Saturday, September 26, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command (1978-1980): "Chapter One: Attack of the Dragonship"

From the darkness of space, an evil dictator -- Dragos (Sid Haig) -- launches a surprise attack on Star Command, damaging the asteroid base. 

Jason (Craig Littler) and Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon) report the ambush to Commander Canarvin (James Doohan), who is on a mission to another planet. Unfortunately, the Commander is abducted before their very eyes.  He simply vanishes.

Hoping to rescue him, Jason, Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) and Jason’s new, all-purpose bot, W1K1, launch a Starfire to find him, tracing his emergency beacon signal.  They find Canarvin adrift in space (wearing a life-support belt) and rescue him.  Parsafoot and Canarvin return in a pod to Star Command.

But Jason is captured by Drago’s massive Dragonship…where he will soon have an audience with the tyrant.

Jason of Star Command’s (1978-1980) first chapter, “Attack of the Dragonship” opens with a great and accomplished visual efx shot.  We see the Space Academy (now Star Command) asteroid drifting in space. 

The image retracts and we see we are observing the installation from a viewer on an attack ship.  Star Command is being targeted!  There is a menace, a sense of the ominous in this opening shot, and it works very well to set up the week's danger.

This visual is beautifully-vetted, especially for a Saturday morning series of the 1970s, and the special effects compare favorably with prime-time programs of the era, including Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1978-1981).

Then, one of Drago’s fighters launches an attack on the asteroid, and we’re off to the races. Jason breaks through a sealed door to save an imperiled Nicole, and then prevents an explosion in a damaged compartment.  

The focus is clearly on heroic, swashbuckling action, and the inspiration, equally clearly, is Star Wars.  This creative debt is made even more apparent by the introduction of W1K1, a diminutive R2-D2 knock-off.

In the first season of Jason of Star Command, each episode is only fifteen minutes, so the stories have little depth, but a surprising amount of movement and special effects. Here we get the opening attack on Star Command, a deep space rescue of Canarvin from a Star Fire, and then -- finally -- the introduction of the menacing Dragonship in the flesh.  What a Goliath she is!

It’s intriguing to me that the Dragonship also appears to be constructed from a large asteroid, like the Academy/Star Command. I wonder if in this fictional universe, large asteroids are used as the basis for construction because of the gravity they afford.  It’s interesting that both familiar Earth forces (Star Command) and forces from the “dark galaxies” share this method of construction when forging giant stations/battle cruisers.

Overall, "Attack of the Dragonship" is a solid first chapter of this series, and it is filled, wall-to-wall with impressive, disco-decade, post-Star Wars visual effects.

Next week, we meet Dragos (Sid Haig) in “Prisoner of Dragos.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Survivors of Zalon" (September 10, 1977)

In the first episode of Filmation’s Space Academy (1977), "The Survivors of Zalon" -- written by Lynn Barker and directed by Jeffrey Hayden --, a confused Adrian (Maggie Cooper) detects an unusual "burst of red" on her computer monitor while scanning the mysterious planet Zalon, which is due to explode in just forty-eight hours. 

This unusual pattern means that there could be life on Zalon, even though the last survey, conducted two years earlier, indicated no life-forms existed there.

Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) authorizes a quick visit to Zalon's surface, and accompanies a team of cadets to the planet's barren, orange-hued surface; a trip they take via Academy shuttle, the sleek craft known as a "Seeker."

But a strange scarlet energy field cripples communications with the Academy, and Gampu drops off the others on the surface while he returns to orbit to attempt to re-establish contact.

On the planet below, the intrepid cadets discover a young, flute-playing waif: a curly haired orphan (Eric Greene).  He has been tasked with looking after two very valuable orbs.

He possesses no memory of how he arrived on Zalon, but the energy field from space has provided for his continued existence in return for his custodianship of those glowing crystals.

It turns out that these two orbs are the energy field's young. The destruction of the planet Zalon is actually a critical part of a "great life transformation process" for them, and the cadets -- by collecting the crystals as samples -- are interfering.

The crimson energy field in space permits Gampu to retrieve his cadets on the surface before the destruction of Zalon, provided that he permits the evolutionary process of their kind continue unimpeded.

Gampu agrees and returns to Zalon's surface. There, he agrees to adopt the waif, whom he names Loki, after the Norse God of Mischief.  

