Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Wizard
Sometimes, age is one of the most important factors in a film attaining a cheesy state. Considering actual cheese needs to mature, this shouldn’t be so surprising. But like artisanal cheese products, the ingredients are just as important as any long-held tradition about the maturation process. Sometimes, it really is just about being in the right place. Other times, it is the way the cynicism in building a sequel to a popular movie manages to reveal just the right things about the producers. And yet at other times, the aging process reveals a certain naivete on the part of the filmmakers. Then there are rare cases when the cynicism, the naivete and the aging process come together for a magically cheesy movie, like 1989’s The Wizard.
The plot concerns Corey Woods (Fred Savage) a 13(?)-year-old boy whose younger half-brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) suffers from emotional problems following the accidental drowning of his twin sister. The incident shatters the Woods family, with Corey and his older brother Nick (Christian Slater) going to live with their father Sam (Beau Bridges) and Jimmy remaining with his mother Christine (Wendy Phillips). When her new husband (Sam McMurray) gets fed up with Jimmy’s issues — and his penchant for running away in an attempt to reach California — the boy is shipped off to a home. Corey decides to bust him out and help him finally get to the West Coast.
While waiting at a bus station, Corey discovers Jimmy has a natural talent for video games; particularly games available on the Nintendo Entertainment System. When Corey uses Jimmy’s newfound ability in an attempt to hustle a girl named Haley (Jenny Lewis) out of her bus ticket, Corey and Haley hatch a plan to take Jimmy to Video Armageddon, a national video game competition at Universal Studios Hollywood. The three begin a cross country trek using Jimmy’s facility with games to make some quick scratch and Haley’s smarts to make the whole plan work.
And if the whole things sounds like a product placement laden kid’s wish fulfilled, that’s part of the charm. In the hindsight of nearly 30 years, The Wizard plays as a very nostalgic and innocent dream summer vacation. What kid in 1989 wouldn’t want to take off on the road, use their aptitude for Double Dragon to get by and see the nation before hitting up a cool theme park and a video game tournament? In fact, it sounds like such an ideal fantasy, even the generous product placements seem natural and more innocent by association.
Besides the conspicuous placement of the NES and several games like Double Dragon, Super Mario Bros. and R/C Pro Am, Sam slowly becomes a video game convert by playing the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — an infamously difficult game which just about breaks the reality of the movie for any kid who had the game at the time. There’s also a “training montage” in which Haley uses the Official Nintendo Tip Line to help aid Jimmy’s progress as he gets ready for Video Armageddon. And if you know anything about this movie, you know it’s really an ad for two then-upcoming Nintendo products: the Power Glove and Super Mario Bros. 3.
The former appears during a scene in which Jimmy meets his primary opponent, Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson). Lucas uses the Power Glove to get a high score in Rad Racer and says, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” Six month later, kids duped by the scene learned just how “bad” it actually was. The later product placement turns out to be more successful as the championship round of Video Armageddon pits Jimmy, Lucas, and a third contestant against a game they never played before: Super Mario Bros. 3; offering viewers their first glimpse of the anticipated Mario sequel and a vital clue about reaching the game’s first warp zone. The game would turn out to be on the best of the NES library and a big success for Nintendo. But even if it lived in infamy alongside the Power Glove, its extended appearance in the movie — cynically motivated at the time of of the film’s release — has a certain doofy charm to it. In fact, all of the product placement in the film not only feels sweetly innocent at the this point, but it places the film in a very specific context: the end of the ultra-capitalist 1980s.
But there’s more than the nostalgic feelings generating the film’s cheese factor. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, the film is “insanely overwritten.” According to director Todd Holland, his initial cut of the film was 50 minutes longer than the theatrical release and featured more development around Corey and Jimmy’s family. Clearly, that aspect of the story meant something to him and you can still see hints of a more serious drama in the corners of the frame. The few impressions we get of Haley’s living situation — she and her trucker dad live in a run-down trailer somewhere outside of Reno — also presents evidence that Holland had some deeply thought themes about children left to their own devices at the end of the Regan Era. But as interesting as those ideas might be, they’re wholly inappropriate in a movie cynically made by Universal to capitalize on the late ’80s video game craze.
Nevertheless, the strange tension between the studio’s needs from the picture and the drama buried underneath a kid’s fantasy about running away only aids the cheese factor. The jeopardy, such as it is, never develops past cartoony; as seen with Lucas’s introduction. A man hired to bring Jimmy back to his mother is also portrayed as an oily antagonist; but the true horror he represents only comes with decades of hindsight. In the film itself, he’s just another cartoonish oaf Sam has to hit with his truck and Haley’s trucker friends beat up. Which may lead to the cheesiest element of the film to modern eyes: its whimsical view of running away. Here, it is a delightful experience sponsored by your favorite video games instead of a harrowing ordeal undertaken by only the most desperate of youths.
Which brings us back to the intersection of cynicism and naivete. The film may have been made to promote Nintento and two of its upcoming products, but it still exists long after the promotions ended. And what remains is a cheesecloth window into one of the last times unbridled commercialism felt fun and innocent.
The Wizard is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms or for free with a paid Starz subscription. It is also available on Blu-ray.