Why They Made This Crazy Movie
Released in 1989, The Wizard was a major motion picture that doubled as a promotional vehicle for Nintendo products. It's quite likely the only motion picture to require a "Power Glove Consultant" (for the record, this consultant is named only as "Novak" in the credits), and the movie is crammed full of product placement -- primarily for the Nintendo Entertainment System and its games, but also for a bevy of partner brands, including Hostess (a major plot point involves hitching a ride in a Hostess Brands delivery van, plus dialogue regarding Ho-Hos®), Universal Studios (the studio actually produced the movie and conveniently set most of the third act in its theme park), Cosmopolitan (seen in closeup several times), Vision Street Wear (seen on many of the hipper characters), Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, and countless others.
As a memory from my childhood, The Wizard is totally awesome -- it's about video games! There's that crazy gamer kid with the Power Glove! Awesome! But as a movie, The Wizard is a creepy mess.
It's a strange mix of styles, with thirteen-year-old kids trading cornball wisecracks that would still seem odd coming from actors three times their age. What's worse, the old-timey dialogue is often weirdly ribald, though maybe that's unintentional. At one point, thirteen-year-olds Haley (Jenny Lewis) and Corey (Fred Savage) share this exchange, while looking for adult marks they can hustle playing video games:
Haley: "We've gotta find someone dumb enough to suck one."
Corey: [Upon seeing two salesmen playing an arcade game, the game cabinet plastered with a gigantic Tom Petty poster.] "Perfect, they're salesmen! Wait here!"
"So Bad" (the Technology)
Okay, so it's dated, but from when? The 50s? (Many plot points involve hitch-hiking, riding buses great distances, living a drifter lifestyle, eating in diners, and even sleeping in a drive-in movie theater projection booth.) A more 80's line comes when Lucas Barton (the primary teen antagonist) says: "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad." The only real appearance of the Power Glove in the movie comes just before that line, in an extended product demo where Barton shows off how good (sorry, bad) he is at Rad Racer. Lucas also spends a few lines of dialogue demonstrating the breadth of the NES videogame lineup, as he casually mentions he has 97 titles for the console (and apparently is an expert at all of them). According to unverifiable internet lore, the sounds emitted by the Power Glove during the Rad Racer scene are the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That's pretty bad.
The movie also shows tons of Nintendo's PlayChoice-10 arcade games, which allowed gamers to play from a selection of NES titles for a limited time. While I do remember seeing these in arcades, in the world of the movie, the PlayChoice-10 is conveniently located in virtually all public places, from restaurants to bus depots to...other restaurants. There's a lot of action in the second act set in restaurants and diners because of the requirement that NES games be played frequently. When a PlayChoice-10 is unavailable or utterly implausible (as in the interior motel scenes), Christian Slater (!!) plugs in the NES he carries around, just so he can play games on the road (he apparently also carries at least the TMNT game and Zelda II). Oh, did I fail to mention that Christian Slater appears in this movie? He's the older brother of Corey and older half-brother of Jimmy (Luke Edwards), and serves only as a comedic baffle for the father figure (Beau Bridges), who otherwise would be driving around looking for his runaway kids by himself. I should note that Slater had just done Heathers in 1988, so this seems like an odd career choice.
The Wizard was the first look (for U.S. gamers, anyway) at Super Mario Bros. 3 -- although it was available in Japan the year before. Interestingly, the word "Nintendo" is rarely spoken in the movie -- the only time I heard it actually mentioned was during a brief scene where we see the hip cubicle farm behind the Nintendo Power Line (a paid phone help service NES gamers could call for tips). Don't get me wrong, Nintendo games and products are shown constantly, but the script seems to tiptoe around actually using the word "Nintendo." Even the Nintendo Power magazine is retitled Power Magazine in the movie.
What Does the Power Glove Actually Do?
Let's leave aside the movie for a moment and talk about that Power Glove. It was released in the U.S. in 1989, though it wasn't actually created by Nintendo. It was produced by Mattel in the US, and it had an ambitious goal: replace the NES controller with a more natural interface. Sound familiar, Wii users? Indeed, the Wii controller succeeded with some of the technical areas the Power Glove pioneered -- just a couple decades later. The Power Glove was actually based on an earlier class of peripherals called Datagloves, which were too expensive to reach the mass market.
