Fred Savage, Jenny Lewis and Tobey Maguire all appeared in the 1989 video game flick
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Fred Savage movie The Wizard hit theaters. For many ’80s babies, this was required viewing – either to see a first glimpse of the yet-to-be-released Super Mario Bros. 3 or to see what the Wonder Years star looked like in contemporary clothes.
Critics, however, dismissed this video-gaming, road trip movie as a showcase for Nintendo products. Roger Ebert‘s review began on a sharply sarcastic note: “This is a movie that has everything going for it, except for a good script, a believable premise and common sense.”
Today, The Wizard stands as a reminder of a time when we had no idea whether a movie’s plot was plausible. But it also makes for a neat snapshot of that blurry line between decades – when ’90s pop culture was still forming and ’80s culture hadn’t yet faded away. Here’s why:
First up, Fred Savage
Just one year into the run of The Wonder Years, Fred Savage was a hot property when The Wizard hit theaters. He’d only had a handful of movie credits to his name – The Boy Who Could Fly, The Princess Bride and Little Monsters – so it was not only a treat for fans to see the guy as something other than his Wonder Years character, Kevin Arnold, but also to see if he’d become the next big thing.
Today, he’s an active TV director who’s helmed episodes of shows including Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls. He didn’t end up becoming Fred Savage: movie superstar, but he has ended up with a longer-lived Hollywood career than most teen sensations.
But also Jenny Lewis
Indie rock fans know Lewis better today as a musician: She played with the band Rilo Kiley from 1998 to 2011, and she has since performed successfully as a solo artist.
Even though her lyrics seem to reflect back on her child star days – the track “Rabbit Fur Coat” bemoans her past as “a $100,000 kid” – it’s tough to reconcile the currently more jaded Lewis with her past as the star of this film and, earlier in 1989, Troop Beverly Hills.
It features Tobey Maguire’s first film role
In this non-speaking, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, Maguire sports a mullet that is fantastically late ’80s.
He plays one of the bully antagonist’s cronies, and this role stands in stark contrast to basically every role he has subsequently played.
A guest appearance by Super Mario Bros. 3
For the gamers in the audience, the new Mario game practically deserved top billing. The fact that The Wizard debuted Super Mario Bros. 3, which wouldn’t hit American shelves until February 12, 1990, was well-hyped in the official Nintendo magazine. This was a big deal.
(And yes, that is Christian Slater and Beau Bridges playing Fred Savage’s older brother and father, respectively.)
The game footage comprises only five minutes of the film, it turns out. And while game nerds today might relish in pointing out how inaccurately The Wizard portrays the game, you have to admit: Video games never seemed so dramatic.
And then there’s the Power Glove
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Power Glove, the Nintendo accessory wielded by the film’s evil gamer, was invented solely for the film. It does, after all, seem tailor-made for an ’80s movie villain.
The Power Glove, however, was real. Made by Mattel, the cyber-gauntlet foreshadowed motion control years before Nintendo released the Wii console. The trouble was that the Power Glove just didn’t work well, and so its most glorious moment is the scene you see above.
It offered a glimpse into the life of video game counselors
Video game help lines existed back in the day. Kids could call in with questions about tough spots in whatever game, and helpful telephone operators would have answers. How did they always know? The following montage from The Wizard told us: binders and binders full of game info.
The movie’s take on video game counselors wasn’t that far off, it turns out. And even if the Internet rendered this line of work obsolete a few years later, the game-crazed among us had a few years to dream we’d one day be the know-it-alls on the other end of the line.
It’s a veritable product placement bonanzaBut don’t just think of The Wizard as a feature-length Nintendo commercial. It also boasts prominent advertisements for
And Universal Studios, where the film’s finale takes place
It’s a solid lesson in how cool kids dressed at a very specific point in time.
It’s not the ’80s. It’s not quite the ’90s. It’s both. It’s neither. And any of it would have looked cool on a Miller’s Outpost mannequin.
It has a “Send Me an Angel” moment.
Sure, the Real Life hit will forever be tied to the “bike dance” scene in 1986’s Rad – if you haven’t seen it, watch it here ASAP – but The Wizard also uses the song to maximum effect.
It’s there to remind you that, even though this was released in the last two weeks of the ’80s, it’s still an ’80s movie.
And less so, all the dark, sad stuff
It’s easy to get lost in the nostalgia for the time period depicted in The Wizard and forget that the movie isn’t all arcade games and totally tubular fashion.
Throughout the film, Fred Savage’s video game prodigy brother (Luke Edwards) carries with him a lunchbox. It’s only at the end of the film – at the Cabazon dinosaurs from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and many a family road trip – that you find out why: He wants to bury this memory box dedicated to his dead twin sister at the site of his family’s last vacation.
That’s heavy, to say nothing of the gambling, grifting, family strife, mental illness and hitchhiking you wouldn’t expect from a mere “video game movie.” For a lot of kids in the audience, The Wizard was the first movie to throw some adult themes at us. It was maybe a necessary prep for the cinematic gut punch two years later that was My Girl. Thanks?