements The Wizard makes about an emerging gaming culture can be easily dismissed as cynical pandering to a target market. Despite my musings on the film’s inner workings, the fact remains that The Wizard is largely a feature-length ad for Nintendo. Time has been kind to the film, though, which is unusual. Gaming has evolved so much since 1989, the film today trades on more on nostalgia than anything else. Take for instance the Nintendo helpline, a phone number you could call for walkthroughs. A whole montage sequence is dedicated to the helpline, as Nintendo employees comb through game manuals doling out advice over the phone. And then there’s the Power Glove, which looks awesome in the movie but proved to be a total failure in real life. Finally, there’s Super Mario 3, one of the best-selling games of all time. The game appears at the very end of the film and is the last game played in Video Armageddon. In essence, The Wizard is a product launch for the game–Super Mario 3 was released in the US in early 1990, shortly after the film’s premier in December 1989.
Truth be told, The Wizard is not a great movie by any stretch. But the film tapped into an emerging market that includes Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984). Unlike its predecessors, The Wizard breaks away from the game-specific plot and instead uses video games as a story element; Jimmy’s gaming doesn’t serve any larger purpose, he’s just really good at it. Video Armageddon, while it may be the ultimate destination for Corey and Haley, is still just a stopover on Jimmy’s personal journey.
The film finds closure only after the tournament has ended, when the Woods family is traveling home and Jimmy finally finds his California. On the side of the road, far from any video game and surrounded by his family, Jimmy–with Corey’s help–is at last able to overcome his trauma. Gaming was just a diversion. A fun bonding activity, but a diversion all the same.