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Film Review: Willow

Title: Willow

Director(s): Ron Howard

Screenwriter(s): Bob Dolman

Studio: MGM, Lucasfilm & Imagine Entertainment

Released: 1988

Runtime: 2h 6m

Starring: Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh, Pat Roach


Willow is a fantasy-adventure, in many respects a deliberately lightweight version of the likes of The Lord of the Rings.

The premise is the common biblical rip-off: according to prophecy, a child will one day defeat the evil and powerful Queen Bavmorda so she tries to find the newborn with the prophesied mark. When such a child is born, the midwife escapes with the baby girl. The queen’s forces pursue and the midwife is forced to push the baby down the river.

Eventually, the baby arrives at the riverbank of a Nelwyn village (basically a dwarfish race). She is reluctantly taken in by Willow Ufgood (Davis). He is a farmer, married with two children, and also aspires to be a sorcerer. The village realizes the danger and decides the baby must be returned to the Daikini (“tall people”) with Willow to be part of the team.

Willow is the usual reluctant hero. He is good-natured and wants to do the right thing even though he has his own family and farm to take care of. Eventually, he meets Madmartigan (Kilmer), leaving the baby in his care.

Through so-called chance, Willow, Madmartigan and the baby meet again. Madmartigan is a reluctant hero as well, not having loyalties to or interests in anyone. But he does develop a sense of loyalty to the baby and Willow.

Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis)
Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis)

The premise and plot are straightforward enough. It is always clear as to what it going on but, given its simplicity (which isn’t a bad thing), the film can be tighter. It doesn’t outright drag but the pacing can use improvement. At other times, things progress way too conveniently.

In addition to the primary conflict, the usual secondary conflicts are present. Sorsha (Whalley), Queen Bavmorda’s daughter, is the “warrior princess” trope who leads the hunt for the baby. She and Madmartigan go through the clichéd literal love-hate relationship which is fine if her character is better established. Kael (Roach) is the scary-pro-wrestler-masked general who doesn’t say much but everyone knows he will be personally taken out by one of the heroes in the final act.

With Ron Howard directing, one expects it to look good enough and it mostly does, having quite a bit of VFX, including CGI, for its time. Of course, being shot on location in Wales also helps. The visuals, although impressive enough, do not make up for the plot weaknesses.

However, there are moments of comedy, both intended and presumably not, that add more life to the narrative. It may not be as funny as David Duchovny doing similarly in Twin Peaks, but Kilmer disguised as a woman is amusing and memorable. Kilmer has some classic lines too, but Davis is the real star with this solid performance and screen presence. He really sells not only his character but the world and situation he is in, which is quite an achievement considering the plot issues.

As is common in the fantasy genre, it is a world with good and bad magic. Some consider this a controversial point as it may encourage an unhealthy curiosity about the occult. That is always possible but, fortunately, this is not something the story dwells on in detail and in such a way that approves of it in real life.

However, what is of concern, is the point of having “faith in yourself”, “listening to your own heart”, intuition and that sort of thing. This is not a surprise considering that Lucas wrote the story even though he did not write the screenplay. Lucas adopts what I simplistically call a modernized version of Eastern philosophy, something he emphasizes in the original Star Wars. Whilst it doesn’t reject objective truth, it over-emphasizes wishy-washy feelings.

For example, in Star Wars, Luke literally closes his eyes and uses his feelings. There is nothing wrong with intuition and feelings but this only works to the extent one is in tune with objective truth and reality (that is, ultimately God and not merely some pantheistic “Force”). Obviously, it depends on where one is at in their spiritual development: to be aware of these feelings when one had no idea before is a step forward, to solely depend on them when one does know the difference is going backwards. Lucas is conveniently vague with this in Star Wars.

Willow does not dwell on it so at least it avoids the ambiguity Star Wars has but it’s also a lost opportunity to explore this theme properly. Either way, Willow simply does the best he can because that’s all he can do, and that’s what makes him heroic and lovable.

The score by James Horner has the expected grand-but-not-quite-blaring themes, obviously using Schumann’s work. Horner cops a lot of flak for that stupid song in Titanic which, to be fair, is just one song. Let’s not let that ruin his entire record and his score in Willow is fitting to the genre even if it’s not the most original or technically the greatest. Either way, it is under-utilized.

Despite plotting issues, Willow is not a bad film. It is a relatively lighthearted fantasy-adventure with a strong performance by Davis. It is probably more aimed for a family—that is, children along with their parents if the former are too young—rather than merely an adult audience.


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