Screen Gems

What gave rise to a generation of gaymers? We blame ‘The Wizard’

The Wizard

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Gayme Stop: The Wizard

Who would have predicted that a generation of gay kids raised on Atari, Nintendo and all their future iterations would have grown up to form a full-on movement: gaymers?

Anyone familiar with The Wizard, openly gay director Todd Holland’s 1989 adventure movie shouldn’t be all that surprised. When it hit theatres more than 30 years ago, critics savaged the film as nothing more than a feature-length commercial for Nintendo products and Universal Studios. They weren’t wrong: the movie dwells on Nintendo, ignoring all other consoles. The final act of the movie also takes place in Universal Studios Hollywood, making use of the theme park’s attractions and corporate logo for almost a third of the film’s runtime.

Despite the mud-slinging, The Wizard still found a devoted cult following through home video and television showings, and today is considered something of an adolescent classic, not to mention the last of the “80s movie” genre. Fred Savage, then the hottest child star of his day thanks to The Wonder Years, stars as Corey, the misfit son of a twice-divorced dad (Beau Bridges) and the protective older sibling of Jimmy (Luke Edwards), his autistic younger brother. When Corey learns that his parents have decided to institutionalize Jimmy, the pair sets off on a trip to Los Angeles for a new life. Along the way, they cross paths with the beautiful Haley (Jenny Lewis), a tough-talking latchkey kid on her way home to Reno. Corey and Haley immediately clash…until they realize Jimmy’s savant-like ability to win video games. Corey and Haley hatch a plot to win $50,000 at a Nintendo tournament at Universal Studios in hopes of starting a new life. The three use their wits to find their way to LA, trailed by Corey & Jimmy’s parents, older brother (Christian Slater) and a slimy bounty hunter, all of whom want to send Jimmy back to the institution.

The Wizard is a most curious movie: obviously designed as a marketing campaign for Universal & Nintendo, it somehow shines as a wild kiddie adventure of wish fulfillment (what kid doesn’t want to venture off with friends, sans parents, to a theme park to win a lot of money and play video games?). Also, miraculously, the movie works as a family drama: Corey, Jimmy and company may survive outlandish situations, but the emotions they feel about those situations–and indeed, their dysfunctional family–are very sincere.

We chalk that up to the natural charisma of Savage, Lewis and Edwards, as well as sensitive and clever direction by Holland. He knows exactly the movie Universal and Nintendo hired him to make, but damn it, that doesn’t stop him from telling a story about lovable kids with very real problems, and very real pain. We also suspect that Holland knows something about being a misfit himself, having grown up as a gay kid in the 70s and 80s.

Nostalgia addicts and gaymers will relish The Wizard for its vintage gaming, child stars of yesterday and stylistic throwbacks. Other viewers–particularly those that grew up as or still feel like a misfit kid–will relate to the plight of The Wizard’s characters, and their plucky resilience on an epic adventure. This movie could have been a bit of corporate garbage (see also: Mac & Me, The Flintstones…or better yet, don’t). Todd Holland and his cast make it a delightful romp far better than it deserves to be.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes & VUDU.