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The Wizard, The Power Glove, and Children in Peril

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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.

The Movie

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)

It's So Bad - The Power GloveOkay, 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?

Power Glove

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.

The Trailer

...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.

Video Armageddon

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.

In Conclusion

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.)

Also, of course, Jenny Lewis went on to form one of my favorite bands, Rilo Kiley. You can watch The Wizard (in HD!) on Netflix streaming, if you dare, and DVDs are also available.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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