Very quickly, Loki reveals a handful of powers, including "special vision" (the ability to see through walls...) and the power to bilocate.

Early in Space Academy’s first episode “The Survivors of Zalon,” Commander Gampu makes a declaration about finding life on the doomed planet Zalon: “We do want to know. And we do care,” he says. 

That statement is practically Star Trek-worthy in its commitment to space exploration, and respect for all life. 

And it’s a good note to begin the series on too. 

Without actually ripping off Star Trek’s central scenario (a starship visiting other worlds on a long-term mission…), Space Academy creates a fictional future world here where promising young cadets are urged to be the best they can be, and to live up to their greatest potential as citizens of the galaxy.

I suppose that’s one reason why I’ve always preferred Space Academy to Jason of Star Command.  Jason has the action and the villains but Space Academy has the heart, in some sense, plus a real sense of curiosity about alien life and the universe.  

That curiosity is made apparent in this story.  Here, the cadets encounter orbs or rocks that they don’t realize are alive.  That mistake is corrected, after some danger, and all is well.  But in the meantime, the story involves the fact that life may take other shapes, or be different from our own, and yet still constitute life.  We may differ in our natures, but we can still come to an understanding, to a sense of respect with that which is different.  That is Gampu’s task here.  From the Seeker, he negotiates his way out of a crisis.

The cadets on the surface -- Tee Gar, Adrian, Chris and Laura -- do well too. Chris and Laura use their telepathic abilities to break through a force field, but don’t follow up that act with violence or force.  Instead, they come to understand the nature of an alien life cycle.

The episode ends with the Space Academy team welcoming a new member, the mischievous Loki. He is a virtual amnesiac, knowing nothing of his people or his planet of origin.  But he has found a home, and again tenderness is shown for outsiders.  “You will be loved, and you will never again be alone,” he is told.

So yes, indeed, this is Utopian, Star Trekkian-style space adventuring, but “Survivors of Zalon” features good production values and good storytelling to boot.  In fact, it is the only live-action series of the 1970s, I would argue, that can compete with Land of the Lost in terms of story content.

I am also currently watching Lost in Space for its fiftieth anniversary, and so it's a bit strange seeing Jonathan Harris as the honest, sincere Gampu, rather than as the conniving, manipulative Dr. Smith. But he does a good job here of playing an avuncular figure who is driven not by avarice or other bad angels of human nature, but rather by a sense of quasi-parental responsibility.  It's also amusing to see that "Survivors of Zalon" immediately establishes a close relationship -- or at least repartee -- between Harris's character and a robot.  Only here, it's Peepo, not the Bubble Headed Booby.

Next week: “Castaways in Time and Space”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (2015)

I have not watched the web-series, Marble Hornets, upon which Always Watching (2015), a new found footage horror movie, is based. 

But judging by how well made the movie is, that’s a big mistake on my part…and one that I will rectify. 

Always Watching: Marble Hornets is a chilling, well-made, and suspenseful film that centers on “The Operator” (Doug Jones), a Slenderman-type ghoul of enigmatic but sinister purpose, and the local news team that -- unfortunately for the individuals involved -- “sees” him. 

Always Watching is a low-budget venture, and yet the lack of resources hardly works against the picture’s success. The performances are strong (especially for a film of this sub-genre), the effects are adequate, and director James Moran executes several creepy scenes that depend on timing, atmosphere, and a slow-burn kind of horror.  Jump scares are present too, of course, but the overall aura of suffusing creepiness and amorphous dread arises from the director’s sense of patience and restraint.  The film is structured as an impenetrable mystery, one that deepens in terms of breadth and depth, but is never really explained.

Although Always Watching doesn’t directly or explicitly ascribe motives directly to the Slenderman character, the implication is that he is something not of this world (or dimension), but capable of controlling our actions.  It’s rewarding that the film doesn’t tread too far into reasons for this Boogeyman’s behavior, and instead allows a seed of ambiguous terror to blossom.  This horrible (though well-dressed thing…) comes into our reality and stalks those who see it, generating fear in these percipient until, finally, it is able to “operate” their bodies, to coin a phrase.  

As I’ve written before, horror works best when there are gaps in terms of explanations.  We don’t fear those things we can quantify and understand. We fear those things we can’t comprehend, or which are outside of the normal day-to-day-experience.

