Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “The Wizard.”
The Movie: “The Wizard”
Starring: Fred Savage, Luke Edwards, Jenny Lewis
Director: Todd Holland
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A boy and his brother run away from home and hitch cross country with the help of a girl they meet to compete in the ultimate video game championship.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 29 percent
Brown: Last week, the JOE-DOWN spent a lot of time in the Wild West (or a futuristic world with the Wild West) with “Westworld.”
This week, we’re staying out west.
Namely, we’re staying in…
Yes, we’re reliving a staple of a 1980s childhood with “The Wizard”: the world’s greatest 100-minute commercial.
I didn’t remember a ton from this movie, but I know I watched it many times as a kid. To my mother’s chagrin, I refer to the old gray box Nintendo as my “third parent.”
(Note: My parents encouraged me to play outside, but I wanted to play “Super Mario Bros. 3.” Probably because of this movie.)
After watching people getting slaughtered by robots in cowboy hats last week, I decided to pick something a little more light-hearted.
And “The Wizard” is just that. Except for the parts talking about institutionalizing a child. Or a child drowning. Or child molestation.
(REDACTED), this movie is WAY darker than I remembered.
Froemming, give us your first take while I try to score 50,000 points in “Double Dragon” in *check notes* FIVE MINUTES?!
Froemming: I didn’t need a 100-minute movie to make “Super Mario Bros 3” the most thrilling video game I have ever experienced. But it didn’t hurt.
I saw this movie as a kid, a time when Fred Savage ruled childhood movies and television with an Iron Fist. And, of course, video games were part of my DNA at that time. So, this movie was aimed at my age group and demographic: Fat kids with no friends.
Has it lived up over the years? We will find out. Brown, as I ponder why arcade cabinets in this movie play the NES versions of their games, why don’t you kick this off?
Brown: We open with a kid walking along the highway in the Utah desert. We find out that this is Jimmy Woods. He’s just a quiet boy who only says “California” when a cop picks him up for being a runaway.
Froemming: I wish Twitter personality James Woods shared not only this boy’s name, but his ability for being quiet. Also, last time I saw a James Woods in Nevada, things didn’t turn out so well:
So, as Jimmy is walking along in the desert, I was anticipating this song to start blasting out:
Brown: It turns out, Jimmy routinely runs away from home and is socially comatose because he has PTSD. We find out later in the movie that Jimmy is this way because he watched as his twin sister Jennifer drowned in a shallow river. The stress from this tragedy directly led to his parents’ divorce.
Yeah, it’s awful that Jimmy watched someone drown like he was Phil Collins.
Froemming: After having this small town police department that has an airplane for some reason (this is pre-9/11, so our boys in blue were not crazed, heavily armed soldiers at this point) we see Jimmy’s stepfather and mother at his school, where Mr. Bateman is really all about locking this child up in an institution. If Mr. Bateman was an ice cream flavor, he’d be pralines and dick. We really need Tony Soprano on this one:
Brown: Pretty sure they were at a child psychologist’s office. Also, I had those same Duplos that Jimmy was playing with.
And from what I know about men named Bateman in the 1980s, I’m just glad Jimmy never got an axe to the face while listening to Huey Lewis.
Across town (I assume) lives Jimmy’s dad Sam, along with Jimmy’s half-brothers Corey (Savage) and Nick (Christian Slater). Corey is livid over his half-brother being institutionalized.
Froemming: All Jimmy wanted was a Pepsi, Brown.
Brown: Sam isn’t very sympathetic about it (it sounded like an acrimonious breakup). Also, the man can’t cook a casserole. It’s not hard. Just dump a bunch of shit into a casserole dish. Combine that with Christian Slater’s character sneaking out and drinking (Yeah, I’d believe that from a 19-20 year old Slater) and you got the recipe for a broken home.
Unsatisfied with just sitting back, Corey goes to the poorly guarded institution to go break Jimmy out.
Froemming: Corey is able to wander the halls of this place, and nobody bats an eye at it. Mr. Bateman probably sent Jimmy to one of those places that was featured on “60 Minutes.”
Anyway, they sneak out shockingly easily, and hop into a Hostess truck, filled with snacks. This is what we call a perfect escape.
Now, everyone realizes Jimmy and Corey are missing, we hear they found out they jumped into this snack truck. Why…didn’t anyone call the company, get the route and meet this truck at the next stop to grab the kids? It seems pretty cut and dry to me, even in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
Brown: Also, it’s a small truck. The guy makes it all the way to his final stop and doesn’t notice the two children in the back of his truck or (I assume) the discarded wrappers in the back of the truck from all the snack cakes Corey and Jimmy ate. Hell, Jimmy has chocolate cake smeared across his mouth when we see him!
