Let’s go back to May of 1988 when Willow was released in box offices worldwide. This was a world where fantasy films were still hard to come by. The Lord of the Rings lived only on the page. Harry Potter was not yet born. David Bowie’s “Dance Magic Dance” was the closest thing we had to Stranger Things.
It had been five years since the Jedis had returned and hung up their lightsabers, and George Lucas was looking for his next big adventure. He wanted another big giant blockbuster. A film that would spawn sequels. So he came up with an idea for a fantasy adventure set in a medieval land. A hero’s journey, this time with dragons, sorcery, monsters, knights, and big screen battles. With that, he wrote the idea for a story he called Willow.
Lucas was too busy with Indiana Jones to focus all of his attention on this film. So he decided to co-write and produce the film, and find someone else to direct it. Enter Ron Howard. Hot off of directing box office hits like Cocoon and Splash, he seemed primed for another success. Lucas gave the film a hefty $35 million budget. With this pedigree, it seemed as though Willow could not lose.
Lucas cast then seventeen-year-old Warwick Davis as his title character, based on Davis’ performance as Wicket the Ewok in Jedi. The cast also included still relative unknowns Val Kilmer (Madmartigan) and Joanne Whalley (Sorsha). The role of the evil queen is played by Jean Marsh, who many people will recognize as the nightmarish Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi from the childhood trauma which was Return to Oz. Her creepy and effective portrayal of Bavmorda was the stuff of 80’s kid nightmares.
The story follows the title character, Willow. He is an everyman from a small village, as he gets sent on a quest to escort a baby, Elora Danan, while keeping her safe from everyone who is out to get her. Prophecy dictates that Elora is a princess who is destined to reign the kingdom. The evil queen, Bavmorda, will stop at nothing to destroy the baby. In his travels, our hero enlists the help of a wildly charming but selfish swordsman, Madmartigan. He falls in love with Sorsha, the queen’s daughter. They join forces to help Willow deliver Elora to safety. Willow and friends also get support from a varied group of helpers. These sidekicks include a shape-shifting sorceress, fairies, wizards, and two Brownies. The Brownies carry love powder and spend the whole film bickering.
The film is also driven by an odd couple-love story, an unlikely hero’s rise to glory, an obsessive villain, and a whole lot of adventure. Sound familiar? Critics also saw the undeniable parallels between Willow and the Star Wars franchise. In fact, they saw little else. Most reviews called the film a failed rip off of Lucas’ formula. Siskel and Ebert both panned the film, putting it near the top of their “Worst of 1988” list. In their televised review of the film, Siskel said no one wanted to see A New Hope set in a forest. Ebert claimed that only little children, not yet indoctrinated into the Star Wars universe, would be foolish enough to enjoy the characters and plotline. Initially, they were right.
The film won the box office for its opening weekend. But it was considered a failure when compared to E.T. and Lucas’ other hits. It also suffered constant comparisons to other hero tales of the time, including The Princess Bride, which came out the previous year. One thing it did do well has special effects. Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic created the creatures and magic for the film. They continued to set the bar, with highlights including the sorcerer’s transformations and the two-headed monster. The team behind Willow was nominated for two Academy Awards for special effects, but lost both Oscars to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Luckily, the film developed a cult following and performed very well on video. There were toys and other merchandise too because Ebert was right about one thing: children loved this film. There’s no denying that Willow is divisive- geek and fantasy fans either love it or hate it. But, they always know it.
So inevitably, one question comes up: Does Willow hold up with modern audiences? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, critics and audiences were probably unfair in their comparisons of this film to others. Sure, the film follows a formulaic plot. But most films do. It is the details that make or break a story, and Willow has plenty of fun details. The romance and acting of Kilmer and Whalley are still effective- I’ll be crushing on Madmartigan forever. Also, Davis does not disappoint as the hero. It’s nice to see a little person in a leading role. Lastly, this film is feminist AF as women run this fantasy world. They brandish some big swords and serious magic while doing so.
There are more than enough interesting creatures and magic to let the Willow’s occasionally dated effects slide. It is also held up by strong the performances of Davis, Kilmer, and Whalley. If you have not done so in a while, definitely revisit this classic. The nostalgia and heart of this film will have you rooting for the merry band of misfits and their quest to save their kingdom.
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