There is a more specific leitmotif here for the eagle-eyed, and a unique, well-thought out one at that.  Throughout the film, at least two of the characters who become targets for The Operator describe their previous actions in life (a violent assault on a boss, and a stalking incident of a would-be girlfriend) as being beyond their ability to stop. 

One might view this lack of impulse control as part of the reason they have been selected by the Operator for his “control.” Already -- even before he is present -- they are being “operated” by forces they don’t understand or can’t manage.  Similarly, this thought -- of being out of control -- leads one to wonder if the same observation is true of the Slenderman.  Is he driven to harm or hurt those who have seen him, whether he wants to or not? Is he too following some natural (or supernatural) set of events that he is helpless to stop?

These are just a few musings about the film, based on a close watching, and there’s a commendable bed-time story lesson component or quality to Always Watching too.  As one character concludes, sometimes looking too hard for something, lets that (malevolent) something into your psyche. 

In other words, if you stare into the abyss long enough…it stares into you too.

“Whatever this thing is, it makes you do things.”

In Columbia, South Carolina, a camera man, Milo (Chris Marquette), works for a local news station with a reporter Sara (Alexandra Breckinridge) whom he had a failed romantic relationship with.  A new producer, Charlie MacNeel (Jake McDorman) assigns them a story investigating what happens to people, property and homes after banks have foreclosed on them.

The team investigates the Wittlock family, which has disappeared from its upper middle class home.  The Wittlocks left in such a hurry, apparently, that a child’s homework is still sprawled on the dining room table, and all the home’s furnishings have been left behind.  Milo discovers strange graffiti in the basement of the Wittlock home, and a box of video tapes in an under-staircase storage compartment.

The tapes reveal that Mr. Wittlock progressively became obsessed with a stranger that he could only see when looking through the camera view-finder. This stranger, in formal attire, seems to have no hair, and no human face.  But he wears a suit and tie.

Milo reviews all the tapes and continues to spot this strange “Operator” in the Wittlock back-yard, and – terrifyingly -- inside the Wittlock house too.  He soon becomes convinced that this strange being is visiting his house as well, and warns Sara and Charlie.   He even has evidence: a brand on his shoulder that matches the graffiti he found in the basement.

Before long, Milo, Sara and Charlie are all under the watchful eye of this terrifying being, and the trio undertakes a road-trip to Colorado to track down the Wittlocks and learn what finally became of the family.

“I didn’t know how to stop.”

Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology and psychiatrist often wrote and spoke of “The Shadow,” or “The Shadow Aspect,” the dark or negative side of the human personality.

According to Jung, this Shadow represents the ego’s unconscious side; the side that feels inferior to others, or obsesses on negative, primal, base emotions. Jung once described the Shadow as a “reservoir for human darkness.”

In a very real sense, the Operator -- or Slenderman -- of Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story is a physical manifestation of the Jungian Shadow Aspect.

Consider that all three main characters -- Milo, Charlie and Sara -- are encumbered by behavior or impulses that they can’t rationally control, or even stop.

Milo stalks Sara after they break up -- filming her every movie -- and admits, “I didn’t know how to stop.” 

Charlie was fired from a news station in Boston, after taking a golf club to his boss’s office in a fit of rage and moral indignation. He confides that his anger issues manifested because he couldn’t control himself.

So like Milo, he couldn’t stop. 

And Sara, from the film’s first scene, is defined in part by her prescription drug problem/addiction. Late in the film, we see she is still using drugs and thus, similarly, can’t stop.  All the film’s main characters are all out of balance, acting on impulses from their “shadow” selves.  .

Accordingly, Slenderman -- the Shadow Aspect -- marks or brands all of them, and the protagonists soon speculate that the Operator “makes you do things.”  That’s a perfect definition of Jung’s Shadow: a primal reflection, separate from the ego, that makes you do things…but you know not why.

In the case of the film’s Shadow, he makes people act violently; he makes them commit murder. He pours into these unfortunate souls, one might say, a reservoir of human darkness. The Operator torments them by taking all control away from them, making them unthinking, unconscious killing machines.  But he isn’t transforming them, in a sense, he is only bringing out those qualities they all openly acknowledged and recognized was inside them to begin with.

