director Ron Howard
I’d never seen Willow, but I’d long had it queued for watching with the kids. When I started to wonder if I was pushing too much non-kid-oriented fare of late, I decided to pop it in. 1980’s fantasy films are always good, right?
Having no real perspective on Willow, I guess that I didn’t fully know what to expect, maybe didn’t even have that much of a clue about the film at all. I knew it was produced by George Lucas from a story of his and directed by Ron Howard, who was still making his name as a director, though he had a few hits on his resume. I also knew it starred Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis, the latter of whom is the film’s title character.
Two things I didn’t realize: 1) how much of a “little person” film this is and 2) how shabby and half-baked of a production it is.
When I mentioned to a friend that we were going to watch the film, he commented something like “The all-dwarf Star Wars!” I hadn’t realized how much of Lucas’s vision for this film had really been around having a little person hero, cast, and society, but apparently, he’d long harbored such dreams, and cast Davis, who had played the lead Ewok in The Return of the Jedi (1983) and the significance of the “little guy” being a little guy. Because beyond Willow’s village of small people, there are even smaller people, the brownies, who are normally-proportioned people, much smaller than Willow himself, speaking in high-pitched versions of their voices (and largely falling to comic relief).
The shabbiness of the film falls into two distinct camps. The first is simply that the story is derivative and not particularly well-developed. There’s an evil queen who has been prophesied to overthrown by a particular girl with a notable birthmark. The babe who is born is whisked away into the country, hunted by the queen’s minions, and discovered by Willow and his children. Ever heard these notions before? But then there are fairies and brownies and dragons and trolls and witches and when it comes down to it, the whole movie arc is indeed a combination of rehash and underdevelopment.
Then there are the costuming and effects. For 1988, the film has some innovations at the hands of Industrial Light and Magic, things that result in the morphing of a character from goat to ostrich to tiger that were cutting edge. We also have stop-motion animation, which I love and would never discredit, though by 1988, isn’t really all that technically high-end. It’s actually one of the better sequences, though. And then there are the wolf-like Nockmaar hounds and the “trolls”. The hounds look to be dogs in some sort of costume that brought to mind The Killer Shrews (1959) (which is not an aesthetic compliment). The trolls, while they crawl up the side of buildings in a sort of eerie way, are more like guys in cheap gorilla suits. How is that a troll and how cheap in costuming can you get?
The little people, as perhaps as well-intentioned as their depiction may have been, verges toward the comic and camp. Though the great Billy Barty appears as the old wizard of the town, most of the little people are not particularly good actors. Willow’s children are cute, sure, but kinda clunky.
Val Kilmer, at perhaps the height of his career, svelte and as charming and handsome (despite the long hair) as he is, is a likable rogue. It’s another aspect of the film’s rather poor development that he goes from decided loner to devoted comrade rather easily. And the queen’s daughter (Joanne Whalley) goes from devout baddie to devout goodie in a single scene, rather randomly, without any real exposition.
Felix thought it was kind of lame, as did I. Clara enjoyed it. I’d say it’s only more strangely bad because this was a Lucas production with a lot of pretty big budget things behind it. You kind of expect more. In a number of ways.
I’d always had Willow and Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) in a similar mental bucket. Fantasy films from the 1980’s starring big names, Kilmer and Tom Cruise, respectively, from pretty big name directors, Howard and Scott. And that I’d seen neither film. Now that I have, I can lay it simply for you. Legend is not great but has fantastic aesthetics and designs and Willow is simply kind of lame, save for some “little” things, like a two-headed dragon.