Willow. No, not the Buffy Willow. The Lucas/Howard Willow.
In 1988, Ron Howard directed (with George Lucas as the Executive Producer and story writer) Willow, a classic fantasy flick, full of magic, non-human critters, sword fights, romance, dark and evil threats, etc. It had all the elements of being as much of a breakthrough for the genre as the original Star Wars was for sf, but, somehow, it never did.
There’s DVD of the film out, now, and, lying on my sickbed yesterday (and with a nap in-between), I watched it, and remembered again both the parts that I love and the parts that don’t quite work.
Warwick Davis is Willow Ufgood, a nelwyn (think hobbit without the furry feet) who inadvertently comes into possession of an incredibly cute little daikini (human) girl. Said infant is, of course, the foretold downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda, a dark sorceress played to scenery-chewing perfection by Jean Marsh.
Willow’s sort of an everyman character. He wants to be a magician, but instead is the low man on the totem pole in his little hamlet, his farm on the edge of foreclosure, the butt of jokes and ribbing by the nasty village headman, Burglekutt. When it becomes clear that Evil Forces are after the baby, Willow and others are tasked by the village High Aldwin (Billy Barty) to take the baby back to the humans.
Willow eventually discovers the baby’s true nature, and must act as her protector, alongside rogue swordsman Madmartigan, shapechanged sorceress Fin Raziel, and a pair of comic relief (and French-accented) brownies, Franjean and Rool. Arrayed against them are the dark armies of the Queen, led by the fearsome General Kael, and the comely-but-nasty Princess Sorsha. Sorcery, chase scenes, and big battles ensue.
Will Willow gain self-confidence, learn magic, be successful in protecting little infant Elora Danan, and return to his beloved wife and children in one piece? Three guesses.
The movie was filmed on the cusp of the digital cinematography revolution. The digital technique of morphing was first used here, as Willow changes Finn Razael from a possum to various other animals. Still, there were plenty of old-fashioned effects — blue-screen and oversized sets for the diminutive brownies, bits of optical animation and “blue fire,” gorgeous matte paintings supplementing the gorgeous countryside of Wales, New Zealand, and Marin Co. The result is a beautiful film that, at the time, was on the cutting edge, but today feels slightly dated.
A lot of friends of mine at the time criticized Willow as a Lord of the Rings rip-off, but in reality it’s more of a swipe from Lucas’ Star Wars story — the farmer boy in custody of something that the Evil Guys want who eventually comes to understand the power within him, the handsome rogue who reluctantly goes along on the quest and eventually woos the aloof princess, flight to a safe place that turns out to be a trap, etc., etc. Its lack of success versus Star Wars likely comes from a number of reasons, any of which a curmudgeon like myself could gripe about.
First, it’s got a lot more story than will fit into its 130 minutes. Despite various dissolves of people journeying across the countryside, there’s not a good sense of time passage, and the result is a film that feels like a choppy number of set pieces. We’re here at the lake. Now we’re here on the mountain. Now we’re here at Tir Asleen. It could almost have been a trilogy of movies in and of itself. (Originally there were to have been two more Willow films, but the narrow margin from the first cause Lucas to have the second two stories published in book form only.)
Secondly, the main character, Willow, is a mixed bag as a protagonist. He spends much of the time simply trying to protect the baby, and the rest he keeps demonstrating how little he knows about sorcery and how easily he’s overcome in combat. He’s oddly impotent for being the title character and hero of the tale. Even his final role in the defeat of Bavmorda is more a matter of his trickery and her clumsiness; granted, he shows a lot of pluck in going into the lion’s den to rescue Elora Danan, but not much effectiveness in doing so.
Willow does have some bright moments. His best are his interaction with his wife and children (and I’ll frankly confess that his reunion with his wife at the end brings a tear to my eye every single frickin’ time I see the movie). Davis does as fine a job with the role as can be done; it’s the overall story that treats him poorly.
As for the other characters …
Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) kept reminding me of Han Solo, particularly the ruthless, vain, Greedo-shooting, mercenary smuggler from the first film. Good with a sword (blaster). Prone to charging his opponents even when outnumbered. Disdainful of the hick he’s working alongside. Shamed into being a good guy. His redemption is as artificial as Han’s, too.
As is the romance that develops between Madmartigan and Sorsha (Joanne Whaley). Sorsha’s character is the most cardboard in the cast, starting off as the evil warrior princess seeking evil mom’s approval, and then falling in love with the (magically) besotted Madmartigan because of some sweet talk and because he Fights Real Good — and not just falling in love, but going wholeheartedly into his camp and against her mom. And nobody says anything, but accepts her as one of the new good guys. Sh’yeah.
(To be fair, a lot of this is fleshed out in deleted scenes from the film, unfortunately not included on the DVD. Still, if we look just at the story as presented, Sorsha and the Sorsha/Madmartigan romance is pretty damned weak.)
(And also to be fair, there are some great lines between the two of them. If this had been a screwball romantic fantasy, it might have worked even better.)
Sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) spends most of the movie passing out tidbits of information and nattering at Willow about what a bad magician he is (since he keeps messing up her retransformation). Once in human form, she’s much better, and her battle with Bavmorda is quite entertaining (even if she does fall for the Oldest Trick in the Book).
Bavmorda is nasty, evil, and was probably a delight to play.
The DVD, despite being a “Special Edition,” doesn’t offer that much extra, though what it has is good. A period mini-feature about the making of the movie is fine, a retrospective on the morphing sfx is interesting, and the audio commentary track by Warwick Davis is informative, chatty, and interesting. I’d have very much enjoyed hearing from either Ron Howard or George Lucas (or even Val Kilmer), but I suppose they both have much bigger fish to fry. And no deleted scenes (though a couple of glimpses of what was snipped can be caught in the featurette).
Nevertheless, Willow remains a charming, enjoyable, even lovable film, certainly suitable for the family (though little’uns might get more than a bit scared at Bavmorda’s treatment of Elora Danan). Despite its flaws, it’s still eminently watchable. Especially when you’re stuck on the couch, sick, looking for something heartwarming and not too difficult to follow.