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Should I Watch..? 'Willow'

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online for over fifteen years.

Poster for the film

Poster for the film

What's the big deal?

Willow is a fantasy action adventure film released in 1988 and is produced by George Lucas, who also wrote the story. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is set in a fantasy world where a diminutive farmer becomes embroiled in protecting a baby prophesised to end the rule of an evil sorceress. The film stars Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh and Patricia Hayes. The film's many visual effects were created by Lucas' company Industrial Light & Magic and featured the first digitally-created morphing sequence. While the film wasn't a huge success at the US box office with earnings just over the film's budget of $57 million (it performed much better overseas), the film has since become a cult smash with rumours circling of a potential sequel as well as a number of books continuing the story. The film also earned two Academy Award nominations for its pioneering special effects.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

In a land of myth and legend, there is a prophecy that proclaims a child born with a special birth-mark will lead to the downfall of the vile Queen Bavmorda. Determined to prevent the prophecy from coming true, the Queen rounds up all pregnant woman in the land but is unable to prevent the child from being smuggled out of her castle. Pursued by the Queen's armies, the child is placed onto a raft which drifts away from her potential captors.

The raft drifts downstream into the care of Willow Ufgood, a dwarven (or Nelwyn as they're known) farmer and amateur conjurer who reluctantly takes care of the baby. But after his village is attacked by a vicious Nockmaar hound, the village elders demand that Willow must journey to the human lands and hand over the baby to someone more capable. So begins a long journey for Willow and his companions, unaware that the fate of the land rests on their shoulders...

Trailer

Main Cast

ActorRole

Warwick Davis

Willow Ufgood

Val Kilmer

Madmartigan

Joanne Whalley

Sorsha

Jean Marsh

Queen Bavmorda

Patricia Hayes

Fin Raziel

Billy Barty

The High Aldwin

Pat Roach

General Kael

Technical Info

DirectorRon Howard

Screenplay

Bob Dolman*

Running Time

126 minutes

Release Date (UK)

9th December, 1988

Genre

Action, Adventure, Fantasy

Academy Award Nominations

Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects

Razzie Award Nominations

Worst Supporting Actor (Barty), Worst Screenplay

The film avoids feeling exploitative by empowering characters overlooked by others, often to their detriment.

The film avoids feeling exploitative by empowering characters overlooked by others, often to their detriment.

What's to like?

Comparing the film to other swords-and-sorcery movies from the Eighties like Red Sonja does Willow a huge favour - this setting feels organic and much deeper than others seen. Lucas' greatest trick is to make a film feel part of a much bigger universe like Star Wars does and he works his magic here as well. It was also a risk to place a relatively inexperienced actor like Davis front-and-centre of a film like this but it pays off. Davis, who is usually hidden under prosthetics, proves that he can act as well as the rest of the cast and provides a performance that gives the somewhat hackneyed story some gravitas.

However, the film will be chiefly remembered for Kilmer and Whalley's romance on and off-screen. Kilmer has the time of his life as the supremely arrogant swordsman Madmartigan who comes complete with his own stirring orchestral score while Whalley also does well as the conflicted Sorsha, torn between her heart and her mother. The film is an entertaining romp through every fantasy cliché you can think of and the action scenes alone are wonderfully exciting and very well executed. On the surface, there is little to dislike about this film.

Fun Facts

  • Although he had been dwelling on the concept since 1972, Lucas wrote the part of Willow specifically for Davis who he met on the set of Return Of The Jedi when Davis played the Ewok Wicket. At the time of shooting this film, Davis was just 17 years old.
  • The two-headed dragon that appears was referred to as Eborsisk in the official press release, although no-one uses that name in the film. It's a reference to film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. In addition, General Kael is so named because of another critic, Pauline Kael.
  • Kilmer & Whalley wasn't the only romance formed as a result of this film. Davis met both his future wife Samantha Burroughs and her father on set when they appeared uncredited as Newlyn villagers. Unlike Kilmer and Whalley, Davis and Burroughs are still together.

What's not to like?

It almost goes without saying that any fantasy film owes an enormous debt to the imagination of JRR Tolkien but rarely more so than here. Willow feels as though it was shot on a forgotten corner of the set of The Lord Of The Rings and doesn't offer enough originality of its own to make it feel unique. The biggest nod is the comic relief pairing of Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton as a pair of tiny brownies who join in the quest but in essence, this feels very derivative indeed.

The other problem is that some of the cast seem unsure what level to pitch their performances at. Marsh and Hayes, as the duelling sorceresses, ham it up tremendously while others take things quite seriously. It's a shame that the pantomime villain undermines the movie the way it does as Bavmorda never feels much of a threat until the rain-soaked ending when lightning bolts and levitation become the order of the day. Roach's General Kael is a much more memorable baddie, his skull-mask and armour underlining the character's ruthlessness and violent streak. Other than the odd production glitch here and there (and the much-discussed morphing sequence hasn't aged that well), the film is a real treat for the family to enjoy and might even establish a life-long love for all things fantasy. It certainly did for me.

Kilmer, seen here with director Ron Howard (right), would meet his wife Joanne Whalley - they married the year the film was released.

Kilmer, seen here with director Ron Howard (right), would meet his wife Joanne Whalley - they married the year the film was released.

Should I watch it?

I suspect the reason film critics at the time didn't rate it was due to the pitching of evil character names because I can't really find fault with Willow. The film is a highly enjoyable fantasy romp that's full of humour, action, romance and magic. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this was the definitive fantasy film until Peter Jackson flew to New Zealand with a proposed trilogy in mind. And recommendations don't come better than that.

Great For: families, fans of fantasy, dwarven actors, off-screen romance

Not So Great For: humourless critics, anyone looking for anything original

What else should I watch?

It's a bold claim to have Willow at the top of the pile until The Lord Of The Rings came out but consider the opposition at the time. Red Sonja is a laughably bad effort with Brigette Nielsen displaying less emotion than the sword she wields. Alongside her in that film was a man who had appeared in his own fantasy films - Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan The Barbarian hasn't aged well at all while the follow-up Conan The Destroyer wasn't much cop to begin with. Before that, fantasy films were low-budget affairs often featuring the effects of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Arguably his greatest work appeared in 1963's Jason And The Argonauts although he continued to have his work feature in films until 1981's Clash Of The Titans.

Since the explosion in popularity in fantasy films in the Eighties, the genre has continued to grow in strength. Naturally, the place to start any exposure to fantasy is the aforementioned The Lord Of The Rings, a sublime adaptation of Tolkien's work that continues to stand head-and-shoulders above most other films including the belated The Hobbit trilogy. These days, viewers are spoiled for choice - the Harry Potter series made absolute megabucks at the box office, the Twilight saga made vampires cool again (for a while) and Marvel's continuing assault on multiplexes the world over shows no sign of slowing down.

© 2018 Benjamin Cox