There was a certain magic about being an NES fan in the late ’80s. It was a time when home video games were experiencing a renaissance, and Nintendo was a doorway into a new world. It was its own culture; its own community. Hanging out with friends, playing the latest games and spreading the latest wild rumors stirred the imagination in a way that today’s internet-driven world has all but forgotten about. There was a freshness and excitement that was a far cry from the vile cynicism, apathy and elitism of the modern gaming community. It was carefree innocence revolving around the simple joy of playing a video game.
In the middle of that came an unexpected film: Todd Holland’s The Wizard, starring Fred Savage, Luke Edwards, Jenny Lewis, Beau Bridges and Christian Slater. Released in the U.S. in December 1989, it was a cheesy little road movie about a kid who had a gift for playing video games, and apparently NES games in particular. Today, it’s often pegged as a 100-minute Nintendo commercial, but it owed as much inspiration to the previous year’s Oscar-winning film Rain Man as well as to The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy. It got hammered by critics and didn’t do particularly well in theaters, and yet, almost 25 years later, it resonates as an object of nostalgia. In the midst of the innocence of the NES generation, The Wizard could never have been made at any other time.
And it resonated with me in particular. Not just because of the video games, but also because of the road trip. My family tended to travel somewhat frequently when I was young, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it happened to be across some of the very same Nevada and California roads seen in The Wizard. (Believe me, it’s not as interesting as it looks in the movie. There’s a reason it’s known as The Loneliest Road in America.) More than that, the film really captured the exuberance and excitement I felt as a Nintendo fan. It’s like the movie was made especially for me.
The first time I heard about it was from its TV spot. The first thing that caught my attention was the orchestral version of the Super Mario Bros theme playing in the background. Those kinds of remixes are a dime a dozen now, but back then, I had never heard the blips and bloops of video game music played with actual instruments before, and it was amazing. The second thing I noticed was Fred Savage, who was an extremely popular child actor at the time due to his starring role on the TV series The Wonder Years, as well as in films like The Princess Bride. And finally, there was Super Mario Bros 3. It was my very first glimpse at what was, at that point, the most anticipated sequel of all-time.
I saw it in the theater twice, rented it on home video a few times, and recorded it on VHS when it was shown on TV just a year after its theatrical run. The film was as much a part of my childhood as any actual video game.
You could call it a “bad” movie (or even a “good bad” movie), but in my opinion, there’s quite a bit to like about it. It moves along at a brisk pace and never drags. It has a lot of genuinely funny scenes, and there’s a ton of quotable dialog (some of which is still repeated even today). It also has memorable characters, a pretty good soundtrack, and some beautiful scenery. Flaws aside, it’s a pretty entertaining film.
And then there are the games. A lot of people like to point out the numerous inaccuracies, and yeah, most kids noticed them even when the movie came out. But to me, that flippant portrayal of video games is part of the movie’s charm. It goes back to what I said earlier about how the movie couldn’t have been made at any other time, and it reflects the carefree feeling of gaming in that era.
There have been several film adaptations of video games since then, and I’m not sure it’s ever been gotten quite right. The Wizard, however, was unique in that it wasn’t based directly on a video game, but rather used them as a backdrop or McGuffin. In a way, it was a precursor to future “video game culture movies,” such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Wreck-It Ralph.
Today, The Wizard stands as a doorway back to that innocent time. Some of that old NES magic rubbed off on it back then, and every time I watch it, a little ray of it shines out. For me, and perhaps many other kids of the NES generation, it’s a little reminder of what made gaming so enjoyable in the first place. Games needn’t always be taken so seriously. Having fun is far simpler than that.
Ain’t It Cool News – Monki talks with Todd Holland, director of The Wizard!
A lengthy and insightful interview from 2008.
NintendoLife – The Making of The Wizard
A look behind-the-scenes.