So with the two brothers California bound, Jimmy’s mom and step-dad hire a gentleman by the name of Putnam, who makes a living hunting down children. I hope he returns them all to their families safely, but we’ll see throughout the movie that Putnam is a creep. Jenny Lewis’ character will add a darker element, but we’ll address that later.
Froemming: Putnam is one of the last antagonists in a movie where he is just a nerdy little weasel and we are to believe anyone is intimidated by him. Also, how much money does he make here, because his car gets a real beating in this. A beating no insurance company would ever cover since he is the root reason for all the damages. It would be thousands just to cover those damages, as long as expenses and medical from being beaten by truckers who think he is a diddler. Also, the lawyer fees from all the felonies and misdemeanors he commits in this.
He then goes up to Sam and Nick saying basically “don’t look for your missing child, I don’t get paid if you find him.” This is shocking, especially at the time kidnappings were happening across the country in real life. The year this came out, Jacob Wetterling went missing. Imagine this chucklehead yelling at the cops that they better not look for the missing child, because he has bills to pay.
Brown: Eventually, Jimmy and Corey make their way to a bus station where a red-headed young teen girl named Haley (Lewis) is sitting around reading Cosmo. While Corey can’t get it through his skull that getting to California from Utah requires money, he sticks Jimmy in front of an arcade cabinet with, among other games, “Double Dragon.”
To answer your query from before, Froemming, there were arcade cabinets called Playchoice that could hold multiple NES games. Instead of full games, you could play a game for a set amount of time. So yeah, that was an accurate part of the movie.
Froemming: No idea EVERY arcade cabinet between Utah and Los Angeles is a Playchoice one. Because every cabinet we see has the NES versions. I learn something new everyday.
Anyway, after Jimmy hits 50,000 on “Double Dragon,” a cop walks in and the children run off and hide. Haley follows them and when she doubts Jimmy’s one talent of being good at games on a counsel that will be relevant for maybe another year or two, she makes a bet with them with her bus ticket.
Why…was she in Utah alone? I know her dad is a trucker, and would send her back to Nevada at times, but having a child ride the bus alone across the country seems like a really dumb idea.
Brown: This movie is chock-full of bad parenting decisions. If anything, this movie tells us that the one true parent any kid should have is the Nintendo Entertainment System.
So Haley starts tagging along for reasons and after watching Jimmy rule in “Double Dragon,” she decides they should go to the Video Armageddon competition (shown in an issue of Nintendo Power). And clearly, Jimmy has skills: the (REDACTED) kid is playing “Ninja Gaiden” extremely well considering the screen is being covered by the magazine when they talk about it.
Froemming: She says their parents wouldn’t institutionalize Jimmy if he wins this competition. I think that would be the nail in Jimmy’s coffin if he did win, because parents at that time found video games troubling. Hell, if I won a video game competition in my youth, my parents would probably have sent me off to military school.
Their plan to get to LA for this? Grift every kid on the road from there to this big event by having them play Jimmy. What could go wrong!!
Brown: A movie where two brothers — one a smooth talker and one a savant — travel across the country in hopes of using the savant’s skills to win a fortune.
… Yeah, this movie was made by a coked-up producer who thought to themselves “Hey, everyone loved ‘Rain Man.’ Let’s do that, but with kids!”
Only, these kids keep getting robbed. Haley is flashing cash around a bunch of cattle farmers, so they steal their money. Then after grifting a group of teenagers, they get revenge on our heroes by stealing from them.
Frankly, the fact these three weren’t kidnapped, or even worse, is a miracle. Because Corey, Jimmy and Haley (despite her big talk) are not street smart.
Froemming: Meanwhile, Sam and Nick are on the road searching for these two and keep running into Putnam. Their first encounter, Putnam slashes their tire (which is a crime). This becomes an ongoing gag — I guess — where Putnam pulls some idiotic stunt, then gets his car bashed with a shovel and then Sam’s truck. Again, how much is this guy making when the potential legal costs and damage to his car will obviously come out of his own pocket?
Also, we get a glimpse of a father-son thing with Sam and Nick, but since Nick isn’t much of a character, it doesn’t really add to much because we — the audience — are not invested in his story.
Brown: But Froemming, they keep playing video games. And that gives us the chance to see video game footage and want to play video games!
Froemming: My favorite is after a fight, Nick pops in the old NES and to blow off steam, plays “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” You two are just going to add to your frustration with that game. Hell, I am surprised they would still be talking to one another by morning with that (REDACTED) game.
Brown: I get my own PTSD from watching the dam level from “TMNT.”
God, (REDACTED) that seaweed.
Froemming: I started to weep at the memories of that game.
Brown: Most of the games they choose for this movie are notoriously hard. Even at 35, “Ninja Gaiden” still pisses me off. (REDACTED) those respawning falcons. “Double Dragon” is brutal, too, but it did lead to one of the greatest fan-made games ever: “Abobo’s Big Adventure.”
