WILLOW (1988)

  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Writers: Screenplay by Rob Dolman, Story by George Lucas
  • Starring: Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh, Patricia Hayes, Billy Barty, and Pat Roach
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Maybe my favorite genre of all is what’s sometimes referred to as “High Fantasy,” of which The Lord of the Rings is likely the most famous example. It generally involves grand quests, wizards and magic, and mystical races living alongside humans. It is more common in books than movies, partly because the movies don’t always come cheap. In the world before CGI, you had to get creative. As such, I tend to find even the more forgettable efforts in this area generally diverting. One such effort is Willow, a mish-mashy collaboration of George Lucas and Ron Howard. After working with many Little Person actors as Ewoks on The Return of the Jedi, Lucas had the idea to do a fantasy story with Little People as the heroes. The basic problem with the movie is that it never seems to get too much further than that basic initial idea.

Warwick Davis, who also played the most prominent Ewok in Return of the Jedi, stars as Willow, a dwarf in a town full of dwarves who finds a human baby on the side of the river. Many of the early scenes in the movie are pretty much entirely Little Person actors, which is an interesting change of pace. After an attack on the village by monsters, Willow is tasked with returning the baby to the human world. This turns into an epic quest after it turns out the baby is destined to defeat the evil sorceress Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) and save the world (this is all more vague than one would like for this sort of thing). His primary ally ends up being a rogue swordsman named Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer. It is Kilmer who gets to do most of the physical action, under the circumstances. He is basically just Han Solo stuck into a fantasy movie, but that’s fine. Madmartigan ends up sort of in a romance with Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), the evil sorceress’ warrior daughter, in a plotline that feels more 21st Century than everything else in this movie combined. It also feels like a plot line that was mostly left on the cutting room floor. In the end, Willow sort of learns to be a sorcerer and defeats the evil queen after she gets hit by lightning. I think that’s what happens, anyway, it’s not super clear.

Really, that’s my big issue with this movie. There are some interesting ideas but they tend to be pretty vague about them. The heroes feel less like they’re on a quest for most of the movie and more like they’re stumbling around. If you watch (or read) The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasy books or movies, they tend to flit from big set piece to big set piece, as stops on the way to a very clear goal. This movie really only has one or two bits on those levels, most prominently a fight between our heroes, the evil queen’s army, and a dragon in a castle moat, a fight that is mostly memorable because the dragon is enormous and gross and was done entirely practically. They built an enormous dragon with two heads, and it’s not bad, actually. One other issue, something not unique among later Lucas properties, is that essentially none of the jokes actually land. There are two tiny, fairy-like “Brownies” who tag along for part of the movie as “comic relief,” played by Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton. They are two able comedians in other things, but here they are simply given nothing actually funny to do, and neither is anyone else.

Lucas hired Ron Howard, who he had worked with as an actor in American Graffiti, to direct. Howard was still early in his successful directing career, having directed Splash and Cocoon in the past few years. Still, he had to shop the movie to almost every available studio before finding a buyer, mostly because a series of recent Fantasy movies such as Krull, Legend, Dragonslayer, and Labyrinth had not been particular financial successes. Willow was not a huge hit, either, but it did make a fairly immediate profit, which is more than could be said for those other movies. As everything else has been remade already, it seems, it will be the basis of a Disney Plus TV series set to debut in 2022. Whether Willow is the sort of property people are actually nostalgic for remains unclear, but I really liked the Dark Crystal streaming series, so who knows.

One of the big reasons Willow is notable has little to do with the movie itself, as it includes one of the very earliest uses of computer graphics in a modern sense in a movie. One running plotline in the movie is Willow’s inability to turn the good witch Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) back into a person (she was turned into a possum by the evil queen lady). In one scene, he turns her into a series of different animals before finally succeeding in turning her back into a person. Effects house Industrial Light & Magic essentially had to invent the first “digital morphing effect” for use during this scene. This technique went on to be used in a whole series of other movies, and laid the groundwork for the special effects work that would feature in future fantasy movies.

Really, the biggest reason to watch Willow is because of its enjoyable practical effects. What we today are used to having done with there-but-not-there graphics is in this movie mostly done with actual, physical things. Even so, there isn’t as much of this sort of thing as I’d want. In some ways this feels like a movie out of an alternate universe. Had one of the many abortive Lord of the Rings projects over the years prior to Peter Jackson’s wildly successful trilogy gotten off the ground, it likely would have looked a lot like this movie. Sort of vague, with a lot of things happening that aren’t really explained, with long sequences in a bucolic village with many of our lead characters played, not by normal size actors made small with CGI, but by actual Little People. In the end, I can only really recommend Willow to aficionados of epic quests and magic, but there are more than a few of us out here.

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