A film review by Craig J. Koban
20th Anniversary Retrospective
20th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1988, PG, 117 mins
Val Kilmer / Sorsha: Joanne Whalley / Willoe:
Warwick Davis / Queen Bavmorda:
Jean Marsh / Raziel: Patricia Hayes / High Aldwin: Billy
Barty / Kael: Pat Roach / Airk: Gavan O'Herlihy
From the early to late 1980's, George Lucas was certainly in a creative rut of sorts. He had just come off of establishing the most culturally significant and universally popular film trilogy of all-time in the original STAR WARS series. Both during and after that, he created, provided the stories, and executive produced another flagship property from the decade in the INDIANA JONES series (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in 1981 and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in 1984). Certainly, for any innovative and successful filmmaker, toping those films would be a monumental task.
His career highlights after participating in those films were uninspiring at best. He produced two fairly lackluster, made-for-TV Ewok films, executive produced Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH, and, most notoriously, executive produced the enormous box office bomb, HOWARD THE DUCK (granted, the filmmaker’s own condemnation of the film after its release may have something to do with its lack of release on the DVD format). Let’s just say that film viewers and Lucas followers, at the time, were left a little weary and clamoring for more.
Enter 1988's WILLOW, which represented Lucas’ fairly earnest - if not somewhat problematic - attempts to recapture pop culture lightning in a bottle for a second time. Released five years after the last - and hugely profitable - film in the original STAR WARS TRILOGY (EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI), WILLOW was an effort on Lucas’ part to forge another fantasy series, but with deeper roots into the particulars of the genre. This would not be another space opera; WILLOW instead would find its influences in literary fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, not to mention finding inspiration in Biblical narratives, most notably that of Moses, and instances and echoes from GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. Much like the STAR WARS Sextet, WILLOW would largely be a hybrid work, finding elements from various sources and conglomerating them to foster a new mythology.
I think that hindsight can now reveal WILLOW to be one of the first legitimate attempts to make a large scale and lavish movie fantasy. Certainly, the concoction of characters and themes would have never really seen the light of day if it were not for Tolkien’s Middle Earth literary universe (characters and story threads in WILLOW have an obvious similarity), but the film was really the first endeavor to make a big budget swords and sorcery fantasy. They had been others before it, but not on this scale, and certainly not with Lucas’ established name behind it. Watching the film now, twenty years later, is very difficult considering the gigantic success of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy - widely regarded as the best fantasy film series - but one must disregard those films and watch WILLOW in a cultural vacuum. On its own, the film is a commendable, if not derivative, achievement that stands up well for its time, but it certainly did not achieve the critical accolades that fell on Jackson’s RING trilogy.
WILLOW certainly is not the LOTR’s technical equal (that much is obvious), but perhaps the one thing it does better than Jackson’s series is that it thankfully drains out those films’ annoying solemnity and weighty sense of self-importance. Jackson’s series forgot to have fun with the underlining material and instead chose to have a weighty grandstanding about it. WILLOW was the exact opposite: it had spunk, a vivacious sense of joviality and it had fun with the underlining material. It pushed aside the pomp and circumstance that permeates Jackson’s series and instead went for a good, old fashioned bit of popcorn escapism. Perhaps the largest compliment that should befall the film is that it never takes itself too seriously, which makes it more enjoyable as a breezy adventure than the ponderous LOTR. Yet, Lucas still owed a debt to Tolkien in the making of WILLOW. In fact, the director was desperately attempting to secure the rights to the that series and its prequel, THE HOBBIT, for years and hoped to make it is next epic series post-STAR WARS (this alone conjures up a infectiously intriguing "what-if" scenario if he did adapt those books; if it happened, would the STAR WARS PREQUEL Trilogy have ever been made?).