So, the trend continues where the three kids hitchhike, get to a small town and con people out of their money because, well, Jimmy’s the wizard!
There’s one point where they’re picked up by a biker gang with what looks like modern-day Rob Halford of Judas Priest leading the way. I absolutely believe the kids made money by being coke mules for those bikers.
Froemming: At one point, they meet a kid who lives in an airfield for some reason named Lucas. Lucas is, in my mind, the bastard son of Billy Mitchell, seeing as both try to cheat their way to the top in video games. Except one does it in his 40s, which is one of the most depressing sentences I have ever written.
The most bullshit moment of this movie, to me, is when Lucas shows off how much he loves the infamous Power Glove. The PG was one of the biggest, most useless pieces of (REDACTED) Nintendo ever put out. Maybe only topped by the Power Pad or Virtual Boy.
Nintendo sure had a lot of crappy ideas over the years.
Brown: The Angry Video Game Nerd exists just based on that fact.
Froemming: So while Lucas is somehow able to make the PG actually work, Jimmy runs off for some reason. Corey thinks it is because of Lucas and his awesome haircut, but I can’t tell because Jimmy emotes like Bella Swan. Also, Corey gets jealous and puts his arm around Haley for some damn reason. We find out that was more of the reason Jimmy ran off, if I remember right. It is a blur as I was so pissed off about the Power Glove business.
Brown: I think Jimmy ran off because the power glove is so bad.
No, like, it’s actually bad. The thing barely worked.
Turns out that Lucas will also be competing at Video Armageddon, where I don’t think they allow the Power Glove because it was a garbage controller. Seriously, you were better off using the keypad on the side of it.
Throughout the movie, Jimmy is carrying around this yellow lunchbox. So when Lucas’ buddies get back the money they were fleeced out of, they check the lunchbox, only to see old trinkets of Jimmy’s twin sister, Jennifer.
Froemming: I was more shocked that 16-year-olds were bullying a bunch of children. There really isn’t much to do in Utah or Nevada (unless you are 18) I guess.
Well, one of them steals Jimmy’s hat and this leads to him being bullied by a full-grown adult with Sam, so the cycle of abuse continues.
Of course, Lucas always happens to be in the right spot to blow the whole thing for Jimmy, because he is like his father (in my head canon) Billy Mitchell. Lucas just needs that American flag tie and a hot sauce empire. He tells Sam and Nick the kids are heading to LA.
I guess he also tells Putnam too, because the next scene he is on the phone with the mom saying Lucas told him where the brothers are headed. At this point, Putnam has traveled all over, had his car destroyed, broken a ton of laws, HOW MUCH DOES HE GET PAID FOR THIS?
Meanwhile, the kids land in Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World, where Putnam will be alleged to have made the biggest little mistake of his life with Haley in one of the darkest moments I have seen in a children’s movie.
Brown: Oh, you mean where, as Putnam finally finds Jimmy, Haley screams and yells in a crowded casino “He touched my breasts?” Is that what you’re referring to, Froemming?
Froemming: Yeah, where after I imagine Putnam saying:
See, the kids are there and had one of Haley’s dad’s buddies gamble and win them money so they can train Jimmy on the tough spots in video games. This includes calling the Nintendo Power hotline, and trust me, about 10 minutes into that call would have eaten up all their money because those video game lines were such a money sucking scam.
To escape Putnam, they hightail it to Haley’s home, which is a trailer. She is ashamed of her home and embarrassed her friends now know she is not rich and whatnot. They don’t seem to care, and so it is all fine I guess.
Brown: Throughout the movie, Haley is talking about how well off her family is. Which you can poke holes in pretty quickly when you ask “wait, truckers only get paid modestly, right?” Nevermind the showgirl mom who is in the neon claws of Gamblor.
Froemming: Their good time is running short since Putnam found the addresses for all three Brooks families in the area. Which, WHAT? That last name is pretty common, I don’t buy for a second there were only three of them in the Reno area. It had a population of 209,000 in 1989.
Brown: But because Haley is apparently friends with the entire trucking community (except apparently Lincoln Hawk(s?) since he’s too busy turning his hat around and arm wrestling), she calls on the trucker’s ultimate tool: the CONVOY.
Jimmy is rescued by a quartet of truckers after they assault Putnam for, again, touching Haley’s breasts?!
“The Wizard”: making you laugh at child molestation since 1989!
Froemming: I was more shocked Putnam just walked away with a black eye. Truckers can be pretty violent, based on what I saw in “Over The Top.”
Anyway, the kids hitch a ride to LA and the trucker just — drops them off in a huge city like that and wishes them luck? Dude, not cool. Not cool at all.
So now everyone is converging upon LA and this competition, which at this point why doesn’t any of the adults alert the LAPD that their runaway children are known to be at this thing and to bring them in ASAP?