I often write in my reviews about how great films utilize visuals that reflect, symbolize or enhance their story. To my delight, the imagery in Always Watching achieves this threshold. 

Several shots in the film are staged showcasing both the characters, and their reflections or projected images; in essence, their "shadow" selves. This is a way to make certain that the film's images reflect the content.  We see that the protagonists' shadow aspects, their out-of-contro impulses, are a crucial part of the equation used against them.

A relevant question, however, regarding the nature of the film's monster, involves how deliberate the Operator’s behavior is.  Does he affect people this way because of a malicious or sinister bent? 

Or does he do it as part of his nature (or super nature?) 

Is the film’s Operator actually, a collective Shadow, made sentient by all the shadow aspects of humanity itself?  If so, then he has always been with us, and likely always will be.  He’s a projection of everything dark inside human nature, and therefore as natural as earth, air, fire, or water. He is elemental.

Always Watching involves characters who “see” the Operator, the heretofore invisible force that, like a puppet master, can pull their strings.  They can see him, perhaps, because they are aware -- or conscious -- of their dark impulses.  

Indeed, Sara, Milo and Charlie boast a desire to see into the dark; a desire, even, manifested in their choice of jobs or professions (local news investigations of dark stories, like bank foreclosures). They not only tell dark stories of our modern society, they transmit those dark stories to others. Their job, one might say, is to record the bad news, and share that bad news with everybody else.

Dan Wittlock, meanwhile, boasts a tragic back story too, one that also allows him to focus on those things go bump in the night. His wife, ultimately, discusses the error of his ways.  “Dan couldn’t stop looking for him,” she tells the reporters.  “He let him into our lives.” 

Two things to consider here:

First, this seems to be a comment on 21st century media; or aptly, the press in the post-9/11 age.  We can turn on the TV at any time during the 24 hour news cycle and watch war, disaster footage, and Donald Trump speeches.  In ways we don’t fully process…we are impacted by these sights, aren't we?  We let these things into our lives. They take up real estate in our psyche.

Secondly, this idea relates directly to the Nietzscheian quote I mentioned in my introduction. Roughly paraphrased, it declares “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”  Always Watching is a found footage movie about what occurs when the abyss (another word for the Shadow Aspect, perhaps) gazes long and hard into you.

Intriguingly, the channel the abyss or Shadow uses in the film is completely technological in nature.  One can only detect the monster through the eye of the camera viewer. Again, that bears repeating: only our technology detects this boogeyman.

Perhaps this aspect of the story represents an undercover commentary on the ways that humans have chosen to utilize amazing technological devices.  Revenge porn, reality-TV, twitter flame wars, war zone atrocities, and big-budget movies that glorify revenge and violence?  

Those are the things we want to see?

These are the ways many want to use these miraculous devices?

So, recorded on videotape, on social networks, on the Net, are events, perhaps, that could generate or give rise to a conscious or sentient Shadow Aspect. In our data systems, on the information superhighway, rests a collection of dark impulses, stored for posterity.  The film’s Operator comes into our reality through the technological eye, through the lens that captures unsavory and unhappy aspects of human nature.

Again, these are the thoughts I had while watching the movie, reading the clues from characterization, narrative, and mise-en-scene. 

But the great thing about this found footage horror film is that Always Watching doesn’t settle or preach any one specific explanation or answer about the Operator.  It maintains an atmosphere of scintillating and discomforting uncertainty throughout.

One scene, which involves Milo’s nocturnal exploration of his house at night, is scarily effective in raising goosebumps.  The journey ends at a closed closet door upstairs, in the dark, and Milo must decide whether to open it or not.  This is a universal fear in a sense: a closed door, looming in the impenetrable night.  The unknown behind that door symbolizes our fear of the thing that could be within the closet (our shadow aspect?)  The whole set up is part of -- Jung again! -- our collective unconscious; our collective set of fears.

Given all this material, Always Watching is a cerebral and terrifying horror film, and one that you may find troubles your slumber. 

The question that lingers in your consciousness is this one: Now that you’ve watched, now that you’ve seen, have you opened the doorway -- have you made yourself vulnerable -- to your Shadow Self?

Is there something out there...always watching?

Movie Trailer: Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story (2015)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

From the Archive: 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 recent re-screening -- actualizes that potential pretty well itself.

Movie Trailer: Willow (1988)