After the phenomenal success of his original Star Wars trilogy George Lucas tried his hand at another movie genre, albeit this time with limited success. This week’s entry in the Taint the Meat 1980s fantasy film season is Willow, from 1988.
Willow was directed by Ron Howard (Splash, Cocoon) and written by Bob Dolman based on a concept Lucas originally had in 1972. The film starred Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Labyrinth) as Willow Ufgood, the diminutive protector of baby Elora Danan (sporting a rather bizarre ginger wig) who is destined to bring about the downfall of evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) and bring peace to the land. In his quest to protect Elora he is joined by a group of disparate companions, including Madmartigan, a charming rogue played by Val Kilmer, a pair of argumentative pixie-like creatures, (Kevin Pollak and Mark Northover), as well as Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). The band of heroes spend the majority of the movie being chased by Bavmorda’s evil henchman General Kael (Pat Roach), surviving several exciting adventures — including been turned into pigs — before finally confronting and defeating Bavmorda; evil is vanquished and peace is restored to the land.
Despite it’s highly derivative content — apart from the obvious influence of JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the film also borrowed liberally from The Bible, The Odyssey, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz —Willow is actually jolly good fun. The film looks great, thanks in large part to Adrian (Aliens, The Princess Bride) Biddle’s cinematography. And the decision to shoot the film in New Zealand pays off well with Howard taking full advantage of that country’s lush forests, meadows and towering waterfalls to create a believable fantasy world. The large outdoor sets are also effective, but that’s hardly surprising with noted fantasy artist Chris Achilleos, and comic book legend Jean Giroud (Moebius) working on the film as concept artists.
Warwick Davis does a fine job as Willow; true, he doesn’t have the greatest range as an actor but he’s very likeable in the role. The rest of the cast are also effective (although every time I hear Pat Roach’s General Kael bark out orders I can’t help but think of his role of Bomber from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). Director Howard does a fine job balancing the film’s many action sequences with it’s lighter moments, and overall he does a decent job holding everything together. The film’s finale is action-packed and the scene of Willow returning home to his family is genuinely emotional and satisfying. Since Willow was primarily a family film there’s quite a lot of humour in the movie, most of which works well, although some gags miss the target: the two brownie characters’ constant bickering becomes a little tiresome, and Val Kilmer in drag is a little too tone-deaf for my tastes.
With Lucas’s involvement in Willow it’s inevitable that the special effects would play an important role in the film, especially for one set in the fantasy genre. Many of the effects work well and there’s a lot to commend in Willow. The film was made in the late 80s before the advent, and over saturation of computer-generated effects, so a great deal of the physical stunts are done in-camera, which gives the film a much more realistic feel. And the effect of good-witch Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) morphing into various animals was groundbreaking for it’s time. However it’s not all good news on the FX front as there is some rather duff looking stuff in Willow too: there’s a great deal of crude green screen work, particularly where the two brownie characters are concerned, and the stop-frame animation of the two headed monster looks odd and somewhat creepy (and not in a good way).
James Horner’s music score is affective and suitably fantasy-like, but as I’ve often found with Horner his music to Willow does, on occasion, sound derivative of his previous work — there are several refrains clearly recycled from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example.
Due to Lucas’s involvement in the film the comparisons between Willow and Star Wars are inevitable and numerous: a young apprentice, discovering he has magical abilities receives training from a wise and elderly mentor; there’s a lovable rogue with a heart of gold; a strong-willed princess; comic relief provided by a pair of fish-out-of-water types; a villainous henchman dressed all in black and an evil overlord bent on domination. With so many comparisons it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that Lucas meant for Willow to be the Star Wars of fantasy.
When released Willow did okay at the box office, pulling in about double it’s $35m budget. Although not a flop, it certainly wasn’t the smash hit most predicted it would be, especially with Lucas’ involvement. There were plans for a sequel but the film’s lacklustre performance put paid to that, although Lucas did collaborate with Marvel Comics writer Chris Claremont on three prose novels set in the world of Willow. The film has gone on to enjoy success as a cult film, as have the majority of fantasy films from the ’80s. After Willow Lucas never revisited the fantasy genre, which is a shame because Willow has a lot to commend it — it may not be a great film but it is very entertaining, and definitely worth a look.