I might still like Willow more than anyone else.

I might still like Willow more than anyone else.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XI:

Willow

  • Director:  Ron Howard
  • Writer:  George Lucas  /  Bob Dolman
  • Producer:  George Lucas
  • Stars:  Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Award Nominations:
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  20 May 1988
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.26 mil  (#14 – 1988)
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #46  (1988)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Notables:  Best Guilty Pleasure  (see note below)
  • First Watched:  The day it came out on video
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  2 or 3

When I first started this series, I wrote “So, to qualify, these have to be films that I first saw before February of 1989, and preferably saw a lot before then.  So, for the most part, films from the early to mid 80’s; I can’t imagine anything released after 1987 will qualify.”  Even then, though, I thought Willow might be the one film from 1988 that I would write about, because it fits this notion – films I watched a lot as a kid for the reason that I was a kid, and seeing what I think of those films now.

As a Kid:  I was really looking forward to Willow coming out.  I’ve always been a big fan of the fantasy genre, owing to reading Tolkien at such a young age, and clearly the special effects were improving all the time.  I already knew who Val Kilmer was, because my family were big fans of Real Genius, a film basically based on people my brother knew (perhaps a future RCM post).  And this was being created by George Lucas, who of course, was the man who created most of my childhood.  That doesn’t mean I saw it in the theater though.  I was just too young to head off on my bike to the movies myself (the first film I recall doing that with was Batman, the following summer) and couldn’t really get people to take me.  The only film I actually saw in the theater in 1988 was Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  But I saw Willow as soon as it hit video and I quite enjoyed it – good fantasy fun, action, a little bit of romance (complete with beautiful red-headed warrior princess) and a good, rousing score.

But it was clear that Willow wasn’t for everybody.  And, in a way, it didn’t seem to be for anybody.  It had a bit too much violence to really be for kids, but with the comic relief (the Brownies) and the simplistic story (straight from Joseph Campbell) and even the presence of a village of people of smaller stature (reminiscent of hobbits, but really seeming to aim more towards Ewoks) meant that adults didn’t really have the patience for it.

So it wasn’t a particularly big success at the box office and the idea that it might spawn a whole new world, like Star Wars had, went nowhere (later Lucas would provide stories for X-Men writer Chris Claremont to write a trilogy of novels but they aren’t any better than standard fantasy fare).  It just kind of disappeared into the background and people didn’t seem to miss it too much.

As an Adult:  But somehow, it never really went away for me.  I owned the DVD when it first came out (I no longer have it) and it had always tugged at my heart.  It was clear upon re-watching it again that I remembered much of what happened while Veronica struggled to remember any of it.  It was fun to watch it again and I could clearly see the parts that I enjoyed as a kid.  More than that, I could see the parts that I didn’t much go for as a kid, that I now could appreciate, and the aspects that I may have thought were good when I was a kid but now didn’t think added anything.

The story-telling is both a benefit and a distraction.  Too many things happen too quickly and the film tries to do too much (actually, if you think it tries to do too much you should watch the deleted scenes and see how much it tried to do before those scenes were removed, taking out a whole entire subplot).  It wants to check off too much of the Campbell mythology.  Or maybe it’s the Kurosawa mythology, because while Star Wars was designed to echo The Hidden Fortress, Willow actually, in some ways, mirrors it more closely.  Yes, it’s good a good action figure in Val Kilmer, who could do humor and action both and even provide a little romance and in Joanne Whalley (before she was Whalley-Kilmer), we have a woman who can swing a sword and still fall in love with the man she kicked in the face.  Does it happen too fast?  Of course it does; we don’t have the luxury of the extra films used to develop the relationship between Leia and Han.  But it’s good fun, as are some of the other parts of the film (most notably the long sled ride down the mountain).  But the attempts at humor (with the Brownies) really tries too hard and they have to change directions too many times before they can finally get where they’re supposed to go.

But this film makes one really good choice that I didn’t go for at the time and which I don’t think ever gets enough credit.  It’s the choice of Warwick Davis as the hero in the first place.  As a kid it seemed too much like the choice of the Ewoks – trying to draw in children.  But as an adult, I see it as a brave move, to tell the story through the actions of someone small.  And Davis gives a rather solid performance – bear in mind that he is only actually 17 when most of the movie is filmed and yet is playing an adult with children.  The scenes that are most difficult for a 17 year old to play are the ones where he is most convincing – those of a parent who sees a child in need and takes care of it.  And it keeps with the story through Willow’s eyes, not deciding to go ahead and stay with Madmartigan or Sorsha.  They are major characters yes, but the story never loses sight of who the primary character is.

That doesn’t mean that this film can fully overcome its flaws.  Simply too much happens in the film and they go too many places and while I can keep track of what is going on, because I’ve seen it enough times, someone seeing it for the first time could easily end up quite lost.  The story is interesting but the screenplay is somewhat lacking – ironic since Lucas is often derided for his writing and he didn’t write the actual script.  Howard has always been, to my mind, a rather over-rated director and he really isn’t able to bring much of his own touch to this film – he seems overwhelmed by something out of his zone.  In the end, this is an admirable idea that simply doesn’t quite gel.

In spite of all that, I still quite enjoy it.  Kilmer works much better as a bit of a nut with a sword (and the scene where he first falls in love with Sorsha, quite by accident, is played very well) than he did as say, Batman and Whalley is quite dangerous when she needs to be and tender when she is forced to be (she seems really quite put out that Madmartigan fell in love with her and then fell out of love with her so quickly).  There really are several good action scenes.  I can’t ever possibly judge it as higher than a mid-range ***, but it falls, to me quite, comfortably in that zone, a good fantasy film, with some good effects, some very good music and a nice fun story.

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