Review: ‘Willow’

Val Kilmer

"Willow" is medieval mishmash from George Lucas, a sort of 10th-century "Star Wars" tossed together with a plethora of elements taken from numerous classic fables. Even if Lucas has bastardized his own story with derivative and unoriginal elements, kids probably will love it. For MGM Pictures, b.o. should mean recoupment of its large investment.

“Willow” is medieval mishmash from George Lucas, a sort of 10th-century “Star Wars” tossed together with a plethora of elements taken from numerous classic fables.

Even if Lucas has bastardized his own story with derivative and unoriginal elements, kids probably will love it. For MGM Pictures, b.o. should mean recoupment of its large investment.

There’s a baby princess, an evil queen, trolls, fairies, little people, warriors, sorcerers and a community of midgets called Nelwyns. Willow is a Nelwyn.

Most of the characters have unpronounceable names, an attempt to disguise from whence they come: Han Solo, R2 D2 and C-3PO, Princess Leia and Darth Vader from “Star Wars,” Bilbo Baggins from “The Hobbit,” the lilliputians from “Gulliver’s Travels,” Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from “The Wizard of Oz” and even Moses from the Old Testament, to name a few.

They serve to clutter a simple story, saving their kingdom from an evil queen (Jean Marsh) who makes her crusade to kill every newborn in the land to ensure that baby Elora Danan, a princess, never ascends to her throne.

The most engaging thing about “Willow” is the baby, played by twins Ruth and Kate Greenfield, whom filmmakers must have spent many hours photographing to get the amazingly varied expressions that sync so beautifully with the storyline.

The baby is floated downriver by a sympathetic midwife fearing she will be killed (read: Moses) and ends up on the banks of the Nelwyn’s peachful settlement where Willow (Warwick Davis) is commanded by the Nelwyn’s leader, High Aldwin (Billy Barty) to return her to her people, the Daikinis. Davis is terrified of his mission for Daikinis are in the midst of a war with the forces controlled by the sinister and all-powerful sorceress Queen Bavmorda–Marsh, made up as the spitting image of the evil queen in Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Not since the munchkins came out to sing for Dorothy have there been so many midgets on screen (except perhaps in “Under the Rainbow”), here depicted whooping it up like they were at a Renaissance Faire.

Willow gets a loving send-off, baby on his back papoose-style, and sets off for what surely should be an adventure but turns out more a series of haphazard encounters with mostly nonthreatening creatures on a journey through some fantastic matte paintings done up to look like The Middle Kingdom.

Along the way, he teams up with a wisecracking Han Solo renegade warrior named Madmartigan (read: Mad Max), played well enough by Val Kilmer, and the two of them–cute baby giving the appropriate silent commentary the whole time–manage to avert real danger that the Queen is plotting back at her castle.

Good versus evil is much more watered down in “Willow” than any of the “Star Wars” chapters, due in large part to so many different distractions constantly coming at the protagonists. Darth Vader shows up as a shadow of his former self, an evil warrior named General Kael (Pat Roach) made up with a skeleton mask.

If there isn’t a couple of jokester little people nipping at their heels, Willow and Madmartigan are talking to ghostly friendly spirits and animatronic rodents, and fighting an “Alien”-looking 2-headed monster, warthogs and trolls that look like apes.

Dialog waivers from the truly banal – Willow himself is very earnest and boring – to some very clever interplay between the secondary characters, including a delightful scene between Madmartigan, dusted with love sparkles, and the object of his desire, Sorsha (real-life wife, Joanne Whalley), the evil queen’s daughter.

Ron Howard directed, but only Lucasness shows up on the screen, particularly towards the end when the special effects start to come on at full bore.

Much of it has been seen before in Lucas productions, notably the ending where Marsh and a good sorceress claw at each other while the baby is squirming on a sacrificial altar about to be obliterated by a supernatural force a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Inventiveness shows up in the transformations of humans into pigs, a particularly funny scene, and in the metamorphosis of a possum sorceress into a crow, a goat, an ostrich and finally an old lady.

Sword-brandishing scenes are, for the most part, a muddled mess as the camera rarely pulls back far enough to give the feel of battle. Exceptions are the aerial shots down on Madmartigan and Willow slashing away at an incredibly fake-looking, 2-headed sci-fi monster–technically something of an achievement, but way out of place with the magical sorcery theme of the overall film.

The scenery, that which isn’t matte paintings, is stunning. “Willow” was lensed in England, Wales and New Zealand. It’s not surprising the overall flavor of the production looks familiar. Production designer Allan Cameron (“Aliens”) and cinematographer Adrian Biddle (“Aliens,” “The Princess Bride”) have put their stamp on the film. Industrial Light & Magic wizards, too numerous to mention, are up to usual Lucasfilm standards of excellence.


1988: Nominations: Best Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects



Lucasfilm. Executive producer, George Lucas; Director, Ron Howard; Producer, Nigel Wooll; Screenplay, Bob Dolman; Camera, Adrian Biddle; Editor, Daniel Hanley, Michael Hill; Music, James Horner; Art Director, Allan Cameron. Reviewed at Village Westwood theater, L.A., May 12, 1988. (In Cannes Film Festival, official selection, noncompeting.)


(Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1988. Running time: 125 MIN.


Madmartigan - Val Kilmer Sorsha - Joanne Whalley-Kilmer Willow - Warwick Davis Queen Bavmorda - Jean Marsh Raziel - Patricia Hayes High Aldwin - Billy Barty Kael - Pat Roach Airk - Gavan O'Herlihy Meegosh - David Steinberg Vohnkar - Phil Fondacaro Burglekutt - Mark Northover Rool - Kevin Pollack Franjean - Rick Overton Cherlindrea - Maria Holvoe Kiaya - Julie Peters

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