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Wizard (Collector's Edition), The
I love The Wizard. It's so bad.
In case Lucas (Jackey Vinson) and his Power Glove didn't tip you off, we're not talking about an "alakazam!" type of wizard here; more the "he's making the jump, it's his second time through, and he hasn't even taken a hit yet!"-in-Ninja-Gaiden variety. Not that anyone would believe young Jimmy (Luke Edwards) would be capable of such a feat. Not that anyone would believe Jimmy is capable of anything. The kid's been borderline-catatonic for a couple of years now. He's all but mute. He compulsively stacks whatever's in front of him. His face is devoid of any expression whatsoever. For reasons unknown to everyone but himself, Jimmy feels compelled to walk out the door and head west to California, and the cops have been called to track him down more than a couple of times. It's gotten to the point where therapy isn't making any meaningful in-roads, and his mother and stepfather (Wendy Phillips and Sam McMurray) are talking about committing him to an institution.
So what if they're not as close as they used to be since the divorce? Corey (Fred Savage) can't let his half-brother be locked away like some kind of secret shame. Jimmy wants to go to California? Fine. Let's do it. Alas, it turns out that twentysomething bucks and change won't get the two of 'em very far. But just when things look hopeless, a plan begins to take shape, courtesy of their new pal Haley (Jenny Lewis). They discover in the bus station that Jimmy is a video game savant – maybe even skilled enough to take home the big prize at the Video Armageddon championship in Los Angeles. If he wins, that'll surely prove that Jimmy doesn't deserve to be institutionalized. And Haley certainly has plans for her share of the tournament's $50,000 grand prize. All they have to do is get from backwater Utah to Universal Studios Hollywood in a couple of days. Errr, with a pit stop in Reno, which ain't exactly on the way.
Whatever. They're game. And hey, whenever they need a little extra cash along the way, they'll just let Jimmy pull off the arcade equivalent of The Hustler. Then again, if it were that easy, there wouldn't be much of a movie here. They don't have any wheels. The three of 'em lose their bankroll more than once. Mom has a P.I. (Will Seltzer) hot on their trail, and the boys' brother (Christian Slater) and cantankerous father (Beau Bridges) are doing everything they can to get there first. Plus even if they make it to Video Armageddon in time, there's still the whole thing about winning, which ain't gonna be easy when competing against the indomitable likes of Lucas. You saw his Power Glove, right?
Nearly the same age as Fred Savage at the time, I was a relatively recent NES obsessive when The Wizard first hit theaters just over thirty years ago. I vividly remember the Nintendo Power mini-mag that the theater was giving away as a promo. I wasn't too far removed from having a closetful of Vision Street Wear tees, just like Corey. When the desperately anticipated Super Mario Bros. 3 came out on these shores a couple of months afterwards, I was able to rely on my memories of The Wizard's pulse-pounding climax to clumsily pretend to my junior high school buddies that I'd gotten my copy at launch too. You know, like a liar. This was such an important movie to me growing up, and, not having revisited it in decades, I was equal parts excited and unnerved to give this collector's edition a spin. And I have to say – The Wizard holds up for me all these years later.
One defining aspect of The Wizard that had faded from memory is just how heavy a movie this is. It's so often shrugged off as a 100 minute Nintendo commercial, and yet it deals with gambling addiction, divorce, poverty, bullying, the grief and guilt that come with death, and, if not autism, certainly some kind of profound psychological trauma. While there is the literal journey to travel to Hollywood in the hopes of winning fifty grand playing video games in a theme park, there's also very much...y'know, the other kind of journey. Character arcs! Coming of age! The forging and strengthening of familial bonds! And even if it sounds like tonal whiplash to meld adult themes with, say, calling up Nintendo to ask for hints about Castlevania II: Simon's Quest or secretly gobbling Ho-Ho's in the back of a Wonder Bread truck, these seemingly disparate elements gel together surprisingly well.
