Friday, May 23, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Willow (1988)

Although not particularly warmly-received by film critics of the day, the epic fantasy Willow (1988) -- directed by Ron Howard from a story by George Lucas -- is one of those genre films that holds up surprisingly well over time. 

In part, this fact may be due to the filmmaker’s insistence on location filming (in New Zealand…), a factor which grants Willow a sense of reality and spectacle often missing from today’s CGI blockbusters. In 2014, the film looks fantastic, and its visuals stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the latest multi-million dollar efforts from Peter Jackson. 

Another factor to consider is that the on-screen chemistry in Willow between Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley -- later married and then divorced -- adds a palpable sense of romance and charm to the proceedings.  The characters these performers play may be off-the-shelf, textbook fantasy tropes, but the actors nonetheless show a real spark with each other, and a joy about themselves as well.

Perhaps most critically, Willow once more reveals that George Lucas’s greatest talent as a story-teller rests in his unswerving ability to craft a canny pastiche; his ability to co-opt old and discarded myths and render them fresh and new, with the assistance not only of some serious 1980s wit, but with state-of-the-art effects work as well.

In short, Lucas knowingly revives old legends with charm and visual aplomb, and in the process evokes a feeling of, well, glorious innocence. Watching films like Willow, you feel like a kid again.

Lucas had already re-modeled the space adventures of the Flash Gordon Era into box office gold with Star Wars, and the pulp adventures of the 1930s as well, with the Indiana Jones franchise. Accordingly, Willow might be viewed, in some sense, as the third and final film in that Lucas pastiche trilogyl only one inhabiting the fantasy milieu of writers like Tolkien, Swift, and Baum, to name just a few.

In this case, Willow pays tribute to stories of the fantasy genre -- from Lord of the Rings right up through Star Wars (1977) -- without losing sight of its driving and inspiring theme. 

Specifically, the 1988 film is an ode to the idea that, simply, size doesn’t matter. One individual with heart can change the world for the better. 

“You need a warrior for a job like this. I’m a nobody.”

In another age and in a time of “dread,” the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) learns that a newborn child -- a girl -- will bring her despotic reign to an end. 

Accordingly, the Queen orders all female infants killed, but one child, Elora Danan, escapes. 

Elora is spirited away on a raft, and sent downstream, but Bavmorda orders her minions, including the princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) and General Kael (Pat Roach) to hunt down the baby at all costs.

Some ways down the river, Elora is retrieved from her floating raft by a kindly Newlyn, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis). A farmer and aspiring magician, Willow realizes that the baby represents a danger to his people, but his wife grows attached to Elora. 

Meanwhile Willow attempts and fails to become a sorcerer’s (Billy Barty) apprentice. He fails the wizard’s test, and is unable to answer correctly the wizard’s query: “The power to control the world is in which finger?”

When Bavmorda’s vicious hounds attack a Nelwyn town fair in search of their missing prey, Willow goes to the Elders of the community to seek a plan regarding the human baby.  He is then instructed to take Elora to a busy crossroads and give the child to the first human, or “Daikini” that he sees there.

Unfortunately, the first human Willow sees is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) a great warrior…and a terrible scoundrel. Because Madmartigan proves untrustworthy in Elora’s defense, Willow opts to remain with her.

On his quest to protect the child, Willow also meets the Queen of the Forest, Cheralindrea (Maria Holvoe), who tells him to seek help from a sorceress, Finn Raziel (Patricia Hayes).  With Madmartigan and two diminutive sidekicks called Brownies in tow, Willow finds Finn Raziel and learns that she has been transformed into a crow by dark magic.

Sorsha and Kael continue to pursue the child, and Willow realizes that if he is to save Elora from Bavmorda’s evil plans, he must come to rely on his own senses, and his own brand of “magic.”  All he lacks is confidence.

Along the way to finding it, however, Willow will have to grapple with trolls, two-headed monsters, and Bavmorda’s diabolical spells…

“Magic is the bloodstream of the universe.”

Willow (1998) casts a wide net in terms of source material, and the film re-purposes a number of stories for its tale of an every-man who defeats (evil) royalty. The film’s inspirations are many, to be certain, and emerge from film history, literature and myth.

