One of the greatest things about being a kid is that everything seems like it’s a colossally big and universal experience. Each TV show is just as important or significant as every other show. Do your parents listen to a certain album? Than so must everyone else’s, right? Similarly, if you see a movie, then it’s an important movie, by definition. And when I was a little kid, seeing Willow for the first time, it seemed like it must be the most important movie on the planet. Here was a big, lush, fantastical world unfolding right in front of my eyes. I remember thinking it was the best movie I’d ever seen, and that I wanted to be Val Kilmer’s swashbuckling swordsman.
So it struck me as odd to realize, all these years after I first watched it as a child, that I hadn’t seen it since I was probably 10 years old, renting the VHS cassette three or four times in a row from the local video store. It was a movie I obsessed over for a brief period as a child—I even owned some Willow-related toys, though I couldn’t remember what they were if you paid me. And then, just like that, it disappeared from my life and my memory. Unlike so many other big movies of my youth, from Home Alone to Terminator 2, Willow never seems to play on TV, or get much attention, save for the brief publicity it received two years ago when a fancy new Blu-ray transfer of the film was released. Much like Ridley Scott’s Legend, the film seems to have quietly dropped off most people’s radars, so I was curious to see if—much like that film’s clumsy execution—the lack of respect was deserved. And after seeing it again now several times, watching all the behind-the-scenes features, and doing some serious side-by-side evaluation with my vague memories of the movie, I can definitively say the answer is: sort of?
George Lucas’ Star Wars is easily the most famous cinematic embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth, the archetypal adventure embarked upon by a protagonist that roughly corresponds to a huge number of popular stories in drama, myth, and religious ritual. So while it wouldn’t be a stretch to fit Willow into the long and storied history of movie variants on the ”hero’s journey” spectrum, this isn’t just another unexpected hero quest: This is a George Lucas unexpected hero’s quest. Which means the beats are even more familiar than usual, for anyone who’s seen Star Wars—Lucas didn’t have far to travel when breaking the story for this film.
Willow hits the narrative moments of Lucas’ more famous work, right down to replicating the characters and situations that defined his greatest success. It was surprising to learn the story is just as basic as I remembered. Farmer and wanna-be sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) stumbles across a human-sized infant found drifting in a makeshift raft on the river. As is made clear by the film’s cover image, Willow and his family are dwarves, referred to as “Nelwyn” in the film. Willow brings the baby to his town council, where his fellow Nelwyn determine the child must be returned to the human (or “Daikini”) world. Soon, he learns the truth: The infant, named Elora Danan, is destined to bring about the downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda, who has sent her warrior daughter and an army out to find the child, so it can be brought back and killed in an elaborate ritual. Gradually joined by master swordsman Madmartigan (Kilmer), a sorceress trapped in various animal forms, and two fist-sized Brownie companions, our noble good guys slowly make their way to Bavmorda’s castle, where they overcome her forces and save the day.
The first thing that struck me, upon re-watching Willow, is that it’s quite tonally jarring at times. For a movie that’s 90-percent lighthearted and goofy, it contains some shockingly dark elements. First off, it starts with the attempted murder of a baby. We’re told all the pregnant women in the land are being rounded up in order to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. The dungeon that houses Elora Danan’s mom just screams, “People are killed here”—which the mother is, immediately after convincing a nursemaid to sneak out of the castle with the child. And if you were relieved they didn’t show that death, don’t worry, because immediately following the opening credits—filled with James Horner’s soaring and triumphant score—that nursemaid is ripped apart by wild boar-dog creatures. That, you do see. Because this movie, for all its family-friendly impulses, does not fuck around.
Willow’s hometown is established as a place of comfort and familiarity—it may as well have a sign with the words “The Shire” crossed out and replaced with “Nelwyn village,” with the townsfolk themselves unmistakably reminiscent of Hobbits, and not merely because of size. They’re shown to be generally good-hearted and impossibly provincial, with Willow being the seemingly ordinary guy who turns out to be extraordinary. The town’s musicians probably owe Paul Simon royalties, because the jaunty music they play during the village festival sounds exactly like the breakdown from his Graceland hit, “You Can Call Me Al.”
