Dir:- Ron Howard
Starr:- Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Jean Marsh
Having suffered, or perhaps enjoyed, an eighties upbringing I find myself possessing a weirdly sentimental affection for movies such as Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Goonies, The Neverending Story, Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, and this sword and sorcery fantasy flick, from the imagination of George Lucas (and his magpie sensibilities) and the workmanlike direction of Richie Cunningham. I went to see Willow at the Kirkcaldy Regal/Cannon cinema during one of my family’s Scottish visits and the presence of snow, the North Sea and the greyly presbyterian Fife coastline probably helped to enhance the impressively foreboding atmosphere whipped up by the Welsh and New Zealand landscapes that featured in much of the film. Unlike many modern child-friendly fantasy flicks, I’m thinking in particular of the first two Harry Potter films, Willow didn’t skirt around the edges of the bleak, horrific and nasty. This was grim viewing, with the oppressively dark atmosphere only slightly leavened by Lucas’s penchant for knockabout slapstick humour (clearly riffing on a childhood exposure to Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello and The Three Stooges) and annoying peripheral characters (for Willow’s Jar-Jar Binks look no further than the Brownie brigade, one of which is a barely recognisable Kevin Pollak). Revisiting the adventures of our diminutive titular hero some 23 years after the last time I watched them I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how well the film has weathered.
Lucas has never been a particularly subtle poet of the screen. His films invariably display their influences, without any real pretension. In many ways this is the legacy of a fan-boy childhood, devoted to the two genres of film and fiction that, in truth, inspire the highest devotion (as well as tacitly condoning a sharing of narrative universes). In Willow we have a group of dwarf/elves whose community resembles Tolkien’s The Shire; there is an evil queen, called Bavmorda played with chilling relish by Jean Marsh, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the White Witch of Narnia; there is a masked henchman whose skull-shaped horned helmet, has a touch of the Horned King from the Chronicles of Prydain; even the Brownies have some of the qualities of the fairy-folk from The Neverending Story. The magpie eye of Lucas also draws on glaringly obvious elements from the Bible (the baby in the rushes), Gulliver’s Travels (a wonderfully ironic capture of the dwarves, by the even smaller Brownies) and Shakespeare (the use of love potions to bring opposites together), whilst pilfering from his own back catalogue with the character of Madmartigan, in effect Han Solo with pigtails and a suit-of-armour. The fact that, even with this liberal use of existent material, Howard manages to make Willow a rollicking ride, lends some weight to the oft-aired argument that certain narrative tropes are so ‘universal’ that they can be put into any form and still work splendidly.
The film focuses on a medieval magical realm in which the evil queen Bavmorda, with Jean Marsh dressed up like an extra from the orgy scene in The Devils, has to find a ‘chosen’ newborn child, that it has been prophesied will bring down her reign of terror (so far, so Star Wars). Having discovered the baby, Bavmorda is all set to have it executed, but the midwife who delivered the child runs off with her, before Bavmorda can carry out her wickedness. Putting the child into an earthen basket and sending it off down a river, the midwife unknowingly places the ‘chosen’ child into the seemingly far from capable hands of Warwick Davis’s apprentice wizard and elf, Willow Ufgood. Despite his instinctive reluctance to take care of the child Willow presents the baby to his community and they opt to send Willow, along with a party of elves, to find the child a safe home amongst her own community.
At heart Willow is a quest tale, interlaced with a coming-of-age drama, in which the lowly status of Willow Ufgood, both literally and metaphorically, is the key transformative linchpin in the narrative. At first we see Willow as a caring family man and farmer, struggling to gain acceptance from the community he lives within and desperate to excel as more than just a flawed conjuror. During an early test Willow’s lack of self-belief is demonstrated and the whole narrative of the movie is, in essence, about bringing Willow to a moment of self-empowerment. It is a familiar Lucasian trope, that surfaces in diluted form in American Graffiti and is at the very heart of Star Wars’ epic battle between good and evil. A cursory glance through Lucas’s production duties throws up further features where this simple ideal is at the crux of the plot (Labyrinth, Mishima), and you could also make strong arguments its presence in the Young Indiana Jones struggles with his famous father.
Aside from this focus on Willow’s path to self-realisation through heroic deed, we also have a typically Lucasian love-plot between a wise-cracking bad apple (with a sweet core) and an uptight, respect-seeking woman warrior (who just wants someone to love her). Val Kilmer as Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley as the flame-haired Sorsha (daughter of Bavmorda) actually strike up quite an obvious chemistry in the few scenes that they share, with a particularly amusing drag-sequence being perhaps the standout (again reminiscent of an Indy Jones sequence). Watching Val Kilmer’s performance I couldn’t help but think that he has served Johnny Depp as a template for his recent forays into broad slapstick comedy. Considering the quality of his comic timing in the much later Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, it is all the more mystifying as to Kilmer’s seeming reluctance to explore more comedic roles (particularly when considering how crap he was when he took himself ‘seriously’ in the 1990’s).
The final third of the movie is enthrallingly dramatic and, even though the film comes from that period just before Jurassic Park revolutionised SFX, the grotesque monster in the moat is genuinely terrifying. Watching the stop-frame animation and blue-screen acting not quite meld together, made me all dewy-eyed for the days of Ray Harryhausen and his plasticine rendered monster menagerie. The final battle between Bavmorda, the good witch Fin Raziel (played by the veteran English actress Patricia Hayes) and Willow actually feels as if there is a life-and-death struggle to it, something that was again absent from the early Potter movies. The closing credits feature a reprise of the Gracelands-era Paul Simon-meets-Bluegrass folk musical performance from Willow’s village fair, a suitably ridiculous note to end on, for a movie that only takes its duty to entertain seriously.
As a closing note I can’t help but wonder whether George Lucas is in fact the canniest and most cynical of filmmakers on the planet. Willow was intended to be the first part of a franchise, much like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, however its modest box-office put studios off the idea of pursuing it. Yet in his pillaging of the many familiar motifs of 20th century children’s fantasy fiction, Lucas manages to generate an affection for the film that maybe belies its own limited capabilities as a narrative. In many ways Lucas knows how to capture a devoted following and the crasser elements of his cinematic symbolism, appear designed purely to tick all the right commercial boxes (monsters, little people, knockabout humour, cutesy animals, annoyingly whimsical characters with funny voices that children love). Despite a real sense that, with Lucas, I’ve been had, I still come back for more, I still forgive him his myriad failings and most importantly I still buy into those superficially rendered ‘universals’ like the 9 year-old boy I once was.