Ron Howard’s Willow, released in 1988 to lukewarm reviews and mediocre box office returns, was a late addition to the 1980s sword and sorcery/high fantasy cycle that commenced in earnest at the start of the decade along with Hawk The Slayer, Excalibur, The Beastmaster, Dragonslayer and John Milius’s game changing, proto fascist blood, sex and magic opus, Conan The Barbarian.
Developed from a story by George Lucas reputedly conceived in 1972, the film pillages narrative elements (not to mention character archetypes) from Lucas’ successful Star Wars trilogy and a raft of other legends and stories, in what at first glance seems a lazily conceived compendium of popular plot elements and worn out fantasy tropes. Featuring input from Spielberg super-sub Joe Johnston on associate producer duties and a James Horner score that sounds as if was cobbled together from spare parts left over from Krull, the film is a veritable stew of filched ingredients.
Willow kicks off in bland fairy tale fashion with the threatened sacrifice of an innocent prophecy baby. A sympathetic nurse maid and the child’s mother conspire to smuggle the baby out of an evil queen’s fortress. A chase ensues and the baby is set adrift on a conveniently located reed raft, moments before the nursemaid is captured/killed. Fortuitously, the baby is discovered and rescued from the river post credits sequence by a family of would-be hobbits (Nelwyns), who unofficially adopt the baby (aka Elora Danan) after a brief family quarrel. When terror hounds gatecrash the village, a meeting is convened to discuss a course of action, and the village elder decrees that reluctant hero Willow Ufgood must embark on a quest to hand the baby to the first tall person he encounters.
And so begins the hero’s adventure. This will involve self discovery, fairies, sorcerers, dragon slaying, annoying ‘brownies’, knights in shining armour, growly bad chaps with evil beards, adventurous set-pieces, monsters, a battle, some castles, a magical duel (no good fantasy would be right without one), and heroic derring-do involving sword play and stunt doubles. Warwick Davies is good company as the titular hero of the piece, (though he was dropped down the billing for Val Kilmer on the poster.) Jean Marsh is value for money as infanticidal witch queen Bavmorda. Pat Roach, acting through a skull mask for much of the film, is imposing as General Kael, and Joanne Whalley is on form as the conflicted daughter of the aforementioned evil sorceress.
However, the film belongs to Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who hijacks the story just like Solo did in Star Wars. At a point in the narrative when mediocrity seems certain, Madmartigan enters the fray and the movie wakes up again. Madmartigan is smart mouthed, charming, grumpy and endearing; one part hammy, two parts braggadocio. Not only does he get all the best lines (many of which were reportedly ad-libbed,) but most of the best scenes too. His Willow put down ‘No! Don’t! There’s a – a Peck here with an acorn pointed at me.’ is a doozy. His love sick suitor scene in an enemy camp when he attempts to woo Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha whilst bewitched by a love potion is one of the funniest in the entire film. He also features in all of the best action set-pieces, whether it be the runaway apple cart scene which plays out like a medieval comedy twin to Raiders of The Lost Ark’s truck chase, the sleighing down a mountainside on the back of an enemy shield scene, the defending a siege against marauding enemy combatants scene or the confronting a dragon scene with not one, but two fire-breathing heads.
In terms of gender politics, the film manages to skirt some of the genre’s less palatable tendencies by casting strong females in important roles. However, as with a lot of fantasy, the women are portrayed as either evil despots, elderly wise women, virginal apparitions, or cheating harlots. The one exception to this, conflicted warrior princess Sorsha, spends the first half of the movie as a kick ass commander. However, following an incongruous character change around the halfway mark — the result of a missing scene that reputedly made sense of it — she is stripped of her empowerment and re-cast as the token love interest.
There are a couple of cringe inducing boy jokes that fall flat too, such as the scene involving a cuckolded husband asking Madmartigan, in drag, if he wants to breed before groping his fake breast. However, when considered alongside Richard Fleischer’s Red Sonja (which is to female empowerment what Michael Haneke is to comedy,) Willow’s offences are comparatively tame. Clashing effects — stop motion dragons vie for attention with super imposed Lilliputians, fledgling CG morphing effects, and men dressed in troll suits make for a confused visual aesthetic. Still, the film’s morphing effects were revolutionary for the time. Willow was the first film to feature a comprehensive use of the process, developed by Industrial Light & Magic and used effectively in key scenes.
Light on violence and full of good cheer, Willow would ultimately signal the death knell for fantasy in the 80s. The resulting effect was that fans of the genre would have to make do with Neverending Story sequels and straight-to-video tat for over a decade prior to the arrival of Peter Jackson’s game changing Middle Earth saga in 2001. Despite feeling like a recycled compilation of George Lucas’ Greatest Hits, plot predictability and unoriginal character arcs, as a gateway to more impressive speculative cinema, and as a nostalgic reminder of what big-budget fantasies shot on location in New Zealand looked like before Frodo took up residence, Willow remains unequalled.