In contrast, the darkness outside the Nelwyn village is telegraphed early, by the skeletons dangling in cages at the crossroads, where Willow and his fellow journeymen are instructed to leave the infant with the first available Daikini. But much of the darkness comes not from the largely bloodless swords-and-shields violence of the film, of which there’s plenty (no doubt thrilling my young imagination), but from its magic. A running bit through the film involves Willow trying and failing to turn the good sorceress Fin Raziel (whom we meet as a possum) back to her human form, instead transforming her into a crow, a goat, and a couple other animals in quick succession (through the then-brand-new technique of digital morphing), before landing on her elderly human form. Each time, it’s a somewhat upsetting event, as the ordeal causes intense pain both to Willow and Raziel, and the morphs—especially the transformation to a crow—are actually bubbly and gross, like the birth of a Gremlin or something.
Similarly, the most horrifying image of the entire film comes courtesy of Willow’s magic wand. We’ve already seen that our hero has little understanding of what this wizardly tool will do in any given situation, but there’s a scene just prior to the film’s final act in which it performs a truly gruesome spell. During a fight in an abandoned castle that finds both the good soldiers and evil ones confronting a bunch of trolls—basically stunt people in gorilla masks—Willow is urged to use his wand to zap the attacking troll creature. He does so, and what happens next is essentially the Large Marge moment of the film. The troll recoils, screaming, and using stop-motion, his fur and skin are peeled off his body, his organs bubble and melt together, until he’s a bloody, pulpy ball, out of which two squealing heads burst forth. Willow kicks the whole mess off the bridge, and it then transforms into a giant two-headed dragon-like creature, which I also hadn’t remembered. Eventually Madmardigan drives his sword through the creature’s head, causing it to explode. Yeah. The whole thing is disgusting, and watching it this time, it triggered flashbacks to being deeply disturbed by it as a child. If you haven’t watched this movie in a long time and/or blocked that scene from memory, please enjoy reliving this nightmare with me.
Speaking of which, the whole notion of “magic” in this film raises some serious question marks. Billy Barty’s High Aldwin, the Nelwyn village’s wizard, supposedly selects Willow because he sees the potential for greatness in sorcerery from our hero. Yet we see the Aldwin fake his own magic, more than once. First, when the bones he rolls tell him nothing about what to do with Elora, he lies and makes up some bullshit so the village believes Willow has been chosen to make this journey. Second, he releases a bird into the air, telling the group it will lead them to their destination, but the bird immediately flies back in the direction of the village, and which point he shrugs and tells them to follow the river. This is the guy Willow looks up to for advice on magic? The High Aldwin we meet couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a rabbit hutch, let alone a hat.
Still, with all the silliness going on, Willow remains a charming, if flawed, fantasy adventure film. A lot of credit here should go to Ron Howard, who even at this early stage in his directing career shows a real flair for staging large-scale action. True, most of the fighting and stuntwork looks clumsy by modern standards, but in the context of this oddball film, it works. And it’s a testament to the skills of (most of) the actors that such a ham-fisted script doesn’t sink the whole enterprise. The film is cursed with the mentality that a child-friendly story should involve adults who act like children. So you end up with great actors like Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley forced to spew lines and adopt attitudes so juvenile, you’d be forgiven for thinking Queen Bavmorda had cast a spell trapping everyone in the land in perpetual adolescence.
Despite its shameless ripping off of Star Wars (and The Hobbit, to a lesser degree), however, the final film stands on its own. Kilmer comes across as the MVP of the production, delivering a star turn that combines the irascible charm he demonstrated in Real Genius and Top Secret! with the machismo of his Top Gun performance. His Madmardigan is a medieval Han Solo, rakish and dashing in equal measure. And Willow’s Nelwyn village feels like a lived-in place, with a history and community all its own. The film may be tonally off at points, and more than a little stupid in story and script. But much like its diminutive hero, it rises above any shortcomings to deliver a satisfying film. The world could do with a few more Sunday afternoon airings of it on your everyday cable channel, or at least make it available on Netflix. How else will the next generation of kids develop skewed but affectionate memories of it, otherwise?