Willow is a film that will mean a great deal to many children of the 80s. It harks back to a simpler time when fantasy wasn’t taken so seriously and the Lucasfilm’ symbol before a film was cause for excitement rather than a sign of impending disappointment. I’ve had the chance to revisit several of the films I loved as a child and while many have aged incredibly badly (Short Circuit springs to mind) others are still completely watchable even with their dated effects and my cynical adult mind.
The truth is Willow does seem incredibly dated but that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable and hugely charming in its own way. As director Ron Howard points out in the extra features, at the time he thought he was making a groundbreaking epic but time and advances in fantasy filmmaking have transformed the film into a quaintly cosy experience. He doesn’t comment on the ill-advised porn star moustache he used to sport back then though.
The eponymous Willow is one of the Nelwyn, a race of little people played by actual little people instead of miniaturised average sized actors, a la Lord of the Rings. He’s played by a fresh faced Warwick Davis, long before he became Ricky Gervais’ mini-me in the regrettable Life’s Too Short. Although Davis was only in his late teens when he played the part, Willow is a married farmer with two children who one day discover a baby on a raft in the river beside their farm. Willow is tasked with returning the baby back to the Dalkini (or big people). He’s told to give the baby to the first Dalkini he encounters but unfortunately for Willow this is the slightly unhinged swordsman Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), and unluckily for them both the baby is being hunted by the armies of evil queen and sorcerer Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), as she believes the child is destined to overthrow her.
The story is by George Lucas, but he wisely left the director’s chair to Howard and the screenwriting duties to Bob Dolman. Lucas was always a great ideas man but A New Hope and American Graffiti aside he’s no great shakes as a director or screenwriter. He proved this definitively in the late 90s and the world suffered greatly for it.
Lucas is evidently a Tolkien fan, as Willow is essentially a hybrid of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The Nelwyn are Hobbits by another name and Madmartigan is basically Han Solo with a sword and is exactly as awesome as that sounds. He was a hero of mine as a kid and I’m glad to say that Kilmer’s manically brooding performance is still the best thing about the film. Willow is rooted by Davis’ effortless charm though and, especially considering how young and inexperienced he was, he’s fantastic. It’s a real shame that following Willow he never really got a lead role again and spent most of his career buried under prosthetics as various creatures and monsters.
Ron Howard is something of a journeyman director and is seen as a jack of all genres and master of none, but he proved pretty adept at handling fantasy. Compared to the painstaking world building that went into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the land of Willow do seem pretty flimsy but he uses old school effects like matte paintings and stop-motion creatures that in many ways have more heart and soul than modern CGI. That said, it’s worth noting that Willow is now famous for having some of the first computer generated morphing’ effects.
The whole world twinkles with a storybook shine, especially with this new HD transfer (which was supervised by Lucasfilm) and it’s a nice antidote to the doom and gloom seriousness of Lord of the Rings and that Peter Jackson also insisted on forcing into The Hobbit. It’s also great to watch a fantasy film that manages to wrap up the whole adventure in 2 hours; if it was made today it would undoubtedly be a trilogy.
It hasn’t stood the test of time as well as that other great 80s storybook fantasy, The Princess Bride, lacking the humour and wit of that film, but it has the same sort of warmth and old fashioned adventure, while offering more than just nostalgia. It also has some great retrospective extras, including Warwick Davis looking back at the video diary he kept on set.
Overall Verdict: It’s seriously dated but charmingly so. Modern kids probably won’t necessarily appreciate its charms but nostalgic adults are in for a treat.
Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard
Willow: An Unlikely Hero – Personal Video Diary of Warwick Davis
The Making of an Adventure with an all new introduction from Ron Howard
Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Film
Reviewer: Adam Pidgeon