Perhaps one of the fewest other films George Lucas is known to have worked on besides Star Wars and American Graffiti, Willow brings him together with renown director Ron Howard to create this fantasy adventure film starring Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis, as two men from different worlds who come together to prevent an evil witch from gaining enough power to destroy the world. Willow is primarily a family action/adventure film with just enough violence to be kept at PG rating,a few creative laughs, and just enough charm to keep you interested but never truly engrossed or involved.
The story is fairly simple, beginning with an evil queen witch who desires to kill a newborn baby who has been prophesied to take her down and restore peace to the kingdom. The queen is evil because she simply wants to kill a baby, yells and snarls a lot, and has an army of evil looking soldiers at her whim. Anyway, an old woman then saves the baby, puts it in a river in a moment of desperation and hopes for the best (an opening sequence that is immediate, but makes the mistake of being presented too quickly, whereas other films might have taken a few minutes to let us know our main stars first). The baby is picked up by a dwarf man, Willow, and to make a not so long and simple story short, is given the task by a beautiful lady spirit entity to take the baby away from his land and to a caring and loving family of his own kind (normal sized people, here known as the Daikini). From there we meet Val Kilmer’s character, Madmartigan, the evil queen’s daughter Sosha, mini-people called Brownies (yea, brownies, who are there merely for comic relief but lacking much comedy), a magical talking rat of some sort turned crow turned goat (who also doesn’t do much), and a few of Madmartigan’s soldier allies (who do, so that’s cool at least). We then get some corny 80s style special effects, whimsical misadventures, and a bunch of running from the queen’s henchman tasked to kidnap the baby. Lots of it is fairly fun, especially for a film of its time, and everything besides the green screen effects hasn’t aged too badly. The computerized special effects are very cheesy yet ambitious, so at least for its time it’s forgivable.
The dwarf we meet, Willow, is supposed to be the star of the film, but really doesn’t play a star role like he ought to; this is mostly due to his limited character in the script, telling us that he is supposed to be a good, humble, and relatable young guy, but never is given any real conflict or choices where we can actually SEE him being a good and humble guy… at least to a degree that would get us to cheer for him. His costar, Kilmer, is the one who steals the show, mostly due to the fact that he’s easily the most experienced and best actor in the film, not to mention that he’s really having the most fun with the role, moreso than anyone else in the movie. Truthfully, without Kilmer this movie probably would have gotten worse reviews (granted it wasn’t the best reviewed film, although critics didn’t really hate it so much as just giving it a passable ‘meh’). But of course calling the movie “Madmartigan” wouldn’t be as cool sounding as “Willow.” Most people may especially appreciate the love story in the film involving Madmartigan, as the love interest female costar does a pretty good job of waring between wanting and not wanting him. This adds some significantly needed charm to a movie that should really have had more given the talent behind its creators. And this is where the biggest flaw in the film lies – the lack of characterization resulting in just enough to keep our attention but not enough to keep us engrossed.
See, even though I did say that Kilmer is the biggest star in the film, no character besides him gets to really shine and display their personality traits enough to get us to really care for them all that much. It becomes apparent that what Ron Howard and George Lucas did here was make this about the STORY. In other words, the story plot being the main priority, not really the characters. Like I said before, we know the queen is evil at the get-go because she yells and wants to kill a baby, but we never actually SEE her doing anything evil with her power (why I said before that the film’s plot is kicked off way too fast). So her character is more told to us rather than shown. The same goes for the others. Willow is humble and kind because he’s a cute dwarf with a cute dwarf family with cute dwarf kids, not to also mention that he does what he’s told by the good spirit entity. The dwarf people are good because they’re cute, and live a simpleton life. The queen’s daughter soldier is bad because she is the queen’s daughter and gets sent on a task to retrieve the baby. Yet none of these characters ever really DO anything all that good or all that bad. Why? Because we need to get along with the storyline of getting the baby into the hands of the dwarf, getting Kilmer to help, getting them to run away in lots of scenes, get some small battles underway for sake of action, etc. And Kilmer’s character is good because…. well, you know what, Kilmer’s character is actually the only one here that DOES show growth, thus we tend to like him the best, hence why I said he steals the show. There is also tension between the queen and her daughter, but it’s never taken very deep at all. We also get fairies in the beginning, which could have played a bigger role than just some talking magical rat. There really was a lot here that could have been explored more, but unfortunately just wasn’t, perhaps because the plot was just too important to interrupt. So what results from this is a movie that you’ll like, but just not like THAT much or go to great lengths to remember.
Still, I’ll be honest, Willow does try hard with what it has; and what it does right, it does genuinely, which is appreciated. It’s a sweet adventure film that’s not great, but just pretty good… yet really hard to hate, only because it’s so, well, cute. John William’s soundtrack score may have something to do with this now that I think about it, given that the music isn’t very epic yet is gentle and kind-sounding enough to make you feel bad for insulting the film. The setting here may remind some of 1991’s epic adventure, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner. Yet that was a much more complex, deeper and darker film. And also a fantasy film that Willow probably could have been at least to some degree, yet it is obvious that this was specifically tailored to be family friendly (a PG-13 rating wouldn’t have been the end of the world). The story moves along too quickly but perhaps so that children would be able to comprehend it better. I’d say the most violent sequences feature brief battles of guys getting punched and henchmen getting stuck with arrows, completely bloodless of course.
So in the end I’ll say this would be a good blu-ray for collector’s and nerds alike (excellent cover art I gotta say), and has just enough cred to be counted as a significant piece of 80s nostalgia, because although the following for it is small, it’s still big enough for the studio to want to remaster this film and put it out. Technically I do have to say that the video quality is fairly substandard for modern high definition. There is some significant grain and plainness in color contrast. I’ve seen older films mastered better so there really is no excuse. It unfortunately gives the movie a bit too much of an “80s” look where HD quality has already proven itself to breathe new life into older films such as these. Granted it’s not terrible, but too small a step above DVD. Although I do have to say that the sound mixing was very well done; all voices and effects are loud and crystal clear, and heavier portions of bass are bombastic and full. Special features include two old documentary making-ofs and two newer ones, giving us basic behind-the-scenes footage but nothing you haven’t already seen elsewhere or anything really necessary.
Verdict: 2.5 swords out of 4; more of a purchase for collectors and fans, but just a rental to anyone else