Why you should care

It may not be great cinema, but it’s still ahead of its time.

Ever since the 1927 Oscar-winning film Wings used a Hershey bar on camera, Hollywood has had a love affair with product placement. On Dec. 15, 1989, that love reached its unholy pinnacle with the release of “that Nintendo movie,” The Wizard, starring Fred Savage and Luke Edwards. While older movies had embraced product placement (Reese’s Pieces in E.T., anyone?), few — if any — had the maracas to do it for 100 minutes.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Wizard is the story of a young boy with the very ’80s name of Corey (Savage). Corey has a younger brother, Jimmy Woods (Edwards), who suffers from vague emotional problems (and hardly speaks) but is to video games (specifically, Nintendo games) what Rain Man was to blackjack. Corey, Jimmy and a girl they encounter (Jenny Lewis) decide to take an unsupervised road trip to the Video Game Championships in Los Angeles, where they believe Jimmy can take home the cash prize. In pursuit: a host of hapless adults who have the nerve to think pre-teens shouldn’t hitchhike across the country. OK, so the plot isn’t Hitchcock. But the movie did one thing exceedingly well — push the Nintendo phenomenon with a giddy shamelessness that’s almost admirable.

I’m not deluded enough to think it’s a “good” movie. But 25 years later, “The Wizard” has a place in history.

The kids play Nintendo, talk about Nintendo, fight over Nintendo. In terms of product placement, The Lego Movie is downright subtle in comparison. I spoke with Luke Edwards, who played the film’s titular character, about the movie’s place in pop culture history. Now in his 30s, Edwards acts and produces full time, and understands why product placement has become so prevalent. “It’s so bloody hard to get anything made, every little bit helps,” he said. “Obviously it’s tricky ground, nobody’s really interested in being a shill, but these companies are probably gonna play a role in your industry whether you like it or not.”

Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis in The wizard, 1989.

Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis in “The Wizard,” 1989.

Source Universal/Everett Collection

One might think that Nintendo called the shots on The Wizard, dictating every close-up of Super Mario Bros., every slow-motion shot of thumbs dancing on controllers. Not so. In a 2009 interview, director Todd Holland explained that Nintendo was largely hands off, letting the filmmakers use the games and peripherals however they wanted. Holland told Nintendo Life, “Those were more innocent times and it was still news to have a movie embrace such commercial elements. Today, no one even blinks at Transformers being a wall-to-wall General Motors commercial.”

It’s also helped cement the film’s legacy in dozens of online tongue-in-cheek tributes. The movie didn’t perform well at the box office, and it would be going too far to say it’s a misunderstood classic. I’ve seen The Wizard 20 times, but even I’m not deluded enough to think it’s a “good” movie. But 25 years later, it has a place in history. Call it the Citizen Kane of product placement, a film that dared to do things differently. And there’s no arguing it was ahead of its time in terms of predicting the rise of the professional gamer.

“I mean people are making decent livings now as pro gamers,” Edwards said. “Jimmy Woods, savant as he may be, should be absolutely cleaning up right now! I mean, while Hollywood is digging up every old intellectual property it can … sequel anyone? Someone write it and I’ll pitch the sucker, I really will.”

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