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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Willow


Willow
Fox Home Video
1988 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 126 (130) m. /
Starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Jean Marsh, Patricia Hayes, Billy Barty, Pat Roach, Gavan O'Herlihy, David Steinberg
Cinematography Adrian Biddle
Production Designer Allan Cameron
Film Editors Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
Original Music James Horner
Writing credits Bob Dolman from a story by George Lucas
Produced by George Lucas, Nigel Wooll
Directed by Ron Howard

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This crowd-pleasing fantasy film is directed by Ron Howard, but has the earmarks of George Lucas all over it, being a fairytale collection of ideas that have now become synonymous with the mega-entertainer. Basically a magical chase story, it makes up for its tired plot with some charming characters and creative special effects. With its hero a 'little person', it also has the creditable goodwill angle of teaching openmindedness to its intended young audience.

Synopsis:

The elfin Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) leaves his town and young family to try and deliver a giant (normal) infant to safety in the next kingdom, knowing that evil knights dispatched by the even more evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) are out for its blood. Willow collects helpers along the way, a pair of diminutive Brownies, a sorceress (Patricia Hayes) who's been transformed into a lemur-like animal, and Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a condemned thief who nevertheless offers stalwart assistance. Complicating matters is the fact that Queen Bavmorda's warrior daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) is leading the search for the baby, even though she and Madmortigan are soon attracted to each other.

By adult standards, Willow is too long and has an unimaginative story, and a lazy screenplay with too many clunker dialogue lines. But the fact that there's nothing very memorable here for the classic fantasy stakes doesn't keep Willow from being an entertaining kid's film in the sub-Lord of the Rings genre. The biggest negative is an extremely generic storyline, with babies delivered by mountain stream, an evil queen seeking her destiny, and a collection of unlikely outcasts coming together to defend innocence from harm. For all the photographic beauty on view, the drama is utterly colorless, so adults may find themselves snoozing.

However, Savant's seen the show entertain kids enough to know that the above objections don't count very heavily. The main positive are the animated and peppy characterizations. The Kilmer warrior is a standard fighting hero, and little is made of his sweetheart (on and off screen) Whalley, who as the daughter of a tyrant should by all rights be at least a bit conflicted. What the kids eat up on each time is the fully-realized elfin village, and especially the Ufgood family, who are virtuous and vulnerable. They're exactly the kind of folk who get killed by the 'evil' characters in most movies like this, and Lucas/Howard give themselves an edge by presenting them straight and dignified, refraining from cheap humor at their expense. The lesser movies in this genre (oh, Masters of the Universe, for one) concentrate so much on conflict and cruelty, that the focus here on sweetness, caring and respect is a definite plus.

The tiny Brownies (Kevin Pollack & Rick Overton) who assist Willow are easily pegged as another incarnation of the bickering thieves from The Hidden Fortress, who showed up again as robots in Lucas's You Know What. An animal-aide comes in the form of the sorceress, who starts off as a Lemur and spends quite a while as a goat, before becoming a charming elderly lady. Val Kilmer's hero-thief is dashing enough, but just too generic to linger in the memory; he's aided by a screenplay that contrives nice escapes, such as when a jealous husband goes violent just in time to save him from Bavmorda's soldiers. Instead of smuggling a princess or a pair of robots, this time everyone's struggling to protect a baby (who I suppose is a princess.) Kids delight in seeing the baby's 101 facial reactions; its amusing expressions are intercut to react to everything from monsters to cute animals, better than Swee'Pea in Popeye. The constant cutaways to the tot work far better than they should, as adults are suckers for cute babies too.

Villainess Jean Marsh is unfortunately given little to do except be menacing and unpleasant, and goes by unnoticed, when she should be remembered for her work in Frenzy and Upstairs, Downstairs. Diminuitive Billy Barty has a great spin as an elfin Wizard, and comes off like Laurence Olivier compared to the actors around him; it's nice to see him get a role with so much dialogue, a chance to have some presence.

Willow's magical scenes are somewhat overpowered by the physical beauty of its locations in New Zealand, the UK, and in Marin County here in California. Rich, dark forests and fantastic mountain vistas are for once the real thing and not studio sets or matte paintings; the best thing about this show.

