I can’t really recall a time when I didn’t know about this movie. It came out when I was four and I don’t have a clear memory before that. So, for all intents and purposes, I have always lived in a world where I was aware that this movie existed. I was aware and I loved it. This post is going to likely be more of an analysis of this movie than a review. For those who have never seen it, I’ll review it first and then get to my analysis so you can skip that until you’ve actually watched it.
In my humble opinion, Willow is a fantasy classic. Released in 1988, it was directed by Ron Howard with a story by George Lucas and a screenplay by Bob Dolman. It told the story of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and his quest to protect the world, and particularly his family, from the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). It’s a simple tale of good versus evil with magical special effects and the first use of computer-generated morphing technology used in a film.
When his children discover a strange baby in the water, struggling farmer and amateur magician Willow is thrown into a much larger world than he ever imagined. The baby girl, of course, is a child of prophecy and Willow is tasked with taking her to the kingdom of Tir Asleen where she will somehow save everyone from the aforementioned evil queen. I’m not really sure how that plan was supposed to work, but it’s best not to argue with the people spouting the prophecies and all.
Sure, the story itself is a little trite, but you can’t argue with the cast and their performances. Jean Marsh in particular really chewed the scenery and seemed to revel in her role as the film’s primary antagonist. Everyone in the film seemed like they were having fun. Ultimately, that’s one of the things that will make me love a movie more. I’m not going to go and say that this movie was perfect. Yes, it had its flaws and yes, it wasn’t well-loved by critics or audiences in its day. Yet, it has endured and become a sort of cult classic. It is also definitely one of my most favorite movies ever.
If you like charming fantasies with swords and sorcery, give this one a shot. I think you’ll like it.
One of the things that makes this movie remarkable is that its titular protagonist is a dwarf. He is from a village full of people just like him, which gave the filmmakers an opportunity to cast many actors of a similar stature as extras and featured roles. They also don’t go for the obvious visual jokes to point out his size. That’s not to say that Willow doesn’t encounter prejudice once he leaves his idyllic village. He encounters prejudice and insults but doesn’t let that stop him from doing what he needs to do.
Not only is a person-of-size at the center of the film, the chosen child that starts the plot rolling is a baby girl, Elora Danan(Ruth and Kate Greenfield). One of Willow’s foes turned allies is a formidable female warrior named Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). I mentioned her in my recent list of awesome ladies. Another of his allies is the powerful witch Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes). Of course, Willow is joined by men too in his quest, but the women are right in the thick of things. There is no damseling of everyone except Elora Danan because, well, it’s not like she can really do a whole lot other than flail, cry and make awesome, appropriately-timed facial expressions. Anyway, the women’s abilities are respected and that’s pretty fantastic in and of itself. The movie also pokes at the assumption that all women must have some sort of maternal feeling. In Willow’s initial quest to pass the baby to someone taller, he encounters a number of women who are wholly uninterested in the adorable burden he bears.
Part of the enduring appeal of Willow is that it’s not simply a story about people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to save the world, it’s about people discovering the powers within them. It’s a movie about having faith in yourself and your abilities. It’s a movie with a few more layers than people realize. It’s also a movie that makes me wish for answers to a few burning questions I’ve had for the past couple of decades: What did Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) do that got him into that cage? What’s his history with Galladoorn and Airk (Gavan O’Herlihy)? What does the High Aldwin (Billy Barty) do anyway besides dispense snark and wisdom?
Sure, I could read the novelization but after trying to read the supposed sequel, I’m not sure I want to.
ProTip: Don’t read Shadow Moon and the other two books in its trilogy. I dropped it as soon as I realized that they’d killed awesome characters off-screen. That’s just not cool. I refuse to acknowledge the books’ existence now.