Junkfood Cinema: The Wizard

By  · Published on December 10th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; continue? This is the weekly internet column that fails where all others succeed. Every Friday I serve up a film selection that fell way short of auteur shortly after it was greenlit, and pick apart exactly what relegates to the back shelves of your local, flatlining videostore. But then, in acknowledgment of my celebrated lack of taste, I will dopily sing the film’s praises in what can only be described as the verbal representation of an 8year-old’s sugar rush. As if that weren’t enough reason to stop reading right now and switch over to Chat Roulette, I will then pair the bad movie with an even more unhealthy snack food item to ensure that no fiber of your being goes unassaulted by my efforts.

This week’s snack: The Wizard.

The Wizard is the happy-go-lucky story of a rapidly disintegrating family unit. Almost in succession, lil’ sis drowns, mom runs off, and the youngest boy goes catatonic. Now his dad and two older brothers are worried that young Jimmy may have to be locked away because of his muteness, which I think is little more than a naturally-evolved defense mechanism. Let’s face it, if my dad was Beau Bridges and my brothers were Christian Slater and Fred Savage, I’d be similarly disinclined to strike up conversations. Unhappy with the thought of his younger bro living out the rest of his life on the funny farm, middle child Corey (Fred Savage) abducts Jimmy and the two run away to California. Along the way they meet a preteen con artist,who, upon noticing the lilliputian Rain Man’s proficiency with arcade games, persuades the intrepid brothers to enter a video game competition. Because, as we all know, nothing fixes a fractured family and reverses post traumatic stress disorder like the Nintendo Entertainment System.

What Makes It Bad?

This cast is populated with so many hammy actors mugging for the camera that their very occupation of the same screen is enough to gravely offend an orthodox Jew. Slater flashes his shark smile constantly whether the scene calls for it or not, and his ceaseless “can you believe this guy” soliloquies make him look even more mentally deficient than his little brother. Savage engages in plenty of trademark eyebrow acting while desperately trying to convince the world of his staying power in the twilight of the fading 1980s…good luck there Freddy. And Beau wanders around with disingenuous good-ol-boy luster while perpetually, internally wondering why he is not the more regarded Bridges. This family gels together about as well as a bag full of jagged, beef-scented rocks.

The Wizard is a film with absolutely no concept of how to handle its delicate subject matter, When a family runs aground on hard times and two of their children run away, it is about the most volatile and emotionally turbulent experience one can imagine. So of course the natural solution is to hire a bounty hunter that specializes in children to track them down. Yeah, I’m sure that guy won’t end up across the table from Chris Hansen someday with a box of wine and a guilty, thousand-yard stare. You also have to love the solemn approach the film takes to the hardships the kids face being on the road and on their own. Like when a truck-full of desperadoes rob them and then dump them by the side of the road to the totally appropriate Hee Haw score. Given the serious tone of the beginning of this film, this scene feels as out of place as prepubescent cigarette girl in a children’s casino in Reno, Nevada. I’m going to repeat that as it actually exists in this film, a tiny little showgirl selling candy to the abandoned offspring of gamblers in an arcade within the casino. Just like actual runaways encounter…never.

If this film were any cheesier, it would be served as a deep-fried appetizer in a Wisconsin diner. The performances of every single ancillary adult character are exaggerated to the point that I kept waiting for the obligatory 80s laugh track to roar up, The two marks Jimmy hustles over a videogame and the hapless gambler Spankey are among the worst. The very real conflict between a father looking for his sons and a sleaze bag wanting to impede him so he can make money off their capture is deluded to a series of Dukes of Hazard pranks and general tomfoolery. I also don’t know what’s worse, the set of the videogame competition that seems plucked from a failing New Jersey mall instead of Universal Studios, or the excruciating traveling montage featuring the decade-appropriately terrible song “Send Me an Angel.” Ugh, send me anywhere else!

Why I Love It!

As a child of the late 80s, and an unrepentant videogame nerd, The Wizard is an absolute opus to my adolescence. The scene that induced the most preteen avarice in my heart was undoubtedly the power glove scene. If you are unfamiliar with the power glove, it is basically an NES controller fastened to a kiln operator’s glove and decked out like a new wave music video. It is worn by a tiny little goon named Lucas, replete with plastic neon shades and Zubaz shorts, as he proves his gaming prowess and unshakable self-worth even in the face of his wardrobe. The power glove gave us the very real ability to make wasting hours and hours on marathon videogame play look even stupider. But as a kid, I was convinced that if I didn’t get a power glove within hours of leaving the theater, I would most likely expire.

Really, the thing I love about the gaming in The Wizard is how it boldly dates itself the way few films have the gumption to do. With the ultimate in geek fashion accessories in tow, it drags us through a now largely forgotten sea of fringe technology and nerdy references. There are jokes made about “scroll weapons,” “master keys,” and a whole host of other lingo guaranteed to secure you zero dates, I also love the big reveal of the “brand new game” at the videogame competition: Super Mario Brothers 3. Now granted, this is one of the greatest games ever created and to this day maintains replay value, but the pomp and circumstance given to its introduction in the film is apt to make The Wizard forever behind-the-times. And were there really NES hotlines people could call to get help with the games? Are they still around? Are they hiring?

Overall, this film happened to land in my universe at the perfect time in my life to make it forever endearing. I played NES until my eyeballs bled and my body went into convulsions from the nearly three weeks without sleep. But more than that, I always fantasized about running away from home. Being a middle-class white kid with great parents and an endlessly sorrow-free existence, I had absolutely no reason to want to run away from home. But the fantasy was more about the adventure and the delusions of independence I harbored. In the end, I opted for watching The Wizard for the umpteenth time on VHS and covetously oogling every arcade cabinet…a behavior only exacerbated upon adult-aged revisits.

Junkfood Pairing: Nintendo Power Cereal

Yes, this is a real thing…or at least it was. There were several different versions released to correspond with many of the successful NES titles. I think the only one I ever tried was the Zelda cereal; basically Chex with marshmallows featuring amorphous blobs touted as game character-shaped. So as you watch The Wizard, complete your sad refusal to exit the late 80s with a heaping helping of Nintendo Power cereal. It’ll be like living in a time capsule with a strict, unfortunate “no girls allowed” policy.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.