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.
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,
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
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.