The story of a lone child cast down a river on a raft of sorts, for instance, clearly evokes memories of Moses’ origin tale in the Hebrew Bible. 

There, as you will recall, an Egyptian Pharoah ordered all male Hebrew children drowned in the Nile, but Moses was saved…and set afloat on that very river. 

Clearly, the sex of the endangered child has been changed in Willow, as has any notion of ethnicity being at the core of Bavmorda’s undying hatred.  But the imagery of a child on a raft undeniably evokes Moses’ journey. 

He was destined for greatness, just as Elora Danen surely is.

Later in the film, Willow is captured by these tiny beings known as Brownies, diminutive little creatures who live in the forest. Willow and his friend are guarded, and pinned down by these beings.  The beings even stand atop the Nelwyns’ prone chests. 

This image too goes right back to an instantly-recognizable literary source: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). 

There, a shipwreck survivor, Gulliver, washes ashore in the land of Lilliput, a community of six-inch tall people not unlike Willow’s Brownies.

Again, it’s important to note that Swift utilized Gulliver’s journey to Lilliput as social critique or commentary about his time and culture, but that here George Lucas mines the familiar imagery for a different purpose.

Thirdly, Willow’s encounter with the benevolent spirit of the forest – Charalindria -- deliberately evokes memories of the ethereal Glinda -- the Good Witch of the South -- in both the literary works of L. Frank Baum, and the iconic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.  In both cases, a figure associated with immaculate or pure “white” color holds the key to the hero or heroine successfully completing a quest.

From Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cycle, we get our title character: Willow himself.  He is not a hobbit, but rather a Nelwyn. 

But what’s in a name, right?

Both Tolkien’s and Lucas’s story require a hero who lacks physical stature to leave his comfortable, safe surroundings and essentially, encounter a much-larger world.

Bilbo and Willow may not be tall, but they find that they are in tall in character, even when reckoning with villains and other great dangers.  In other words, they already have inside everything that they need to succeed as heroes.  It’s just a matter of learning that.

The greatest and most obvious inspiration for Willow, however, may just be Lucas’s own film: Star Wars. 

Many characters and ideas featured in the Star Wars trilogy have strong corollaries or counterparts here. 

The rogue Madmartigan is very much like Han Solo. 

Bavmorda’s destruction of the castle at Galidor resembles the Death Star’s annihilation of Alderaan. 

General Kael -- a soldier-villain in fearsome armor -- is a close relative to Darth Vader, and so forth.

Queen Bavmorda, fearful of being usurped is another version of Emperor Palpatine’s brand of evil and the Brownies -- the film’s only real weak point -- resemble the bickering duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO. 

Even Fin Rizzell might be described as an amalgamation of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Like them, she is the wise old warrior who returns to the fight after many years away from it.

On one hand, Willow’s wholesale absorption of so many characters and ideas from literature, mythology and film history may make it difficult for audiences to parse the film as a truly original experience.

On the other hand, these various and sundry touchstones cannily inform the audience that Willow’s story -- the story of one person’s self-realization -- is a universal one.  It is the story of all of us.  We are meant to recognize it.

Indeed, this story (a variation of Campbell’s “mono-myth”) has been told again and again throughout history -- by generation after generation -- and the recognizable imagery and character-types enhance our vivid and visceral connection to Willow’s world.  Part of the reason that Willow is inspiring, indeed, is that we connect visually almost automatically to his plight.  We connect to it because we so clearly recognize it from all the smart visual allusions.  The hero’s face changes in all such stories, but he (or she) is always a surrogate for our struggles.

Willow, the Every Man faces a universal challenge, in other words, and the familiar visuals and archetypes Lucas deploys are totems or symbols which suggest that this story is mankind’s tale…our tale.  The power of the universe is in our fingers, and it always has been whether the hero is Luke Skywalker (Willow’s analog), Bilbo Baggins, Gulliver, or Dorothy.

What elevates Willow beyond being a mere “re-packaging” of old stories, however, are the very (individual) qualities I listed above, in my introduction. 

The performances, especially by Kilmer and Whalley, are joy-filled.

The location work immediately establishes a believable, tactile fantasy world. 