As he did with most film efforts of the decade, Lucas chose to stay out of the director’s chair and instead took a story and executive producer credit for WILLOW. To adapt his story, he inexplicably hired Bob Dolman, whose only other real credits were writing an episode of TV’s WKRP IN CINCINNATI (he would later go on to write FAR AND AWAY, THE BANGER SISTERS, and most recently, HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS). To fill the director’s chair, Lucas went to friend - and then-fledging filmmaker - Ron Howard, whose only other filmmaking credits included NIGHT SHIFT, SPLASH, COCOON, and GUNG HO, all comedic in tone. Howard’s participation, at the time, seems odd, but with the huge financial success of COCOON, perhaps the marketing of the film would benefit from using the names associated with STAR WARS and COCOON (which the film’s teaser trailer employed). Howard and Lucas had a cinematic history: Lucas, it could be argued, launched Howard’s career by casting him in AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973, which in turn lead to the creation of HAPPY DAYS, a TV hit also starring Howard.
Perhaps most notable of Lucas’ hiring was his inclusion of "little people", and WILLOW is now proudly hailed by this community for employing more dwarfs than in any other production in the history of movies. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Lucas cast the then 17-year-old Warwick Davis in the lead role, which, when one considers the realm of fantasy and action films, has never really been done before or since. Davis worked with Lucas before playing one of the Ewoks in RETURN OF THE JEDI and would also work on the two subsequent EWOK TV films. Lucas liked the actor’s spirit so much that he had always envisioned Davis in the lead of WILLOW since he conceived the film. Davis himself would go on after WILLOW to become arguably one of the best known - and utilized - small actors. He would work in the popular LEPRECHAUN series as well and cameos in the various HARRY POTTER films.
WILLOW may have been the byproduct of other sources, but its story is fairly well-oiled and quickly paced (like the STAR WARS films, it never wastes time with wasteful expositions; after a title card explaining the particulars, it thrusts you into its universe and never looks back). Willow Ufgood (Davis, still his most enjoyable and charismatic performance) is a Nelwyn (or "little" person) farmer that lives a life of normalcy with his wife and two children. One day his kids find a red-haired and utterly adorable Daikini (or "big person") baby floating down the river (the Moses parable here is a bit too obvious and clear-cut). What Willow and his family don’t know is that the baby - named Elora Dana - has been foretold in a prophesy to grow up and dethrone the wickedly evil and vile Queen Bavmorda (played in a performance of pure hatred and mean-spiritedness by Jean Marsh). Clearly, the Queen wants this child dead and dead quickly.
Willow and his kind soon grow to learn that this is not any ordinary Daikini baby, especially when a pack of the Queen’s ravenous and viscous demon dogs tear through their village looking for her. Soon, Willow finds himself part of a fellowship...er...that's a bit too Tolkienish...he finds himself as part of a caravan whose quest it is to take the baby to the strange and dangerous world of the Daikinis and give the baby to the most suitable one.
Well, the first Daikini they come across is the imprisoned Madmartigan (a very clear-cut Han Solo-esque rogue, but played with swashbuckling derring-do and appeal by Val Kilmer). Eventually, Willow will add the reluctant "best swordsman that ever lived" to his clan, along with two action-figure sized "Brownies" to the mix (played by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overtone; funny, but these two overtly comic characters were never as critically eviscerated as another Lucas-created comic foil named Jar Jar Binks a decade later...go figure). Willow’s final addition to his group comes in the form of an animal, who was once a hugely powerful female sorceress Fin Raziel (in a nice performance by Patricia Hayes). One of the recurring running gags in the film is Raziel’s attempts at teaching Willow how to change her back into human form, but Willow fails each time (she become a crow and then a goat). This also provides the film’s funniest exchange when, during the first attempt, Madmartigan asks the rodent Raziel what she’ll look like when Willow is successful, to which she responds, "I am a young, beautiful woman." He then perfectly dead pans, "Concentrate hard Willow."
Again, it is WILLOW’s well placed sense of humor and whimsy that elevates it above its regurgitated elements. A lot of this has to do with the very appealing cast, all whom are equal to the challenge. Davis is easily likeable and many of the jokes in the film are self-deprecating in tone (at one, when Madmartigan asks him why he is needed to assist the wizard-to-be, Willow lashes back, "Because you’re a great swordsman...and you’re ten times bigger than I am, stupid!"). Kilmer is the real scene-stealer with his Errol Flynn inspired heroics (sure, he’s a Han Solo clone, but Kilmer makes the part his own). Whether it be engaging in horse driven wagon chase scenes, battling a gigantic two headed dragon, or, at one point, even dressing in drag, Kilmer is a pleasure to watch. He is simultaneously part of the biggest action set pieces and has some of the best throwaway lines in the film.
