Product placement has become a huge part of the film making industry. You may not even overtly notice it as you watch your favorite films but chances are its there. When a lead character grabs a name brand soda or well known pack of cigarettes someone most likely paid to have their product featured. In 1989 video games where rapidly increasing in popularity. One of the best known of these new game empires was Nintendo. In that year they teamed up with Universal studios to promote their new games in the setting of a teenaged road trip/buddy film. The film was ‘The Wizard", and while some have openly stated that it is little more than a 100 minute long Nintendo commercial there is actually a film in there with some reasonable performances. As with so many misunderstood films you have to consider the target audience, in this case about 11 to 15 year old boys. Some plot elements where included to help gather in the female demographic which was not as into video games as the boys back then.
The Mr. and Mrs. Woods divorced the split up all their property. While that is typical what happened is two brothers, Corey (Fred Savage) and his younger brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) where separated. Corey was to live with his father Sam (Beau Bridges) while Jimmy was sent of to his mother Christine (Wendy Phillips) and stepfather Bateman (Sam McMurray). Corey has always been protective of his sibling, especially after Jimmy witnessed the drowning death of his twin sister and became almost catatonic. In this near autistic state one of the only people able to reach Jimmy is Corey. Their mother has little patience for her young son’s condition and rather than have it interfere with her new life announces she plans to send Jimmy to an in-patient care facility. He initially appeals to his father to intervene but Sam lacks legal custody and in unable to help. Corey is outraged and plots to take Jimmy away from Utah to California. While on the road the pair of brothers meets up with a teenage girl, Haley (Jenny Lewis) who is also a runaway. While traveling towards their destination Corey and Haley discover that Jimmy has a gift, he is a wizard at playing video games. They manage to earn some money for their travels by having Jimmy hustle local video game players. No one would suspect this ‘out of it’ little kid could beat them so they bet every cent of their allowances. It would appear that most children living in desert towns between Utah and California have a god deal of disposable income. In one of the many convenient set of circumstances the band of travelers hears about a tournament for video gamers, Video Armageddon, which has a grand prize of $50,000. Winning this would not only make the kids financially secure but also prove to Christine that Jimmy does not require institutionalization. All is not smooth sailing for the kids. Sam and his brother Nick (Christian Slater) are hot on their tails. Also chasing the kids is a private eye, Putnam (Will Seltzer) hired by Christine because of his expertise in tracking down runaway children. Jimmy has a serious rival in the form of Lucas (Jackey Vinson). His specialty is using a game controller that fits over the right hand called the power glove. He is a one boy trade show owning just about every game then devised. His goal is to crush the freak and win the prize for himself.
Sure, it is true that Nintendo was featured here including views of the then heavily promoted new game, Super Mario Brothers 3. Every attempt was made to places these product placements in such a way as to make it feel natural. Usually, the game is shown being played as part of the plotline. An even Universal studio gets into the self promotion mode when the kids travel through the Universal Theme Park. Although the story is contrived and there are far too many implausible situations the film does nicely combine several time honored genres. There is the buddy movie. Here two brothers have to get to know each other better as they face obstacles together. Then there is the road trip flick. Adventures that the main characters would never face at home threaten to keep them from getting to their goal. Last there is the coming of age film. At thirteen Corey was just beginning to notice girls when he finds himself on the road with a cute red hair girl. Many have likened this flick to Rain Man but it seems more natural to take it as a variation of the Who’s classic rock opera ‘Tommy’. You have the traumatized young boy who finds his only real means of relating to the world is by playing a game. The scenes of the actual tournament seemed like the ones we have seen in so many sports flicks. There is a level of excitement but watching kids play video games is not exactly something many people can get into.
Although this was before his break out television hit ‘The Wonder Years’, Fred Savage demonstrated that he was a young talent that could handle the focus of a film. Savage does well with his empathic scenes with his on screen brother but does fail to show enough chemistry with his female co-star. Perhaps this is to be expected since he was only 13 at the time. In one way this works since his character was still uncertain about how to relate to girls. Savage certainly has enough energy here although he is not given the best of scripts to work with. The career of Luke Edwards never really caught on but in this film he does a fine job. Edwards plays Jimmy perfectly, a boy who retreated into his own world to avoid the horrible memory of watching his twin die. With video games he is finally finds that he has a place to be in absolute control. His autistic condition may isolate him from the real world but with video games it is an amazing advantage. Jenny Lewis is well cast as the road wise young Haley. She is the one that has to show the ropes to the boys on how to survive outside the safety and comfort of their parent’s home. It was a good idea to have a strong girl in the film since the video game aspect was predominately to attract to the boys back then.
The technical specifications of the DVD release by Universal are reasonable. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video shows some little signs of age but overall it is clear with a bright color balance. The audio is only in two channel Dolby stereo but that is true to the original theatrical release. This is a release mostly for those that grew up around 1989 and remember this film as something they could identify with. It is a good film for the whole family although today’s kids may find the ground breaking games featured here nothing like the ones they play.