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Better than They Told You - 'The Wizard' (1989)

It was enough to blow my mind when I was nine.
Universal Pictures

The Wizard (1989)


"The" Nintendo. As a kid, my dream was to own one. We had a score of different gaming systems picked up for a buck or two at garage sales by my well-intentioned parents, but nothing would satisfy. The Wizard made it worse.

Many argue that The Wizard is nothing but a feature-length Nintendo commercial. They state how crass it was for Universal Studios to showcase its theme park in the climax of the film. Perhaps they're right, but it makes the film no less touching as we watch a young boy attempt to help his psychologically damaged little brother.

Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) runs away. He does so frequently. His motives are unclear, but we learn two things very quickly: He is obsessed with getting to "California," and he is never without his lunchbox. Jimmy's parents Sam (Beau Bridges) and Christine (Wendy Phillips) are divorced following an incident involving "the river," and neither knows how to help their son and are considering having him institutionalized.

Jimmy's older brother Corey (Fred Savage) decides he must save the little boy by taking him to California. Using what meager funds they might have and a bit of ingenuity, the boys begin a trek across the American southwest. It's during this trip that Corey discovers Jimmy has a knack for video games and they begin to hustle marks at the convenience stores, restaurants and arcades scattered along their path.

They encounter Haley (Jenny Lewis), a street-smart, tough and pretty older girl who sees an opportunity to use the boys in an effort to make a little cash, informing them about a major video game competition being held in Los Angeles. The three work together, utilizing Jenny's winsome charm, her connections with an army of truck drivers, and her deviousness to help ferry this emotionally impaired gaming wunderkind to his promised land.

Meanwhile, Jimmy's mother and step-father have hired a slimy bounty hunter named Putnam (Will Seltzer) to retrieve him, as Jimmy's father and other brother Nick (Christian Slater) hop in a cramped landscaping truck in a race to find the boys first. There are several amusing exchanges between Putnam and the elder Woods as they sabotage each other in their race for the coast. Nick also introduces Sam to video games via the dusty NES he dragged along and the father and son find themselves bonding a little as they find something to distract them from their concerns.

The acting is a little dodgy at points, but there's a lot of sparkle and charm from the performances despite this. Savage brings a sympathy to Corey similar to that of Kevin on The Wonder Years. Jenny Lewis does a fine job walking that line between vulnerability and toughness. I honestly believed Luke Edwards suffered from some sort of condition, eventually having to look up his information just to be sure he didn't.

What this film really represents, and does so a bit recklessly, is one of the last runs of American free-range youth in film. Of the trio, the oldest, even at the time of release, was only thirteen, and yet they ventured over 1,000 miles together across deserts, past seedy towns and through dirty cities. As a kid I found the idea somewhat harrowing yet thrilling; as a parent I find myself conflicted. I'd love for my own kids to be able to make such a journey; it would be an amazing rite of passage. At the same time, with so many great dangers I know that I'd never allow it to happen.

This is actually the biggest problem The Wizard has: the mother sits at home waiting by a phone for the wormy Putnam to bring her son back while Sam is often easily distracted from the search for his sons by Nintendo games and petty squabbling with the bounty hunter. The peril is certainly there for the kids as we see them beat up, threatened and chased, but their parents seem to be only vaguely interested in getting them back based on some of their actions. I'll admit, though, even if it was unintentional, it adds a weird realism to the story; the parents are a confused mess and don't really know how to handle themselves in this situation.

I found myself enjoying it, even re-watching it as an adult. Perhaps a bit of nostalgia clouds my impression of it, but I think The Wizard is another of these fascinating time capsule films that people of my age could show their children and share a piece of the weird and wacky time known as the late eighties and early nineties.

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