Brown: Because absentee parenting was a hallmark of the 1980s.
My bigger question was how could these children who have struggled with money this entire time have paid for three tickets to get into Universal Studios Hollywood? There’s no way they’re letting kids run around that park for free, even if they are competing in Video Armageddon. Hell, there’s probably an entry fee to get into this contest and yet, no problem!
Only explanation I’ll accept is, like I said before, the kids are coke mules for a biker gang.
Froemming: I will let Michael Bay explain this one to you:
Jimmy gets signed up, which now he is registered, the cops should be able to find him right away, but the ’80s were a wild time I guess.
The game Jimmy needs to excel in is “Ninja Gaiden,” so we know he is going to be a finalist. And he is, along with Lucas and some girl who they cruelly make lose badly in the end tournament.
But in between this, Putnam is on their tail, chasing them through the theme park. Dude, the parents are already there. Hell, Sam would have had this figured out and you stole and impounded his truck. Not only are you not getting paid, the eventual lawsuit will put you in the poorhouse.
Follow Kramer’s advice:
Brown: The kids run through the tram tour through Universal and eventually get above the stage of Video Armageddon. Putnam has them cornered, only for Corey, Haley and Jimmy to take a freight elevator down to the stage with no issues whatsoever. And Jimmy gets to make a dramatic entrance to the competition to face off with Lucas, Mora and the creepy, creepy MC of this competition.
Seriously. This guy was a psycho. He would be quoting “The Wizard of Oz” with no context. And yeah, “The Wizard,” “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s not as clever as you think, movie. Especially when the lines are uttered by a guy who gives off windowless-van-at-a-park vibes.
Froemming, how much coke was this guy on? Between him and the dad every time he ate in the truck, this movie set some sort of record for flop sweat.
Froemming: The MC really reminded me of:
Brown: Paul Heyman is charming, though. This guy was rubbing Mora’s hair like he was James Woods or something.
Froemming: The big reveal, and basic reason this movie exists, is the game they will be playing has never been played before. And it is revealed to be “Super Mario Bros 3,” which thank goodness continues to live up to its hype, after the confusing and awful mess that was “Super Mario Bros 2.”
And we get a lot of gameplay footage, since this is — after all — a giant commercial for this game. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t learn the warp whistle trick from this movie. Everyone did. It came out before the (REDACTED) game did.
I did buy a guidebook to find the other two warp whistles. Because when it came to video games, I did not (REDACTED) around at that time.
Brown: I’m disregarding how quickly the kids figured out the mechanics of this game. Or how Jimmy knew how to find that warp whistle in the first-level castle. OR how the scoring system makes no sense in this competition when you don’t score points for warping to another level. This scene gets me (REDACTED) HYPED because “Super Mario Bros. 3” is (REDACTED) awesome.
Froemming: I bought a Nintendo Switch during the months I was locked down and when I was waiting to get vaccinated for the sole purpose to play old NES games, this one especially. I love this (REDACTED) game.
Brown: It’s the best NES game ever made. You can debate it, but that’s the one everyone lands on.
Froemming: I agree. It is the best. My personal favorite is “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out,” but this is the best overall.
Brown: “Punch-Out” is your choice because you love beating up the stereotypes of the world. Also, (REDACTED) Soda Popinski. And that’s coming from a guy who owns an autographed screen shot of Mike Tyson from that game.
Froemming: You say that like you never watched WWF/WWE, bubba.
Anyway, Jimmy wins and the parents are all excited and Putnam comes to the realization he is not getting paid, what with all the crimes he committed and they didn’t even need him to know Jimmy was there.
And as they are all driving back to the soulless, blank void of a state that is Utah, Jimmy freaks out when he sees an old tourist trap with dinosaurs. See, this is why he wanted to go to California, it was the last time his family was all together and happy, including his dead sister. Why nobody else seemed to remember ever being at this place, despite the fact they all posed for the photo Jimmy has in his lunchbox, I have no idea.
Brown: Also, what’s going to happen to Haley when this movie is over. Is Jimmy and Corey’s family just going to drop her off at her trailer to raise herself like she’s Lola from “Big Mouth?”
I mean, she’ll go on to be an indie musician and all, but it’s still pretty messed up.
Froemming: These parents cannot even take care of their own children, as this movie showed us in spades, they can’t just kidnap this girl and raise her. Her father would eventually figure something is off when he shows up at his trailer. So yes, back to the trailer for old Haley.
Brown, let’s warp whistle our way to recommendations.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: It’s a much darker movie than I remember. But sure, it’s a fun kids movie. Plus, I’m a Nintendo dork so this movie is nostalgia overload.
Froemming: This is tough, as I have a lot of nostalgia baggage with this movie and it is kinda of a dumb plot. I would say check it out if you really enjoy the glory days of the NES.
Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN: