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The Wizard, The Power Glove, and Children in Peril

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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Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
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10 Things You Might Not Know About Tina Fey
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Tina Fey has transformed modern comedy more than just about anyone else. From the main stage of Second City to the writer’s room of SNL to extremely fetch comedy blockbusters, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey has built a national stage with a dry, eye-popping sarcasm and political satire where no one is safe. She has a slew of Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, PGA, and WGA awards to prove it—plus a recent Tony nomination (her first). But, more importantly, she’s the closest thing we have to a national comic laureate.

Here are 10 facts about a fantastically blorft American icon.

1. SHE DID A BOOK REPORT ON COMEDY WHEN SHE WAS 11.

Fey got a very early start in comedy, watching a lot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and Norman Lear shows as a kid. Her father and mother sneaked her in to see Young Frankenstein and would let her stay up late to watch The Honeymooners. So it’s no surprise that she chose comedy as the subject of a middle school project. The only book she could get her hands on was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians, but at least she made a friend. "I remember me and one other girl in my 8th grade class got to do an independent study because we finished the regular material early, and she chose to do hers on communism, and I chose to do mine on comedy," Fey told The A.V. Club. "We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog."

2. THE SCAR ON HER FACE CAME FROM A BIZARRE ATTACK THAT OCCURRED WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD.

Fey’s facial scar had been recognizable but unexplained for years until a profile in Vanity Fair revealed that the mark on her left cheek came from being slashed by a strange man when she was five years old. “She just thought somebody marked her with a pen,” her husband Jeff Richmond said. Fey wrote in Bossypants that it happened in an alleyway behind her Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, home when she was in kindergarten.

3. HER FIRST TV APPEARANCE WAS IN A BANK COMMERCIAL.

Saturday Night Live hired Fey as a writer in 1997. In 1995 she had the slightly more glamorous job of pitching Mutual Savings Bank with a radical floral applique vest and a handful of puns on the word “Hi.” In a bit of life imitating art, just as Liz Lemon’s 1-900-OKFACE commercial was unearthed and mocked on 30 Rock, the internet discovered Fey’s stint awkwardly cheering on high interest rates a few years ago and had a lot to say about her '90s hair.

4. SHE WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE NAMED HEAD WRITER OF SNL.

Four years after that commercial and two after she joined Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, Fey earned a promotion to head writer. Up until that point, the head writers were named Michael, Herb, Bob, Jim, Steve. You get the picture. She acted as head writer for six seasons until moving on to write and executive produce 30 Rock. Since her departure, two more women (Paula Pell and Sara Schneider) have been head writers for the iconic show.

5. SHE’S THE YOUNGEST MARK TWAIN PRIZE WINNER.

Established in 1998, the Kennedy Center’s hilarious honor has mostly been awarded to funny people in the twilight of their careers. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and comedians who made their marks decades prior like Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and George Carlin followed. Fey earned the award in 2010 when she was 40 years old, and the age of her successors (Carol Burnett, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman ...) signals that she may hold the title of youngest recipient for some time.

6. SHE WROTE SATIRE FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER.

Fey was an outstanding student who was involved in choir, drama, and tennis, and co-edited the school’s newspaper, The Acorn. She also wrote a satirical column addressing “school policy and teachers” under the pun-tastic pseudonym “The Colonel.” Fey also recalled getting in trouble because she tried to make a pun on the phrase “annals of history.” Cheeky.

7. SHE MADE HER RAP DEBUT WITH CHILDISH GAMBINO ON "REAL ESTATE."

Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) first gained notice as a member of Derrick Comedy in college, and Fey hired him at the age of 23 to write for 30 Rock. Before jumping from that show to Community, Glover put out his first mixtape under his stage name. After releasing his debut album, Camp, in 2011, Gambino dropped a sixth mixtape called Royalty that featured Fey rapping on a song called “Real Estate.” “My president is black, and my Prius is blue!"

8. SHE VOICED PRINCESSES IN A BELOVED PINBALL GAME.

Between the bank commercial and Saturday Night Live, Fey has an intriguing credit on her resume: the arcade pinball machine “Medieval Madness.” Most of the game’s Arthurian dialogue was written by Second City members Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock) and Kevin Dorff, who pulled in fellow Second City castmate Fey to voice for an “Opera Singer” princess, Cockney-speaking princesses, and a character with a southern drawl. (You can hear some of the outtakes here.)

9. SHE USED MEAN GIRLS TO PUSH BACK AGAINST STEREOTYPES OF WOMEN IN MATH.

Tina Fey and Lindsay Lohan in 'Mean Girls' (2004)
Paramount Home Entertainment

There’s a ton of interesting trivia about Mean Girls, Fey’s first foray into feature film screenwriting. She bid on the rights to Rosalind Wiseman’s book that inspired the movie without realizing it didn’t have a plot. She initially wrote a large part for herself but kept whittling it down to focus on the teenagers, and her first draft was “for sure R-rated.” Fey also chose to play a math teacher to fight prejudice. “It was an attempt on my part to counteract the stereotype that girls can’t do math. Even though I did not understand a word I was saying.” Fey used a friend’s calculus teacher boyfriend’s lesson plans in the script.

10. SHE SET UP A SCHOLARSHIP IN HER FATHER’S NAME TO HELP VETERANS.

Fey’s father Donald was a Korean War veteran who also studied journalism at Temple University. When he died in 2015, Fey and her brother Peter founded a memorial scholarship in his name that seeks to aid veterans who want to study journalism at Temple.

"He was really inspiring," Fey said. "A lot of kids grow up with dreams of doing those things and their parents are fearful and want them to get a law degree and have things to fall back on, but he and our mom always encouraged us to pursue whatever truly interested us." Fey also supports Autism Speaks, Mercy Corps, Love Our Children USA, and other charities.

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Build Your Own Harry Potter Characters With LEGO's New BrickHeadz Set

Harry Potter is looking pretty square these days. In a testament to the enduring appeal of the boy—and the franchise—who lived, LEGO has launched a line of Harry Potter BrickHeadz.

The gang’s all here in this latest collection, which was recently revealed during the toymaker’s Fall 2018 preview in New York City. Other highlights of that show included LEGO renderings of characters from Star Wars, Incredibles 2, and several Disney films, according to Inside The Magic.

The Harry Potter BrickHeadz collection will be released in July and includes figurines of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and even Hedwig. Some will be sold individually, while others come as a set.

A Ron Weasley figurine
LEGO

A Hermione figurine
LEGO

A Dumbledore figurine
LEGO

Harry Potter fans can also look forward to a four-story, 878-piece LEGO model of the Hogwarts Great Hall, which will be available for purchase August 1. Sets depicting the Whomping Willow, Hogwarts Express, and a quidditch match will hit shelves that same day.

[h/t Inside The Magic]

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