Vintage Film Review: Willow (1988)
With a story by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, Willow is an endearingly fun, fantasy adventure film for the whole family. Willow was initially panned by the critics and only a modest box-office success, but the film has since garnered something of a cult following in the near thirty years that have passed since its debut. And it is easy to see why it has picked up so very many fans over the years. It is a fun film, action-packed, with a compelling narrative and a great ensemble cast, which includes Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh and many more.
Sure, Willow is a bit of a hodgepodge of well-known fantasy and mythical and even religious tropes. For instance, we’ve got underestimated, overseen little people reluctantly thrust into an adventure to save the world à la Tolkien’s hobbits of Middle Earth. We’ve got a baby marked for death and hidden in a basket by a river à la Moses and even Jesus. There’s a bad boy, the reluctant hero with a heart of gold, à la Han Solo. I did mention that this is a George Lucas film, did I not? There’s an evil, evil queen out to destroy the prophesied child, who is to bring about her fall, à la Snow White and Harry Potter and King Herod and on it goes.
Fairies, brownies, trolls, dwarves, monsters, magic – all are present in Willow. This is high fantasy, and these are known narrative tropes and motifs that lend this unfamiliar tale a sense of familiarity and relatability.
A Babe in the Bulrushes
Fearing the imminent fulfillment of a prophecy of the birth of a babe, who will end her reign, an evil sorcerer queen, Queen Bavmorda (played wonderfully wickedly by Jean Marsh of Upstairs, Downstairs fame), imprisons all pregnant women in the Daikini kingdom. When a child is born bearing the prophesied birthmark, the midwife whisks her away. Eventually, she sends her downriver in a makeshift raft to save her from the vicious hounds of Nockmaar.
The babe, whose name is Elora Danan, drifts into the lands of the Nelwyn – little people – and is found by a farmer, father-of-two and would-be sorcerer apprentice, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis). The appearance of a Daikini baby in this remote Nelwyn village instigates much upheaval, as wolf-like Nockmaar hounds shortly thereafter ransack the village, ripping into all the cradles. The village elders decide that the babe must go. The babe must be returned to the Daikini world. Furthermore, Willow Ufgood, to whom the babe is much attached, must accompany her. Reluctantly, Willow leaves his wife, his children and his land behind him. Then he embarks on a journey, like many good heroes before him and since. It is a journey that will change him in the process.
And as with all journeys, he will have many encounters with strangers and strange creatures. He will be thwarted as well as helped along his way.
The Motley Crew
The dwarf Willow Ufgood and the baby Elora Danan end up in a rag-tag group. The group is comprised of two chattering, wisecracking brownies with French accents, Rool and Franjean (Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton), a bewitched sorceress in shifting animal form, Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), and last, but by no means least, the recalcitrant and reluctant anti-hero, who initially wants no part of this quest, the apparently dishonorable warrior-thief, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer). The hounds of Nockmaar are after them, and the minions of Queen Bavmorda are hot on their tail, including Bavmorda’s beautiful daughter, Sorcha (Joanne Whalley).
Soon, an accident with some brownie love potion has Madmartigan reciting poetry to Sorcha, and the sparks fly. Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley met on the set of Willow. The chemistry between their onscreen characters carried into real life; they became a couple, married, had children, and have since divorced. But their scenes together are electric. It’s very authentic chemistry you’re witnessing onscreen, and that is always a pleasure to watch.
So, there it is, the evil queen’s daughter is falling for the roguish good guy, and he for her. And our would-be sorcerer’s apprentice, Willow Ufgood, in his quest to protect Elora Danan from the evil Queen Bavmorda, is learning that maybe, just maybe, the magic lies within himself not only to just protect against but ultimately to defeat evil incarnate.
Content Note: Rated PG for battle sequences, minor scary images and monsters, brief mild language and a brief scene of sensuality. It’s pretty tame family viewing.
Where to Watch: DVD and Amazon Video.
Photo Credits: Lucasfilm and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
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