Dir. by Ron Howard
Starring Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley and Jean Marsh
Willow is a farmer and amateur stage magician from a small village of hobbit-like Nelwyn. One day, his children find a human baby in the river. When soldiers attack the village looking for the baby, Willow must leave on a journey to protect the infant – who has been prophesized to bring about the destruction of the evil sorceress terrorizing the human nations. Along the way, he picks up allies in the form of a human knight-turned-thief, two mischievous brownies, and a sorceress trapped in the body of a possum*.
I don’t remember seeing this movie in theaters, but I know that my parents took me to see it. I do distinctly remember the cardboard box to the Wendy’s kid’s meal promoting the movie, since it had magic tricks printed on it, and it came with a plastic reproduction of Willow’s log trick. It’s almost certainly the first live-action fantasy movie I ever saw in theaters. It’s still one of my favorites, even if it’s been left behind by the post-LotR/Harry Potter fantasy movie renaissance.
If you’d asked me what my favorite fantasy movie was my freshman year of college, Willow probably would have been my answer. While The Princess Bride definitely falls into the fantasy genre, in my mind I’ve always associated it more with Robin Hood and other swashbucklers instead of more “traditional” fantasy. Of course, during my sophomore year Fellowship of the Ring would come out and blow that all away, but for a time in the 1990s Willow was definitely top-tier fantasy filmmaking.
While the aforementioned LotR films have surpassed this movie in pretty much every category, it’s still not without its charms. Willow, at first blush, shares a lot of similarity with other fantasy movies of the 1980s, such as Dragonslayer, Legend and the Conan films (though without the latter films’ heavy bloodshed and nudity). It consists of a lot of stock fantasy conventions (wicked queens, prophecies, faeries, D&D-style taverns, etc.), and the Nelwyn village entirely populated by short human-like people immediately conjures Tolkien comparisons. So far, so derivative. However, in my opinion Willow manages to transcend its origins and become something enjoyable, and even memorable at times.
One of the best things this movie has going for it is its casting, especially its lead. Warwick Davis is probably best known today for playing Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter movies. However, his first role came at the age of twelve, when he was cast as one of the background Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Kenny Baker (R2-D2) was originally slated to play the lead Ewok character of Wicket, but he got sick and Davis found himself promoted into the role. George Lucas was so impressed by him that he promised to come up with a movie specifically for him to play the lead. Five years later, Willow became his first starring role, and his first movie out of a creature costume.
Despite only being seventeen when it was filmed, Davis is able to carry the entire movie, showing why he would become the most prominent short actor of the late 20th century (and probably the 2000s up until Game of Thrones thrust Peter Dinklage into the spotlight). Val Kilmer, as the cocky swordsman Madmartigan, delivers my favorite performance of his career, and Joanne Whalley is badass as the armor-clad daughter of the evil queen (a character who is never once challenged for being a female warrior, something that is unfortunately still all too rare).
Another notable thing about the movie are the effects, which had a major part in film history. This movie finds Hollywood at a crossroads, effect-wise. It had been four years since The Last Starfighter became the first movie with all-digital effects, and ILM itself had already used CG in Young Sherlock Holmes and two Star Trek movies. However, this movie, and one scene in particular, was a critical breakthrough for CG. Near the end of the film, Willow must use a wand given to him by the queen of the faeries to free the good sorceress Fin Raziel from the animal form that she has been trapped in. In a single sustained shot, she transforms from a goat to an ostrich, a peacock, a tortoise and a tiger, before finally becoming human again. To achieve this, ILM decided to eschew the usual Hollywood techniques of stop-motion or lap dissolves from one shot to another, Wolfman-style, and instead went with an untested computer method. In doing so, they pretty much invented digital morphing from scratch, paving the way for the T-1000, Deep Space Nine’s Odo, and hundreds of other CG characters.
Of course, singling out this one 20 second scene isn’t to say that the rest of the effects are bad, per se. Okay, sure, they’re pretty crummy by modern standards. The blue screen matting is extremely obvious, and at least one major action sequence, involving a fight against a two-headed dragon-like creature, is clearly against a stop-motion puppet, albeit one with a Star Wars-worthy design. But they were of at least average quality for the late 80s, and I for one kind of enjoy them that way. A lot of the stuntwork is also superb, especially in a wild downhill slide down a snow-covered mountain that ends in the only time I’ve ever seen a Warner Bros. cartoon-style “person rolling in snow becomes a giant snowball” gag pulled off effectively in live-action.
And I can’t go without mentioning the other transformation sequence. Immediately prior to the CG transformation discussed earlier is one of the most impressive practical effect transformation sequences ever committed to film, in which the evil queen transforms an entire army into pigs. I’m surprised it didn’t get a Best Makeup Oscar nomination, considering the category was actually created in the first place to honor movies like An American Werewolf in London.
Is Willow a perfect film? Of course not. Aside from the aforementioned blue-screen failures, the movie is also very white (though I did appreciate the fact that the most skilled Nelwyn warrior in the village was a PoC more this time than any prior viewing), and it’s got a romantic subplot with some major consent issues (basically, Madmartigan gets love-potioned, and is very aggressive in his unwanted advances towards someone he’d previously hated. The two continue to show interest in each other once it wears off, and eventually become a couple by movie’s end). But it’s also got significant anti-bigotry themes, and it passes the Bechdel test in the first thirty seconds. Willow is a film that’s been consigned to minor cult status in the wake of the 2000s fantasy film boom, and I think it could definitely stand to be rediscovered somewhat.
-The leader of Queen Bavmorda’s armies, General Kael, is actually named after film critic Pauline Kael, a fact that didn’t escape her notice when she reviewed the movie. The two-headed dragon was also named for Siskel & Ebert.
-Airk, Madmartigan’s friend who leads the good guy army, wields an unusual sword that’s actually a long blade attached to an enclosed gauntlet. It’s a real weapon, called a pata, and is originally from India. They were actually typically used either in a pair or with a shield, so it’s interesting that when Madmartigan tries to use it on its own to defeat Kael, he gets his ass kicked until he picks up another sword and starts dual-wielding.
*In before anyone else says anything. That’s “possum” as in the Australian marsupial, not the American playing-dead possum. A lot of the exteriors were filmed in New Zealand.