Willow (1988) Is a Tragically Underrated Film
Willow is a 1988 high fantasy film directed by Ron Howard and produced by George Lucas of Star Wars fame. The movie has often been referred to as "Star Wars with swords" because it shares the same basic plot: young farmer sets out to save a princess from an evil empire. Rinse and repeat.
But in my years of reading great books and watching great films, I've come to realize that it's not how a story is told but how well it's told. There's nothing wrong with fiction that follows a forumla -- in fact, some of the most beloved stories of all time, such as Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz, follow a typical formula.
Again, what matters is how well the story is told, and I've always felt that Willow was told pretty well. Sadly, it didn't do very well at the box office, and very few people even know about it today unless they saw it as a child. Search "Willow" in Google and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is likely to come up.
It's . . . heartbreaking.
Maybe I'm just being nostalgic and Willow is actually trash. But I watched it again recently (for probably the thousandth time) and this film still holds up in my eyes.
Strong Female Characters Galore
When I say "Strong Female Characters," I am not referring to the unfortunate trope where a woman's only "strength" is her masculinity and how much she hates men and loves punching out misogynists.
No. What I mean is, every woman in the story contributed to the plot in a meaningful way and did not solely exist to titillate the men in the audience (therefore, as a sex object), or to serve the male protagonist. Their lives did not revolve around the men and they had their own character arcs and their own shit to do.
The fact that these women had agency, stories of their own, and made decisions that drove the plot is what makes them strong, rather than plot devices and decorations and sexist quotas.
It's a pretty great thing that this movie, considering it's three decades old, is able to pass both the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test, in that the women in the film have more to do and think about and talk about than a man and how they can serve him.
The strongest of these female characters is probably Sorsha (Joanne Whalley).
People say the characters in Willow are two-dimensional and underdeveloped, completely ignoring the fact that Sorsha had an entire arc that didn't revolve around Willow or even Madmartigan. True, Madmartigan was a significant part of her turning point, but that doesn't make her character any less strong.
Sorsha is more than a Warrior Princess trope. When we first "meet" her in the film, she is presented as her mother's best warrior. It's easy to see why: Sorsha is so hungry for her mother's love and approval that she has busted her ass to become the most useful person to her in the realm, and it's still not enough.
Sorsha tries desperately to behave the way her mother believes she should behave, being hateful and angry and repressing her feelings for Madmartigan by kicking him in the face.
It's pretty obvious that she has feelings for Madmartigan and that she even pities Willow. When she captured both of them in the film, she could have easily killed them . . . but she didn't. Instead, she kept them prisoners while sneering on them with her hateful facade and trying hard to be a bad girl.
When Sorsha realizes she's in love with Madmartigan, she gives in to her true personality, one of compassion, kindness, and fighting for what is right. She decides to join Willow and protect the princess baby Elora Danan.
Her betrayal of her mother is a small arc, but it's still there. She still has her own story. She still makes decisions that contribute significantly to the plot. Her accompanying Fin Raziel to the final battle made the defeat of Bavmorda possible, as she easily defeated Bavmorda's bodyguards and cleared the way for the final showdown.
All in all, Sorsha was not a plot device or a side character that stood in the background, waiting for the men to save the day. She played an active role in driving the plot forward, and she was allowed to be sexy and feminine and beautiful without becoming a sex object strutting around in bikini armor.
I always loved that her femininity wasn't erased. I'm so tired of today's female characters being portrayed as masculine by male writers who think masculinity is the only way to be strong.
It's not that a woman being masculine is a bad thing. It's not. It's the fact that masculinity is often used to belittle and dismiss femininity, and by extension, women. So seeing a badass woman embrace femininity is uplifting.
Keep in mind that when I say "femininity" I'm not talking about sexist gender roles. I'm not talking about dresses and high heels and make up.
When I talk about femininity in my articles, I'm talking about personality traits. By the end of the film, Sorsha has embraced both sides of herself and is no longer posturing for her mother.
This was important for me to see as a child, being a little girl who was a tomboy but -- like Sorsha -- still had a feminine side and would grow up in a misogynistic world. I, too, would grow to rely on my masculine side to survive, never embracing my feminine side because femininity had been turned into pretty pink dresses and lipstick and deemed "weak" by the patriarchy.
The reality is, we all have feminine and masculine energy inside of us. Sorsha is the perfect of example of this.
So it's pretty amazing when reviewers of the film (usually male) dismiss Sorsha as a "two-dimensional" nothing. Of course they see it that way. They had plenty of examples of themselves depicted as human beings while growing up.
Willow's wife, Kaiya (Julie Peters), was another strong female character.
When Princess Elora Danan washes downstream and is found by Willow, his initial reaction is to shove the baby on and forget about her. Willow is a paranoid, neurotic guy who just doesn't want any trouble. He begs Kaiya not to fall in love with the baby, but she completely ignores him, doing what she believes to be right by rescuing the child from the river.
Because Kaiya decides to take in Elora Danan, the plot moves forward. This makes it a bit odd later when Elora Danan chooses Willow as her champion. Didn't he try to abandon her ten minutes before? Meanwhile Kaiya took Elora Danan in -- despite the fact that she was a daikini child -- and fed her and cared for her.
Why wasn't Kaiya chosen? Why wasn't this movie called Kaiya? Why couldn't a female character have been the lead? I know the answers to all those questions, and sadly, all of them are depressing.
If Willow was going to be the lead, they could have at least made his role as Elora's protector make sense. Willow should have been the one to rescue Elora from the river, care for her, and protect her against his wife's protests. Not the other way around.
If anything, it makes Elora Danan seem foolish. She is just a baby, but she is presented early on as a very special baby. Shouldn't she be special enough to pick a suitable champion?