Even if George Lucas hadn't been disposed toward Willow,  1 he would have had to make it to keep Industrial Light and Magic going. The effects factory That Darth Vader Built has been the number one shop for twenty years, always forging into the next generation of visual innovation before the rest of the pack. As Dennis Muren implies in the little documentary that accompanies the DVD, 1988 was right at the digital crossroads, just before Computer Generated Images would leap onto the scene in the next year's The Abyss. Willow can be enjoyed as perhaps the last major effects film not dominated by digital enhancements. Time-consuming travelling mattes and optical superimpositions account for most of the fantastic scenes, with the matting of the Brownies into countless shots done particularly well. Phil Tippet provides a socko scene of real, honest, old-fashioned stop-motion animation with a very impressive and interesting-looking two-headed dragon. It's just one facet of the film's most complicated setpiece, that includes fire, water, fighting knights, flying arrows, and a pair of scary ape-like trolls who scramble over the castle walls like cockroaches.

Perhaps a bit too complicated, sometimes. Savant doesn't like to be put in the position of complimenting Ron Howard, a dull director, but his simple relationship direction is what saves Willow from Lucas' tendency to complicate larger scenes, pile on too much action, and basically clutter up the screen with a lot of unnecessary Kluge. 2 Thankfully, Willow spends enough 'quality' time with its likeable characters to offset this.

The time gap between us and Willow's original wearying ad campaign helps in liking the film too. The teaser copy read, "Forget all you know, or think you know," just the kind of insulting, pro-consumer pap that our latter-day Disney imitators equate with wisdom.


20th Fox's DVD of Willow will please everyone, with its pristine picture and strong audio tracks. James Horner's slightly-too-emphatic score comes across well. Besides an original featurette, added-value producer Jeffrey Schwarz has created a snappy short docu that concentrates on just one facet of the effects, the morphing illusions done with the 'primitive' computer graphics of 1988. This is better than trying to tell the full production story in boring detail. A good commentary is voiced by the very likeable Warwick Davis, who makes for a perfectly informative and entertaining host, with nicely judged observations on the entire filming process.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Willow rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Warwick Davis, featurette, new mini docu on Morphing, Still gallery, trailers, TV spots, etc. Spanish Dolby surround track.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 17, 2001


Footnotes:

1. What happened to Lucas around this time? His student films and early features certainly had a rebel quality about them. From Willow on, including his revising his Star Wars franchise into child-safe pablum, he's become yet another family-oriented Disney wannabe.
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2. Coined by Roger Corman's effects shop, Kluge (pronounced Klooj) is meaningless set-dressing clutter used to diguise the fact that sets aren't very interesting or expensive, as on a lowbudget show like Galaxy of Terror. On the set of Android, which pointedly avoided clutter, the crew wore buttons that had the word 'Kluge' crossed out with a red bar. Savant's always wondered if the term came from Alexander Kluge, a German director whose film Der Grosse Verhau countered Kubrick's antiseptic outer space, with ugly spaceships full of trash and garbage. Just an explanation for a term Savant keeps finding useful. When Lucas' revised Star Wars pictures came out, and especially Episode One, every damn part of every composition in every scene was packed with mostly meaningless clutter - people, monsters, junk.
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Rebuttal from Savant collaborator
Gary Teetzel, 11/20/01:

Just read your review of WILLOW. You may have been too kind to the film; it's really pretty dreary. I remember watching it and just wanting to squash the two "brownies." You say that Lucas went downhill starting with this film, but I think it started earlier, with RETURN OF THE JEDI in '83. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was probably saved from disaster by the strengths of his two main collaborators, Larry Kasdan and Irvin Kirschner. Lucas exerted stronger control over JEDI, and you can see the results. Things got worse with THE PHANTOM MENACE when Lucas was able to use digital technology to exert absolute control over all aspects of the film--including actors' performances. (Actually, I think MENACE is better than JEDI in some respects, but that's damning with faint praise.)

What happened to his rebel streak? It's been replaced by his desire to be The Great Storyteller. He was influenced by Joseph Campbell's writings when working on STAR WARS. After Campbell himself praised the STAR WARS movies for reworking classic mythological themes for a modern audience, I think Lucas simply decided that this was his calling in life--to make modern myths. He's modest and unassuming when talking about himself, but he believes that there is a greatness and importance underlying the kind of films he is trying to make.



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