Based on a story idea by George Lucas, Willow aimed to do for sword and sorcery what Star Wars had one for sci-fi. It would revisit an abandoned idea the filmmaker had when he wrote Star Wars to have all the main heroes be little people.
It reunited Lucas with several key people he had worked with before, including American Graffiti star Ron Howard (this time in the director's chair) and Return of the Jedi's Warwick Davis as the titular hero, Willow Ufgood.
The film begins in a time of dread (don't all these films take place in a time of something?). There is some confusion over the exact setting of Willow. Though it seems like Earth's distant pass, official Lucasfilm sources have said it takes place on the planet Andowyne. However, since this appeared on Starwars.com on April 1, it can be disputed.
The evil Queen Bavmorda is seizing all pregnant women because it is foretold that a baby girl will defeat her. A midwife smuggles out a baby that has the mark of the prophesised one and we watch her journey as the opening credits roll. When death dogs attack the woman she puts the baby afloat on the river (subtle reference to Moses, huh?)
In the land of the little people known as Nelwyns, Willow Ufgood's kids find the baby and he reluctantly takes it in to his home when his wife and kids fall in love with it. After they are attacked by death dogs, Willow and several other adventurers set out on a journey from the village to bring the baby to safety.
Willow is soon joined on his quest by a man named Madmartigan, who he find trapped in a hanging cell. They meet a faerie that tells them the baby's name is Elora Danan and she considers Willow her guardian.
In an amusing scene, Madmartigan is at a tavern in drag as part of a scheme to woo a married lady. The semi-evil Sorsha arrives looking for Elora and Madmartigan's face is revealed. Madmartigan and Sorsha hate each other on sight, so it's obvious they'll soon fall in love.
During a big battle scene, a creepy troll crawls down the wall of the castle. Willow tries his magic on it, but only succeeds in transforming it into a much bigger and far worse monster, the Ebersisk (apparently a reference to Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel - Lucas really doesn't like critics for some reason). The creature is an impressive Phil Tippet creation.
A desperate Willow tries a transformation spell on the sorceress Raziel. It turns out to be third time lucky as, after she transforms into different animals she finally returns to her true form - an old lady.
The most memorable effect is featured in the scene, where a goat transforms into the sorceress Raziel. Visual effects wiz Doug Smythe developed a special program to gradually change between the different animals and a stand-in for the actress. It marked the first use of morphing in a movie (though the shot also used stretchy puppets), making Willow an important landmark in computer effects. It was the beginning of the end of the optical effects era, and pointed the way to the digital future.
Needless to say, the baby is saved, Madmartigan and Sorsha become a couple and evil is defeated. Willow receives a book of magic from Raziel for his heroic achievements and returns home for a storybook ending.
The characters all fit classic archetypes, though they are not as successfully reinvented as Lucas had done with similar characters in Star Wars. The acting is hit and miss, especially from the less experienced members of the cast.
Val Kilmer's Madmartigan is probably the most successful character, as the Han Solo of the film. His selfishness and sexism is amusing, especially when he becomes interested in restoring Raziel after she (falsely) tells him her true form is a beautiful young woman.
Joanne Whalley (who married Kilmer in real life after the film) is also good as Sorsha, and her character has the biggest development in the film, transforming from an agent of evil to a follower of good, mainly thanks to her attraction to Madmartigan.
Davis, only 17 at the time, makes a likeable hero and most of the rest of the cast perform well with admittedly underwritten characters.
General Kael (thought by many to be a reference to film critic Pauline Kael) is a more successful villain than Jean Marsh's rather silly Queen Bavmorda. However, it's a shame Lucas reveals the human face behind the General's skull mask so quickly. It's almost as if he forgot what made Darth Vader so powerful.
The baby who plays Elora is one of the best actors in the film, with some very amusing facial expressions. The Brownies are rather annoying characters, though they have some amusing moments thanks to the performances of Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton.
Ron Howard was still early in his directorial career (his first three films had been low budget affairs by comparison), and the scale of the project might have been a bit overwhelming. But he coped with it pretty well. He competently handles the action scenes, without adding anything new to the adventure genre. The sword fighting scenes are rather bloodless, but exciting enough.
Filmed in Wales, Elstree Studios and New Zealand (so that's where Peter Jackson got the idea for his rip-off of Willow, Lord of the Rings) the film has a rich, visual look.
The score by James Horner in the John Williams style (guess he wasn't available) is wonderfully heroic, with a memorable main theme.
While it doesn't add anything that new to the genre, Willow is a fun adventure movie that is fondly remembered today, not least for its groundbreaking effects. Like Star Wars, it borrows from many other sources (most obviously The Lord of the Rings) but doesn't put enough of a spin on them to stand as a classic in its own right. It's an entertaining and handsomely produced film, though, with perhaps a little too much lowbrow humour.
Willow was released to mixed review and just respectable box office. It's $57 million domestic box office total was enough to class it as a hit, but not the blockbuster that was expected from Lucas's involvement.
After the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the next year, things went fairly quiet on the Lucas ranch. He was involved behind the scenes with some projects in the early '90's - such as bringing Indiana Jones to the small screen with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992) and helping out with postproduction duties on Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993).
Young Indy was a critically acclaimed series that won many awards, though it was more educational than the adventure movies it was based on. It was produced by Rick McCallum, who Lucas had met years earlier and been impressed by. McCallum would essentially become Lucas's right hand man on all his later productions.
Young Indy was actually a test of sorts, seeing if it was possible to make films with spectacular locations on a (relatively) low budget, using seamless digital backlots. This would prove very important with the more ambitious projects Lucas had planned in the future. The series was eventually re-edited into feature-length movies for the home video release, making up the complete Indiana Jones chronicles.
A long-gestating Lucasfilm project called Radioland Murders was finally released in 1994. A screwball comedy directed by Mel Smith it was not a hit with the public or critics, but again was an important test for the digital technology that Lucas believed was the future of filmmaking.
Lucas had been honored with the Irving G. Thalberg award at the Oscars in 1992 (presented to him by old friend Spielberg), a testament to the impact his past work had had on the industry. However, it appeared that Lucas was waiting for filmmaking technology to catch up with his vision before he resumed his directing career.
That opportunity actually came thanks in part to Jurassic Park. The astonishing photo-realistic dinosaurs created by ILM showed Lucas that there were now no limits to a filmmaker's imagination. Even as recently as 1989, Lucas had said the cost was the main thing holding up the production of the prequels. Now that was no longer a problem. The time had finally come for Star Wars to make its return.
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