Consider the fate of Willow, the fantasy collaboration between George Lucas and Ron Howard. Essentially the high concept fusing of Star Wars and Tolken-esque, Lord Of The Rings style adventure, it should have been the greatest thing since the word great was invented and hailed as one of the rare fantasy movies that “worked”.
However, this being the time before Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings made fantasy big earners at the box office, it seemed Willow was destined to languish in the bottom drawer with other, lesser movies like Krull and Hawk The Slayer.
Now, Willow was a movie that passed me by on it’s original release, but I believe it doesn’t deserve most the non-reaction it seems to get from the general public. Sure, the kids who grew up with it love it dearly, but then you could say the same of Hook, and not even Steven Spielberg likes Hook.
If Willow suffers from anything, it suffers from wearing it’s influences too visible on it’s sleeve. Despite crafting a fully functioning world full of different races who truly seem not to want anything to do with one another, plus giving everyone gobbledygook for names (something Lucas and Tolken do extremely well), the comparisons to both a galaxy far, far away and Middle-Earth are too numerous to ignore and sometimes prove all too distracting.
Willow, a restless member of his village (Luke Skywalker/Frodo) leaves his race of diminutive people (Hobbits) to escort a baby of royal blood to somewhere safe (the one ring). Looking to kill the baby is evil sorceress Bavmorda (The Emperor) and the brutish, skull wearing General Kael (a very ginger Darth Vader) but Willow is advised by cursed spell-caster Fin Razel (Obi-Wan Kenobi if he’d been turned into a goat) and joined by two comedic tiny Brownies (Merry and Pippin or even the droids at a push). Coming across disgraced, scoundrel Madmartigan (hello, Han Solo) who actually turns out to be a great warrior (you too, Aragorn) they have mismatched adventures until they join the army opposed to Bavmorda’s evil rule (The Riders Of Rohan, the Rebellion, take your pick) and thus begins a huge battle to save the land (any fantasy film ever).
So, originality isn’t Willow’s strong point, granted, but it IS undemanding fun for anyone back in 1988 who missed Skywalker and the gang and who believed Tolken’s weighty tomes were unfilmable.
However, the reasons Willow shouldn’t be totally written off as the rip off it blatantly is, are thankfully plentiful.
Firstly the leads are cracking. Finally graduating to leading man status after debuting as a teddy bear, Warwick Davis may not be the best actor in the world, but he’s earnest enough to make nagging, bossy Willow Ufgood work. Think Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, no danger of any Oscars there but you somehow still believe him because the casting is so RIGHT. However, it’s professional impossible actor Val Kilmer who REALLY works. Leeching every bit of Harrison Ford charisma he can from the surrounding enviroment in some form of acting photosynthesis, he makes everything Madmartigan says or does AWESOME. Whether slipping on ice after receiving a compliment on his swordplay or escaping on a cart disguised as a woman, Kilmer wows with a truly great performance that treads the goofy/charismatic line so deftly, it’s a shame we never got to see more of it (Batman Forever doesn’t count). Future ex- Mrs Kilmer Joanne Whalley is fine as Sorsha, daughter of the evil queen and leader of her armies, but her turning on her mother after a quick snog feels a little stupid now.
The action is MAGNIFICENT. Of course it is, Lucas is involve. But a siege where our two heroes hold off a battalion in an abandoned, troll infested castle is truly great. Especially when a fucking, bloody great two headed dragon turns up as James Horner’s fantastic score swirls around them (Kilmer’s reaction shot is a joy). Boasting then what was state of the art CGI morphing (you can do it at home, now), stop motion and some blue screen work for the tiny Brownies that isn’t that bad at all, Willow’s aged pretty well (better than Kilmer at any rate) and still is a respectable effort by any standard.
But despite this film essentially being written for him, it’s all too telling that Warwick Davis’ signature roll is considered either Wicket The Ewok or The Leprechaun and not for a starring role that actually let’s the poor bugger show his face… Still, it’s still a great casting call for little people (Billy Barty everyone! BILLY BARTY!!) and is tremendously charming, it’s just a shame that with the prequels due 10 years later, Lucas had already made Star Wars lite before he made light Star Wars…