The story has expeditious pacing and never bogs itself down, and it certainly has all of the stable elements that has made other works of fantasy: we have the reluctant warrior, the young hero that thinks he’s a nobody but will become a somebody, an evil villain, dangerous creatures, a tireless and perilous journey, and a fetching love interest. Certainly, WILLOW is not reinventing the wheel here. The narrative does get bogged down with some predictability. You know that a very modest magic trick that Willow uses at the beginning of the film will figure in later at a crucial time, not to mention the silly and contrived love affair between Madmartigan and the Queen’s daughter-warrior (played with a snarling toughness by Joanne Whalley, the future Mrs. Val Kilmer), who seems to very predictably change sides with the drop of a sword because...damn...Madmartigan sure looks good in armor (he also is good at spouted love poetry to her in a brownie, drug-induced haze). Furthermore, WILLOW definitely feels very familiar to Lucas’ own STAR WARS films (a criticism that hurt the film terribly when originally released) and some clear-cut and unavoidable similarities are in abundance. Kilmer plays a Han Solo figure, Willow is Luke Skywalker, the brownies are essentially R2D2 and C3P0, and even the Queen’s gigantic, skull masked right-hand man is a Darth Vader drone (named General Kael, named after the famous film critic Pauline Kael, who gave bad reviews to the STAR WARS films).
Yet, WILLOW is still rousing and exciting, and the effects (although some looking severely dated now) were state-of-the art in 1988. The film was incredibly ambitious for its time and its art direction, costumes, and cinematography remain lavish and gorgeous to look at. The scenery easily provides for that out-of-body sensation that audience members need for films like this. The film’s score by James Horner is one of his most beautiful and underrated. Some action scenes are impressive (a huge battle with a two-heard dragon late in the film is a marvel of pre-CGI visual effects, and it’s deceptively easy to pick them apart when one forgets the technology that was available for its time). The work with the brownies is painstaking, if not a bit weak at times (no film, to be honest, has ever thoroughly and adequately made humans and pint-sized humans look realistic and convincing in shots together).
Perhaps WILLOW’s most long-standing legacy is that it was the first film in movie history to use the then-unheard of technology of computer "morphing", as shown in a crucial scene where Raziel is contorted into various animals, in an unbroken shot, until she finally arrives in human form. The shot, it could be argued, is one of the most groundbreaking in terms of the last twenty years of effects-heavy films. It is the pioneering efforts that ILM used in WILLOW that helped launch the watershed effects in THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR 2, and those two films, in turn, lead to JURASSIC PARK and eventually to Lucas’ STAR WARS prequels and Jackson’s LOTR. Without WILLOW’s achievements in the arena of computer graphics and imaging, the whole landscape of effects through the 1990's and current decade might have been different.
The least proud legacy of the film was its genuine lack of a fan base. Predating THE PHANTOM MENACE by 11 years, the expectations of WILLOW to be another STAR WARS smash were almost incalculable. The film, unfortunately, did meager box office returns and grossed a paltry $57 million. Lucas had envisioned a WILLOW trilogy, but with its lackluster performance he would have to forget about a film series and saw the second two parts in book form, written by Chris Claremont. WILLOW, like other cult films, has a very loyal and large following today, so perhaps a return to this universe on the silver screen is not completely out of the question. Let us pray...
Twenty years later, George Lucas' aspiring film fantasy is most definitely a mixed bag entertainment. It clearly has a derivative feel and tone, is made up of the elements of other famous literary fantasies and works, and clearly did not inspire another would-be trilogy of films as Lucas hoped. Yet, WILLOW still emerges as an energetic and enjoyable escapist fantasy with sweeping scenery, daring adventure, some watershed visual effects, and, most importantly, a decent message for kids. Willow Ufgood’s facade is small, but even his lack of a large and imposing stature did not stop him from being a hero. Like all good fairy tales, WILLOW has a good combination of fantastical imagery and a redeeming message, and Lucas knows how to tell these types of films well. Sure, the Force may not be completely with this film, but there are some hints of it lurking around in there.