That's due in no small part to the staggering skill of this young cast. Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis make for endlessly charismatic leads, striking that perfect balance between hopelessly naïve kids and wise beyond their years. They're bright, canny schemers who have no inkling just how much they have left to learn – and they have a tendency to find that out the hard way. Luke Edwards is handed an exceptionally challenging role. Not only does Jimmy have very little dialogue, but this character isn't allowed much of anything in the way of facial or emotional expression. To virtually everyone, Jimmy comes across as some sort of automaton, and Edwards uses these limitations as a strength. Jimmy's intense focus makes it believable that he could be a contender in a colossal video game tournament. He's sympathetic even at his most removed from the world around him, and his general detachment makes the glimmers of the child within that much more powerful. Corey is among the few to make a sincere effort to understand and connect with him, and that's the true core of the movie. Not the video game tournament on the spaceship set in Hollywood. Not fixing a kid that seemingly everyone considers to be broken. Love and sympathy. And beyond that, you have a separate arc with Christian Slater's Nick gradually bonding with his father who's still reeling from the losses in his life, just in a way that's more societally conventional than Jimmy. And yes, the Nintendo Entertainment System is a central factor in that relationship too. The supporting cast also includes the love-to-hate-him Sam McMurray as a stepfather who looks at Jimmy as more of a burden than a son, as well as Will Seltzer's wonderfully money grubbing comic-relief-slash-villain of a private investigator.
And sure, The Wizard is entrancing as a time capsule. There are multiple New Kids on the Block numbers on the soundtrack. A road trip montage is set to Real Life's 1989 re-recording of "Send Me an Angel". It's a blast to see so many NES games I grew up with showcased here, among them Metroid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Double Dragon. The Wizard can be unapologetically hokey at times, such as the sight of Beau Bridges frantically waving a controller around and shouting "I had the magic key, I had the cross, I was closin' in on the barbarian!", or the nonsensical point accumulation and unfathomably well-informed advice during the colossal Super Mario Bros. 3 climax. (And seriously, some of you reading this have no concept of how huge a deal it was to see that game splashed across the big screen months before its U.S. release.) There's so much more to be invested in and entertained by than just "hey kids, buy Nintendo games!" And I know there's something to that because my wife was all of 1 year old when The Wizard first stormed into theaters, isn't the least bit blinded by nostalgia for the movie, and had nothing but nice things to say after watching it for the very first time.
There's plenty in The Wizard to snicker at and mock if that's what you're here for. And while my sample size of one is promising, it's hard to know how it'd be received by an audience significantly older or younger than myself. The Wizard is just too seminal a film from my childhood for me to be able to give it a clinical, detached, objective assessment. This is definitely the sort of thing where you're either really gonna love the movie or hate it with the intensity of a thousand suns. But...y'know, whether it's a longtime favorite, something you've just been curious about for a while, or chum for your YouTube channel, there's no better way to experience The Wizard than with this two-disc collector's edition from Shout Select. Highly Recommended.
I never got around to picking up Universal's Blu-ray release from a couple years back, so if you're hoping for an exhaustive series of screenshot comparisons, I'm not your guy. But with even just a casual glance at Shout Select's lovingly remastered collector's edition – newly-scanned in 4K – I mean, this one wins. It's far too gorgeous a presentation for that musty old MOD disc to even come close. C'mon:
The packaging and press materials don't specify which elements were scanned in 4K, exactly. Regardless, the 1.85:1 image sure is a looker, especially whenever the camera has plenty of light to play with. As we're introduced to Jimmy as he's walking down the highway, for instance, I felt as if I could discern each individual pebble or whatever on the blacktop. And pop up that screenshot above to full size, then gawk at the patterns on the suitcase next to the brothers and on Haley's dress, how distinct every speck of dirt is, and how many of the barbs in the fence you can count. Admittedly, more dimly lit interiors struggle somewhat by comparison, though that obviously dates back to the original photography:
There is part of me that was expecting this new 4K remaster to be sharper and more detailed still, and the sheen of grain isn't quite as fine as I was anticipating. But still, I can't pretend to be the least bit disappointed by what Shout Select has delivered here. The Wizard's palette is frequently a knockout, especially when it comes to reproducing those inexorably '80s neon/hypercolor hues as well as the bright lights of Reno. And the remaster is nothing short of immaculate. I didn't spot so much as a stray fleck of dust until I started going through parts of the movie frame-by-frame to capture these screenshots. I'm not left with any gripes about the authoring of this disc either. Even with as many hours of extras as Shout Select has assembled for this edition, they're spread across a pair of BD-50 discs to give The Wizard's AVC encode plenty of room to stretch its legs. This is such a wonderful presentation, and I have no doubt that it's as flawless a representation of the elements available as anyone could possibly hope to see.
