George Lucas is known for many things. ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ being the most obvious, but even his more obscure works are widely-known. Heck, a short film he made as a film student has been remade into a feature-length film twice. So then how do you explain ‘Willow’? It was hardly obscure in its time and while not a huge hit, it wasn’t a failure either. So why have most people these days never heard of it? It’s that very reason that we’re taking a look at the film in this week’s Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s look back on great science fiction of the past.
‘Willow”s following is small enough I doubt it even qualifies for cult status. There seem to be two camps of people who know about ‘Willow’ these days: Film buffs who know its history and assume it was bad because it wasn’t a blockbuster, and people who have seen it and love it.
So what exactly is ‘Willow’? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it kinda feels like George Lucas’ attempt to recapture the magic of ‘Star Wars’ but in a fantasy world instead of a galaxy far, far away. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie, it’s great. But even I have to admit it does have a similar feel to the first ‘Star Wars’ movie in a lot of ways. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Produced by Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, the plot of ‘Willow’ revolves around Elora Danan, a baby prophesied to bring about the downfall of the powerful sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), whose seemingly unstoppable armies are conquering the known world. Bavmorda clearly wishes to kill Elora, but a good-hearted midwife sacrifices herself to smuggle the baby to safety. Eventually, Elora is found by Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) a farmer and young father. One thing leads to another and Willow ends up on an epic journey to find the exiled but powerful sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) and escort Elora to the safety of one of the few kingdoms still defying Bavmorda. Along the way, he enlists the help of the self-proclaimed “greatest swordsman that ever lived” Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), the princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), and some brownies.
After reading that, the story probably sounds a bit generic, and it kind of is. It puts a few neat twists on some old classics, but generally it is pretty standard fantasy fare. Evil wizard trying to take over the world? Check. Farmboy who saves the world? Check. Child of prophecy? Check. Evil General who wears a skull for a helmet? Double-check. Beautiful but willful Princess? Kind of… But the tropes and cliches don’t really matter that much because they aren’t the movie, they’re just tools the movie uses. The strength of a good movie isn’t necessarily in how original it is but how well the story is told. Just look at ‘Star Wars.’ That’s as by-the-numbers as it comes, but the story is told very well.
Generally speaking, when talking about ‘Star Wars’ people don’t complain about how a farmboy rescuing a princess and saving the world is cliched storytelling, they talk about everything else and how awesome it was. ‘Willow’ is the same in that regard. It’s a classic story told with a lot of heart and some great (for the time it was made) special effects. And those twists I mentioned before? They really do make a difference. For instance, Willow isn’t just a farmboy, he’s a farmboy in a land of giants. He’s not just facing his own naivete, he has to deal with being half the size of anyone else and the fantastic racism of the setting. And while Willow is slowly learning magic, he’s still a novice and is basically incapable of physically protecting Elora on his own. And yet, in the end, it’s his courage and wits that save the day. And he’s not even the chosen one! Not many movies (‘Lord of the Rings’ notwithstanding) show little people in such a heroic fashion, overcoming odds that people twice their size can’t handle. I feel that these little twists on old tropes do a lot to keep the movie feeling somewhat fresh.
‘Willow’ is a great movie. I consider it to be one of the greatest high fantasy films of all time. It may not be perfect, but it’s fun and meaningful in all the right ways and a lot of fun to watch. (Also, the baby that played Elora was incredibly cute. I dare you not to squee at her smiling. If you don’t, then you have no heart.) You really need to go out, find a copy, and watch it. It’s a great Lucas movie from before he went off the deep end.