*/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Jean Marsh
screenplay by Bob Dolman
directed by Ron Howard
by Walter Chaw It shouldn't be surprising that Willow fails as it does considering that the creative forces behind it were George Lucas (who has never had a good idea of his own) and Ron Howard (who's never met an opportunity for cleverness he didn't miss), neither of whom should ever have been entrusted with a fantasy film as late as 1988, as their work since (and just before) will attest. It is shamelessly derivative, raping countless sources to come up with what is essentially a limp riff on the Tolkien quest married to things as divergent as The Living Daylights, all three original Star Wars films, all three Indiana Jones films, Gulliver's Travels, The Bible, Masters of the Universe, and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The only scene worth saving in a film that is a torturous 126-minute trudge lasts five seconds and involves a troll crawling along the underside of a bridge. It is a dash of inventiveness in an otherwise graceless film, and perhaps the only special effect in a special effects-laden production that is fully integrated into the action and not passively gawped at by the characters. (As an aside, I was dismayed but not surprised to find that Howard resurrects the troll gag for his exquisitely awful Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas.) The spectacle should enhance the plot, not serve as the plot: a fatal miscalculation still suffered by Howard and Lucas films (see The Grinch and Episode 1 as cases in point), not to mention misdirected exercises in gewgaw like Chris Columbus's Harry Potter. In its defence, however, Willow is one of the most openly French-hating films of the last twenty years.
Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) is a "little person" in a village of little people whose discovery of a baby among the reeds, a little red-wigged flesh bauble named Elora (played alternately by Ruth and Kate Greenfield) being sought after by wicked folk, forces good Willow to leave his Nelwyn home. Accompanied by a fellowship of little people, Willow encounters a fierce human warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) who joins them on their quest to return the baby to where she belongs, wherever that might be. This ends the Tolkien portion of the plot. The rest involves evil sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh, wearing the same outfit as the evil sorceress queen in Disney's Snow White) sending her huntsman daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) after Elora because of an Oedipus-like prophecy of doom. (Incidentally, the baby Elora, foretold to be the downfall of the evil queen, ultimately has nothing to do with her destruction. Oops.) This ends the Snow White portion of the plot.
Willow probably wouldn't be so bad had it decided to be either cartoonish or disturbing. Because it is both, the film's slapstick moments are as out of place as its fascination with repeatedly stabbing people in the gut. It adds to the atonal mix of pratfalls and eviscerations a ridiculous amount of jibber-jabber and standing around looking at badly dated computer-generated effects (a scene involving a two-headed beast actually jokes that everyone in the cast has stopped fighting to gape at it). The pacing of Willow is so deadly that you'll be tempted to check your disc to see if it has stopped playing altogether. Any momentum gathered is handily castrated by a surplus of inane dialogue, punchless (or just inappropriate) action sequences, and exceedingly insensitive comic relief in a pair of Gallic "brownies" that predict Lucas's infamous experiment with a digital Stepin Fetchit in Episode 1. If the target were anyone but the French (or probably the Chinese--the '80's were a bad decade for Asians in American cinema), I imagine the outcry would have been far more strident at the time and in retrospect.
Yet focusing on the racist elements of Willow is probably the least fruitful way to torpedo this monumentally dull waste of time. The film is a bloated target--any jibe will most likely find its mark. It is strident and unpleasant, ludicrously sloppy and otherwise without redeeming literary value despite its devotion to plumbing the graves of everyone from Homer to Swift. Some of the matte paintings and scenery are impressive--or at least they would be if they weren't so obviously matte paintings and "epic" filler--and the ensemble runs the range from desperate (Kilmer) to shrill (Marsh) to one-note (Davis); only Billy Barty makes an impression as a bumbling Gandalf figure in the early going.
As if it could get any worse, every other scene is "commented" upon by the baby through a series of gaseous smirks, blank looks of horror, and caterwauling: it's insipid and by the thirtieth repetition, you'll want to poke something hot and sharp into your eyes. Willow is a landmark in the evolution of visual effects technology, no question, but it works a good deal better as a portfolio for ILM techies than a showcase for such hoary and decrepit entertainment standards as acting, screenwriting, plotting, and direction. The danger of any film being notable only as the birth of new technology, of course, is that thirteen years after the fact, the technical wizardry looks pretty awful. I hated this film when I was fifteen and if you're a blockbuster special effects extravaganza that is disliked by fifteen-year-olds...well, what you are is a special kind of stink.
Fox DVD's predictably solid anamorphic, THX-certified 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is bright, free of much in the way of edge enhancement, and save for a few insert shots here and again (particularly in Kilmer reaction shots in chapters 26 and 32), free, too, of very much grain. The problem with a crisp digital scrubbing in a film of this age is that its blue screens and element insertions have thick black edges that make them look remarkably bad and clearly existing in a different reality. The Dolby 5.1 mix sounds great, with James Horner's score swelling desperately in a mostly failed attempt to instil a sense of awe and majesty in the film. The dialogue is easy to understand and a satisfying amount of rear-channel effects belie the age of the source.
A twenty-minute "making-of" featurette from 1988 is sort of interesting as a sort of embarrassing document of how sure Lucas and Howard were that this would be a "film for little people that big people will want to see," a "movie with a heart that matches its spectacle." It is hyperbolic and full of self-deluded comments from the creative pair that waxes rhapsodic about the masterpiece they're crafting. Hearing that Lucas has had Willow in his "mind" for "fifteen years" is one of the most stunning pronouncements ever made. More interesting in its way is a recent documentary called "From Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking", which discusses the "Morf-ing" technology developed by Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic. Starring ILM legend Dennis Muren, there is an interesting admission halfway through that their hope with the special effects was to stop the entire film dead and have everyone just "oooh" at the them. In a nutshell, Muren describes everything that is wrong with this technology while outlining exactly how CGI is misused to this day. If the special effects are separate from the action rather than integrated, then they are one movie and everything else is another.
Warwick Davis contributes a feature length commentary that is exhaustive and entertaining (and misguided, and a little sad)--he's obviously done his homework and takes his task to do Willow justice very seriously. He should be commended for either his research or his memory, and while many of his observations are of the "that's my wife" and "this is where Willow is very sad" variety, there are enough anecdotes involving the special effects that it is worth a listen for fans or the Radio Shack-inclined. Davis's adoration of Lucas is clear and understandable (Lucas is single-handedly responsible for the diminutive actor's career, such as it is), but his proud listing of Episode 1 credits, including his memorably nonsensical turn as that feral Greedo kid in an early Mos Eisley scene, begins to touch on the tragically absurd. A huge (but still relatively worthless) photo gallery and eleven T.V. spots, trailers, and teasers round out the disc. Originally published: December 26, 2001.