Willow Blu-ray Review
Willow: Highly recommended for '80s kids and their kids too
Before Peter Jackson's take on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the closest J.R.R. Tolkien
fans ever got to a live-action film adaptation of Middle Earth was 1988's Willow,
which borrows heavily from the writer's alternate medieval universe. Besides dueling
sorcerers, castle sieges, and trolls, both works feature diminutive heroes who heed the
call of adventure, set out on uncertain quests to save the world, and return home as
changed men. This is the archetypal hero's journey, of course, the dramatic arc favored
by executive producer George Lucas, who devised Willow's story, having previously
applied Joseph Campbell's monomyth theories to Star Wars.
Instead of directing the project himself, Lucas farmed it out to actor-turned-filmmaker
Ron Howard, who was then coming off his success with Splash and Cocoon. The two
worked with screenwriter Bob Dolman to flesh out the script, and together they created
a film that wasn't hugely successful in its own day, but has since become one of the
most memorable cult kids' movies of the 1980s. Although it's not without its flaws—
glacial pacing, some obnoxious side characters—Willow is one of those films that, if
you grew up with it, always sticks with you. It's enveloping, sweet, and like a lot of kids
movies from the era, surprisingly dark and violent.
Short-statured actor Warwick Davis—who got his acting start as Wicket the Ewok in
Return of the Jedi—stars as Willow, a member of a hobbit- like race called the Nelwyns,
who live in a shire-like hamlet far from the strife of the average-sized humans, or
Daikini. Willow is a lowly farmer who dreams of becoming a sorcerer's apprentice,
and his destiny arrives when he discovers a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes,
floating down the river Moses-like on a grassy clod. His wife and two kids convince
Willow to keep the child, Elora Danan, who—unbeknownst to them—is a Daikini
princess, prophesied to one day ensure the downfall of the wicked Queen Bavmorda
of Nockmaar (Jean Marsh), who's recently been on a Herod-like baby killing spree in a
desperate attempt to keep the prediction unfulfilled.
When one of Bavmorda's snarling dog/boar hybrids descends on the town looking
for the baby, village elder The High Aldwin (Billy Barty) orders Willow to travel with a
band of fellow Nelwyns to the Daikini Crossroads and give Elora to the first human they
meet. What Aldwin doesn't anticipate is that the first Daikini they come across will be
the serves-no-master scoundrel Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a disgraced swordsman
and thief who's equal parts Aragorn and Han Solo. Madmartigan joins the quest
reluctantly after the fairy goddess of the forest—a Galadriel-like Maria Holvöe—bestows
upon Willow a magic wand and tells the pint-sized protagonist to 1.) find the white
sorcerer Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) and 2.) deliver Elora into the safe- keeping of the
good king and queen of Castle Tir Asleen. To act as guides, the fairy sends along
two of her "Brownies," 8-inch warrior nymphs who speak in bad French accents and,
combined, are essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the film. That is, you'll be glad when
they're off-screen, because they're generally cringe-inducing and unfunny.
Fortunately, the rest of the film has held up rather well. If Willow is a good fifteen
minutes too long, it's at least the kind of slow, epic adventure movie you can get lost
in, simply because the world is so charmingly wrought and the characters—barring the
Brownies, anyway—are so likable. The scene where Willow's wife bids him farewell at
the start of his journey, handing him a braid of her hair? Brings a tear to the eye. Val
Kilmer swashbuckling like a latter-day Errol Flynn, winning the heart of Bavmorda's
daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley)? Yes, please. The set design and matte paintings,
the fun action sequences, the sense of real danger and evil—Willow is that rare
children's movie from the '80s you can re-watch as an adult and not be disappointed.
More than anything, though, it's Warwick Davis who carries the film as the meek little
soul who goes up against some big, powerful adversaries and prevails.
It's a very George Lucas-y tale in this regard, and you tend to see his fingerprints on the
film perhaps more so than Ron Howard's, from the iris dissolves and screen-wipes to
the simple, mythic storytelling. This was Lucas before the endless Star Wars tinkering
and prequel disappointments, back when he still commanded audience awe through
unadulterated moviemaking magic. And there's plenty of it here thanks to Lucas' effects
company, ILM, which provided some pioneering visual trickery. Willow was made at
an interesting point in movie history, when practical and photo-chemical effects were
beginning to give way to digital imagery and compositing. Both old and new-school
approaches were used for the film, which is probably best known for it's innovative CGI
morphing during the scene where Willow attempts to transform Fin Raziel from a goat
back to a human. It looks quaint now—primitive, even—but looking at it through 1980s
glasses, it's damn impressive. And, really, that's a good way to view Willow in general—
with nostalgia for what was arguably the golden age of kids' movies.
Making its Blu-ray debut for its 25th anniversary, Willow features a 1080p/AVC-encoded
transfer. In a word, the picture is gorgeous, especially if you've grown accustomed to
the now-ancient DVD. To start, there's not a scratch, speck, stain, or hair on this print —
it's immaculate. The only evidence of age is some slight, barely perceivable brightness
fluctuation in certain scenes, but you'd have to go out of your way to look for it.
If George Lucas and THX are involved, you know the sound design is going to be
thoughtfully engineered for immersion and clarity. That's certainly the case with Willow's
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which is engaging from the prologue's
crackling thunder to the pouring rain and arcs of electricity that accompany the climactic
Extras - Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard: "Willow was my first big cinematic
adventure," says Howard, who goes on to explain and show some of the film's deleted
scenes, including a whole subplot about Sorsha's father, Willow dazzling a troll with
sleight-of- hand magic, and a Jaws-like "fish boy" sequence that was too difficult to pull
of with then-contemporary VFX.
The Making of an Adventure with Ron Howard: Ron Howard introduces this vintage
making-of documentary, which features interviews with his younger self and George
Lucas, along with lots of behind-the-scenes footage and a look at the creation of the
film's special effects.
From Morf to Morphing with Dennis Muren: Visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren—
who's since worked on Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, among many other films—
introduces a 2001 documentary about ILM's effects shots in the film, specifically the use
of then-nascent digital effects.
An Unlikely Hero - Personal Video Diary of Warwick Davis: Davis reminisces about
shooting the film and shares some of his video diaries from production, which he shot
Matte Paintings: A montage of the film's matte painting composite shots.
If you grew up with it, you're probably able to look past Willow's flaws and get sucked
back into the adventure anew. For those of a certain age, this film is a sugar rush
of nostalgia. But here's the thing, it may not have the sleek effects of The Hobbit,
but Willow is a warm-hearted movie with characters you can't help but love. Highly
recommended for '80s kids and their kids too.
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130 minutes
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
About Chris Rebholz
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