Basically, Kaiya should have been chosen not because she's a woman, but because she was the one who saved Elora and gave a crap about her!
Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) is yet another strong female character who drives the plot in significant ways. She is -- refreshingly -- not presented as a mother figure to Willow but as his magical mentor. She helps him realize his power as a wizard, guides him, protects him, and helps him build up confidence and courage throughout the film.
That aside, her entire life does not revolve around Willow. She actually has her own goals: to ensure Elora Danan becomes queen and to end Bavmorda, the evil sorceress who cursed her.
Fin Raziel's very existence steers the audience from the temptation of thinking Bavmorda is a sexist trope, another woman who's gone whacko because us hyper-emotional women can't wield power responsibly.
Fin Raziel shatters this sexist notion, though she is weaker in terms of power to Bavmorda. She had to be so that Willow, the protagonist, could bravely defeat Bavmorda himself, proving that even the smallest person can save the world.
It never ceases to amaze me that we can have talking bugs and mice and children and little people warmly accepted as realistic and relatable protagonists . . . but a grown woman saving the world? A grown woman being strong? A grown woman being competent? Unrealistic! Unrelatable!
Fin Raziel -- and the rest of the female characters -- shatters all of that, especially being an elderly woman who would be considered weak and useless in any other setting.
Madmartigan Was Not Allowed To Be Rapey
By that I mean, the movie didn't embrace Madmartigan's creepiness as something good, normal, and okay. At least not at first. And that actually made the film ahead of its time (sadly enough).
Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) is supposed to be stealing Elora Danan from Sorsha's tent. He is under the influence of a love spell (aka he's drunk), so instead, he hovers over Sorsha while she's sleeping and thinks about kissing her.
Thankfully, Sorsha jumps up and -- in a direct subversion of the creepy sleeping kiss trope -- she nearly stabs him.
While it was totally wrong for Madmartigan to even attempt something like this, it was still good for little girls to see the female character put this creep-o in his place.
Would have been even better had she not, you know, fallen in love with him later. This is probably the only negative thing I can say about Sorsha and Madmartigan, as I didn't mind how "cliche" they were otherwise.
A lot of action films from the 80's-90's era romanticized men who violated consent, putting their needs above the wants and desires of the woman they are forcing themselves on. The fact that the narrative allows Sorsha to fend off unwanted sexual contact is a good thing -- especially when comparing this film to later films such as The Mummy and The Mask of Zorro, in which men are allowed to force kisses on women and it is seen as "romantic."
Madmartigan trying to kiss a sleeping woman who is basically a stranger is bad and wrong and should not have been in the film. At all. They could have just had him creepily watching her in a drunk love-haze. At least then he wouldn't have attempted to violate her, and this violation would not be framed as romantic.
The film also tries to use the excuse that Madmartigan is "drunk" on a spell. It could almost be seen as an allegory depicting drunk men as helpless and innocent. In reality, alcohol (and apparently fairy dust) doesn't create behavior. It gives people the courage to do the crappy things they were already fantasizing about. That's why it's called Liquid Courage.
So someone who doesn't care about another human being's right to consent is going to forcefully kiss them while drunk. And perhaps while sober.
I'm basically saying that Madmartigan's momentary creepiness didn't ruin the film for me because Sorsha was at least allowed to fend him off,showing that his behavior was wrong.
I just wish the behavior had never been depicted in the first place or at least wasn't romanticized later when she winds up dating the same guy who tried to assault her.
Yes, a forced kiss is sexual assault, male readers who are rolling their eyes. Look at it this way: would you want some random man to walk up to you and force a kiss on you? If he pinned you against a wall or otherwise overpowered you, would you not consider it an assault and a violation?
Elora Danan Was Awesome
Probably the most memorable thing about the film was the great facial expressions of Elora Danan, the princess prophesied to bring about the downfall of Bavmorda.
She was played by twins Ruth and Kate Greenfield.
Incidentally, here is what "Elora Danon" looks like now.
Growing up, I always hoped there would be a Wllow sequel with Elora Danan as the protagonist, facing off against Bavmorda, who has somehow returned to kill her. That would have been pretty epic, but such a film never happened because Willow didn't really do well at the box office.
Apparently, people at the time were just not interested in a high fantasy. Fans such as myself still wonder if the film would have done better later, when CGI special effects led to the creation of beautiful worlds such as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.
The Special Effects Aged Well
The 80's were a time when actors still wore costumes and filmmakers didn't rely exclusively on CGI.
A lot of the scenes in Willow, though created with outdated technology, are still pretty great thirty years later. You can actually look at the film and not wince while silently comparing its effects to Avatar.
Probably the most memorable action sequence in the film is the one with the Eborsisk, the two-headed dragon creature that Willow accidentally created while trying to fight a really scary troll.
Admit it. Those trolls were terrifying. We still can't accomplish that with CGI.
Warwick Davis Was Awesome
And last but certainly not least, Warwick Davis was pretty awesome. As the central character, he pulled everyone together fantastically and had good chemistry with Val Kilmer as Madmartigan, who becomes his protector and friend during the course of the film.
Not only that, but the character of Willow was highly relatable for a lot of reasons, not just because he was a humble farmer who -- like most nerdy little boys -- wanted to grow up to be a great wizard.
Aside from being bullied and mocked by his own people, Willow also faced fantastic racism and the psychological damage of being continuously perceived as worthless, weak, and inferior just because he was small "even for a Nelwin" (thus his lack of confidence). And yet, he's the one who saves everyone by the end of the film.
Why wouldn't a little girl watching this relate to that? Or be inspired by it?
Davis was only seventeen when he starred in this role, and while he went on to do many great things, the child in me will always remember him fondly for Willow.
And for the magic he brought to my world.
Own this wonderful family classic.
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