And, surprisingly, the action scenes in the film are spectacularly vetted.  Ron Howard doesn’t necessarily come to mind in this regard, but as director he orchestrates several moments -- like a battle on a breakaway wagon, and a toboggan ride across an arctic field -- with authentic flair.  Buoyed by James Horner’s rousing score, Willow veritably thrives on the strength of its action scenes.

Willow proves less than satisfactory on two minor fronts. 

First, Lucas names the villains of the film after famous film critics. Kael is Pauline Kael. And the two-headed dragon is Eber-Sisk, for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

Since these film critics are called-out as villains in the very body of the film, one can only assume that Lucas is a rather thin-skinned artist.  I remember that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel devoted a whole show to the Star Wars films, and practically gave the inferior Return of the Jedi (1983) a tongue-bath. 

So why single this duo out, anyway, in this fashion?  Why heap scorn upon them?

It’s not merely a thin-skinned move, but sort of mean-spirited too.

And secondly, Willow might also be viewed as second canary in the coal mine -- if there is such a thing -- after Return of the Jedi, vis-à-vis Lucas’s obsession with juvenile side-kicks and their antics. 

Many Star Wars fans I know like to pretend that the prequels -- circa 1999 – 2005 -- just suddenly materialized fresh the idea of awful sidekicks; namely Jar-Jar Binks. 

Well, history records that Return of the Jedi had belching aliens galore and the Ewoks. And similarly, Willow features the insufferable, silly-as-could be Brownies.  These characters sport ridiculously bad accents, dump love-potion everywhere, and randomly vacillate between shtick, cowardice and heroism, depending on the demands of any given sequence.

Clearly, juvenile, comic-relief sidekicks are a key part of the Lucas film paradigm, and that didn’t start with The Phantom Menace (1999).

That’s just when many fans decided to start complaining about it.

And yet again, it must be noted that Willow doesn’t seem nearly as juvenile as Jedi does, at least on retrospect, perhaps because the Ron Howard film has the counter-weight of Madmartigan/Sorsha…who are clearly hot for each other’s bodies. 

Between the lines -- and captured in the performances --Willow suggests that sex can exist in a universe created by George Lucas. As an adult viewing the film, you can latch onto that chemistry and vibe, and it adds another layer of depth, and humanity, to the adventure.

Today, despite the presence of the Brownies and the unnecessary, thin-skinned critic-bashing, Willow moves like a model of filmmaking efficiency.  This epic fantasy is just barely over two hours in duration, unlike the three-hour plus, rear-numbing fantasy epics of late.  And Willow also has the dignity to end at a dramatic high point, rather than drawing matters out to a maddening, hair-pulling degree.

This film is sentimental -- much like all of Lucas’s genre efforts -- but Willow doesn’t wallow in sentiment. 

Instead, this 1988 film is a high-flying and even inspiring pastiche which reminds us that the quest to self-actualize is a universal one. Like Willow Ufgood, we all have “the potential to be great.”

And the Nelwyn’s movie -- to my delight and surprise upon a 2014 re-screening -- actualizes that potential pretty well itself.


  1. Nice to see you re-examine this film. I think it has aged really well. The location shooting and wonderfully detailed production design really help. As you mentioned reception for this film was tepid for the most part. I remember my mom commenting after the movie ended, "Well, you got to see another Star Wars movie, but with a dragon in it."

    But in the scope of 1980s fantasy films, this one really works. Not quite at the "Conan the Barbarian" level, but in a way they are very different movies. "Willow" is more in the fairy tale vein, and Conan goes for the earthy sword and sorcery vein. And yet, both of them have the feel of being in another world or another time - because of the production details and location shooting.

    But yeah, the Brownies... even when I was a kid they annoyed me. Drop them from the film, and it would be just about perfect. And as you mentioned, the action scenes are really handled well. That wagon chase is still a ton of fun. The movie is surprisingly violent and scary at times. When Willow transforms the troll into the dragon - just ... ewwww. The trolls gave my sister nightmares for years too. :)

    And James Horner's score is one of my favorites, a close second to "Krull" for his best fantasy effort. The main theme for "Willow" is iconic.

  2. One of my favorite films all time. Not considered by many(esp.with Starwars fans), this film is a classic for me and very rewatchable. Val Kilmer kicked ass with this one, and the film has a very effective formula.


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