Although I did have to turn up the volume a couple ticks higher than usual, The Wizard's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack is every bit as impressive as the disc's visuals. There's a really strong sense of separation across the front channels, whether it's something as subtle as the banks of Nintendo Game Counselors' phones ringing or as powerful as a search plane soaring overhead. The clarity of The Wizard's dialogue consistently dazzles, with only a couple of particularly loudly shouted lines – such as Beth Grant's waitress yelling "Roger!" or Nick barking "we can't even talk to each other!" – showing any sign of strain. Even without a dedicated LFE channel, bass response can pack a heckuva wallop, most memorably the pounding drums during the trucker blockade, the deep, resonant low-end to the score when we first arrive at the hospital where Jimmy's been committed, and the thunderous roar of mighty Kong himself. Outstanding.
Rounding out the audio options are a commentary track and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Wizard piles on nearly five hours of extras, and, trailer aside, every last bit of it is newly-produced or premiering for the first time on home video. If you're pressed for time, the most essential of the bunch are the half hour-plus (!) of deleted scenes and the forty minute retrospective "The Road to Cali-forn-ia". I have to admit that the deeper I got into the second disc, the more of a slog I found it to be. Because several of the participants are the focal points of a number of extras, including a Q&A and a panel not conducted with this disc in mind, you'll wind up hearing some of these stories told much the same way three times. Consider spacing out your viewing rather than devouring 'em all in one marathon binge.
- Audio Commentary: Director Todd Holland does a terrific job painting a picture of just how different an era this was for filmmaking, from lax safety standards to the ease of lining up clearances (including the Close Encounters tone on the Power Glove!). There's a great deal of discussion about how The Wizard took shape in the editing room, leading in nicely to the more than half hour of deleted scenes I'll be talking about in a moment. Among the many other highlights are the Aliens-inspired concept for Video Armageddon that was too ambitious for this budget and schedule, a bit part by a then-unknown Tobey Maguire, the revelation that the climax wasn't written with Super Mario Bros. 3 in mind, watching dailies in a rented semi, writing the dinosaur scene himself the night before filming, explaining why Corey and Haley seem to know way too much about racking up points in an as-yet-unreleased game, and how disastrous an ADR'ed quip about Disneyland could've been.
- Deleted Scenes (38 min.; HD): Particularly for a movie from this era, it's kind of unreal to see such a wealth of deleted scenes at quality this high. Okay, so it's not nearly as polished as the beautifully remastered finished film:
The list keeps going on from there, such as Nick tossing the keys to his dad's truck out the window, a proper introduction to Spankey, a lengthier trucker blockade, an unexpected confrontation following the manic chase at Universal Studios, and a not altogether joyous coda to Video Armageddon. And, yeah, thrill to some additional NES-ery, including way more Mega Man 2 (still all Air Man, all the time), Contra, and Super Mario Bros. 2 & 3. There's a whole lot more that I could spell out, but you get the general idea. While some of this footage extends sequences in the finished film, the majority of the reel is comprised of completely new scenes. A lot of this really deepens the relationships between The Wizard's characters, even if much of it's ultimately inessential from a plot perspective. And then there are just some moments that were wisely removed, such as what Mom says about Jimmy right after Video Armageddon has come to a close. In the running as my favorite extra on any disc I've watched in...I don't even know how long, this reel of deleted scenes alone is worth the price of entry.
- Trailer (2 min.; SD): The Wizard's old 4x3 trailer is the only thing on this special edition that hasn't been painstakingly re-scanned at some startlingly high resolution.