The Power Glove had sensors built into the fingers (minus the pinky, which tends to follow the ring finger's movement), which allowed very basic hand gestures to be recognized. In addition to the finger tracking, the glove could be tracked in 2D or 3D space using ultrasonic microphones and emitters, allowing some Wii-like behavior...but the 3D space tracking required a game title to be written specifically for the glove; only two of those were actually released. The glove also had a modified NES controller strapped to the wrist, with a series of ten hotkeys that could be programmed to do useful things (think "finishing moves," but then think, "oh, right, NES"). One of the finishing moves for the glove's use in the real world was that you had to hold your whole arm up in a limited space -- which gets tiring really fast. Oh, and have you noted that it's only available in a right-handed model? At the end of the day, the product was way ahead of its time (in that it envisioned a more natural mode of interacting with games) but so technically limited that it hardly made any sense.
You can read more about the technical problems of the Power Glove from this 90's-era FAQ. You might also enjoy this 20th Anniversary fan-made mod (watch the video), with schematics available.
...And, back to the movie! Seems like a lighthearted romp, eh? Guess what it was titled in other countries (according to IMDB and Wikipedia): Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Sweet Road in Japan, The Video Game Genius in Brazil, Vidéokid in France, and Game Over in Finland.
The Plot and Other Problems
What's weirdest about The Wizard is its complicated relationship with gambling, death, violence, and mental health problems. The plot is instigated by a repeat-runaway boy (Jimmy) whose diagnosis isn't specified in the movie, though it's pretty clear he's supposed to be an autistic savant and also suffering from some sort of undiagnosed emotional shock over the death of his twin sister. Jimmy is in a mental institution. The plot involves Corey busting Jimmy out of the nuthouse and getting him to "California" (the only word Jimmy can speak for the first half of the movie) from Utah as they're chased by a bounty hunter whose primary job is retrieving lost kids. It's not explained why law enforcement isn't involved, and why three prepubescent kids running around the western U.S. aren't noticed by any adults. Oh, and Haley is picked up by the half-brothers Corey and Jimmy (I won't get into why they're half-brothers; it's overly complex) as Haley is hanging out by herself in a bus depot, reading Cosmo.
The trek to California is accomplished primarily by gambling -- a series of double-your-money hustles instigated by the queerly parentless Haley. We actually get to see Haley's trailer home at one point, though her father (a trucker) is on the road. In addition to video game-related hustles, the trio end up at one point in an actual casino, wherein Haley's skill at craps allows an adult ("Spankey," a mentally challenged "trucker friend" of her father's, played by Frank McRae) to win hundreds. It's later revealed that Haley's deceased mother had a gambling problem, which apparently led to Haley's hustling skills. Corey's mother is also dead. And Jimmy's sister/Corey's half-sister? She's dead, too. What?! Never mind that now. We have to get to California.
During all of this action, we see some troubling stuff -- the trio are roughed up and robbed by a gang of older kids, they're robbed by cattle farmers, and at one point Haley screams "He touched my breast!" to get the bounty hunter out of the way. There's also a series of violent encounters between the kids' father and the bounty hunter, in which they try to destroy each other's cars, while onlookers gaze complacently at a series of serious car crashes and sip beer. The universe of The Wizard is perversely unaware of kids as entities in need of protection and social norms related to public violence.
Anyway, our heroes end up at Universal Studios in Los Angeles (after a brief detour in Reno, which appears to be a brand partner in the movie due to its repeated hype in dialogue and an extended intro montage...), where "Video Armageddon" is underway. This event is a loosely disguised version of the Nintendo World Championships, which debuted the year after the movie. Jimmy fulfills his destiny and somehow everything is fine. Oh, there's also a moment (which I won't spoil in any great depth) involving the Cabazon Dinosaurs explaining Jimmy's "California" thing. The kid's basically Rain Man but for video games, minus all the real human emotions.
I set out to write a wacky nostalgia piece about Nintendo's attempt to market the Power Glove via this childhood movie that I thought I remembered pretty well. What I found out by re-watching the movie was that there's way more going on here than just marketing -- this movie dances around some pretty heavy/intense stuff, but never deals with any of it. For example, at the end, it's unclear what will happen to Haley, who, as far as her father knows, has been AWOL for days. It sure looks like she's going to go and live with the Corey/Jimmy/Christian Slater/Beau Bridges family...but...uh...she already has a father and a home. But, hey, it's a movie, make up your own ending.
I'll leave you with some odd trivia: apparently Tobey Maguire makes a cameo as one of Lucas's henchmen. Also, there was a Wizard reunion in 2008 in which it was revealed that an hour of footage was cut from the movie -- that likely accounts for some of the plot issues. (This interview with the director sheds some light on the tacked-on plot points as well.)
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