- The Road to Cali-forn-ia: A Look Back at The Wizard (41 min.; HD): The centerpiece of the extras on The Wizard's second disc is this brand new retrospective with, among others, director Todd Holland, actors Luke Edwards and an off-camera Fred Savage, writer/producer David Chisholm, and producer Ken Topolsky. So many extraordinary stories are told here that I'm not even sure where to start: Universal wanting to make The Karate Kid for the NES generation, the then-governor of Nevada intervening to line up a casino to film in, the breakneck production schedule between seasons of The Wonder Years, Jenny Lewis' new album casting the pain of her performance in a different light, the bleaker ending in the original screenplay, and calling in a favor from the writer of "She's Like the Wind" who lived down the hall, to rattle off just a few of the many highlights. Also included are deeply heartfelt stories from longtime fans Chad Young and Mike Griffith, as well as some insight into Nintendo's end of production from Game Counselor Greg Lowder. There are all sorts of technical notes, such as how the NES gameplay was captured on film, and myths about it being a feature-length commercial and/or shameless ripoff of Rain Man are dispelled. Of the two and a half hours' worth of extras on disc two, "The Road to Cali-forn-ia" is far and away the most essential.
And while this isn't something I often note in reviews of featurettes and documentaries, I do have to just say how beautifully shot this retrospective is:
- How Can I Help You? Confessions of a Game Play Counselor (6 min.; HD): Greg Lowder served as a Nintendo Game Play Counselor while The Wizard was underway, and...hey, all the Mega Man 2 footage you see in the movie is him playing! Here, Lowder offers a glimpse into how Nintendo's help center originated, the size and scale of the team, the approaches they took to amassing all this knowledge and helping out callers, and discussing how different the job was in reality than what's depicted on-screen.
- A Clinical Analysis of The Wizard (13 min.; HD): Clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi of Arkham Sessions fame provides thoughtful analysis of the issues that young Jimmy is having to deal with and his journey throughout the film. And, true to real life, there isn't one clear, concrete answer. Writer/producer David Chisholm and actor Luke Edwards contribute additional insight regarding their crafting of the character and performance.
- Let's Play Gaming Expo 2019 Panel (57 min.; HD): Writer/director David Chisholm, producer Ken Topolsky, and actor Luke Edwards field questions for an hour during a panel at last year's Let's Play Gaming Expo in Irving, TX. (And don't panic about how dreadful the quality of the video is at first; while never great, it does get better.) The three of them delve into the development and pre-production of the film, reveal which name actress was in the running for the role of Haley, touch on the effort required to change all the arcade monitors to play at 24fps, and point out that there was only one take of the kiss between Corey and Haley – the first for either actor, on or off-screen! After delving into a great many other topics, they field questions from the audience as well.
- Post Screening Q&A (24 min.; HD): Chisholm, Edwards, and Topolsky return for a Q&A session following a 30th anniversary screening of The Wizard during the Let's Play Gaming Expo. Among the highlights are how quickly the project came together, flying out to Redmond to pitch none other than Hiroshi Yamauchi himself, Edwards getting stiffed on a promised copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, and how supportive Universal was about the more adult themes in the film.
- Photo Gallery (11 min.; HD): The Wizard's dedicated disc of extras draws to a close with an extensive high-res gallery featuring close to 150 images in all: production stills, black and white promotional shots, behind the scenes photos, and, yes, the theatrical one-sheet. Since the smart money says that you don't want to mash '»' on your remote over a hundred times, Shout Select has spared your thumb by presenting this as an automated slideshow.
I love the The Wizard's 8-bit-inspired artwork, featured on the slipcover, a long-since-sold-out preorder poster, and the case itself. If you're a purist or just devoid of joy, the cover reverses to reveal the original theatrical art.
The Final Word
This collector's edition wouldn't exist if not for vocal, wildly enthusiastic fans who convinced Universal to release their grip on the film – less than two years after the studio's own barebones, less-than-warmly-received MOD release. And The Wizard's fanbase clearly extends to some of the folks at Shout Select, given the fantastic presentations both visual and aural here, the startling volume of extras they've assembled, and the clever new artwork commissioned. A 77 GB love letter to a movie that means a lot to children of the '80s like myself, this lavish special edition of The Wizard comes very Highly Recommended.