Willow, George Lucas and Ron Howard’s 1988 film, is the unsung fantasy/action epic of the ‘80s. While it may not be regarded as a masterpiece of cinematography or have won any awards, and it might be fundamentally flawed among similar films in that it does not star any Muppets, Willow will always have a very special piece of this writer’s heart. Let’s explore the many reasons why.
1. Willow is a total underdog. Though he is loved by his cute kids and wife, and he is well regarded by his bestie, Meegosh, everyone one else thinks Willow is kind of a dipshit. He totally botches his disappearing pig trick at the Nelwyn festival, and when the High Aldwin, big cheese of Nelwyn sorcery, performs his annual test of potential apprentices, Willow fails miserably. He’s extra small, too, even in Newlyn terms. Willow is dwarfed by the bully Burglekutt.
Despite these setbacks, the kind and gentle farmer and aspiring sorcerer eventually gets his comeuppance, though it takes about 126 minutes.
2. Sweet Val Kilmer performance. Somewhere between Top Gun and Batman Forever, Jim Morrison himself played the antihero Madmartigan in Willow. First discovered by Willow and his party in a crow’s cage just inside Daikini country, Madmartigan has countless memorably hilarious lines. At the end of the day, Willow would not be able to reach Nockmaar Castle to defeat Bavmorda without him.
Madmartigan is also great because he gets the first use of the pejorative term “peck” in the movie. Not only is “peck” the worst of the worst hatespeech possible to use when talking about a Nelwyn, it’s also the last name of GeekDayton co-founder, Larry. So next time you see him at Board Game Night, make sure you assualt him with one of these insults.
3. Directed by Ron Howard. Say what you want about Opie, he makes a damn fine film. One need look no further than the 1989 Steve Martin masterpiece Parenthood to understand the genius of Ron Howard as a filmmaker. In his 30-year career as a filmmaker, he’s directed almost 40 movies. Personally, Willow is my favorite of them all.
In a recent Reddit AMA, Howard discussed the possibility of a sequel to Willow. He said, “Right now, the Lucasfilm team led by Kathleen Kennedy, who is an old dear friend, is entirely myopically focused on the Star Wars universe as you can imagine. So I think the immediate possibility of another Willow movie is probably not on the front burner. But Warwick Davis is such a cool guy, and he’s continued to evolve as a talent … man, he’s Willow! And a grown-up Willow could be kind of cool, so, I’d say never say never.”
Did you hear that? “Never say never.” Yeah!
4. Little People. George Lucas, who himself has nothing to distinguish his neck from his head save for a thin line of grey beard, knows what it’s like to be different physically. So much so that in his early days of filmmaking, he progressively dreamed of placing a little person in the lead role of a film. Lucas had worked with Warwick Davis in The Return of the Jedi, in which Davis played Wicket the Ewok.
Lucas, in Marcus Hearn’s The Cinematography of George Lucas, talks about Willow, saying, “A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea.” The film employed scores of little people, who generally were underrepresented in movies at the time, as they are now.
5. Fairies. Of all the mythological and fantastical creatures that may or may not inhabit the earth, the fair folk or fay are the most endearing to me. The idea of these “wee folk” inhabiting the forest, right under our noses, is very intriguing, and the thought of them protecting us, or conversely, meddling in our affairs and mucking things up, is appealing, too. There is not, to my knowledge, a movie that better incorporates the fairy realm than Willow.
From the introduction of the Maiden of the Forest, Cherlindrea, it is apparent that the fairy realm has a stake in the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elora Danan will become the empress of Tir Asleen. The Cherlindrea scene is one of my favorites from the movie. Surrounded by sprites, the ethereal-luminescent queen of the forest gifts Willow her wand so he can protect Elora.
Cherlindrea also sends fellow fay people, the brownies, to help guide him on his way. Though the green screen effect that puts the brownies in the movie is pretty whack, it takes only a little bit of imagination to enjoy them. I especially like the mouse head hat that the brownie Rool wears. And that bit when Rool accidently spills Dust of Broken Heart on himself and falls in love with a cat? Classic brownie antics!
6. Expanded Universe. This one was a special gift that I didn’t even know existed until I was in my 30s. At a library book sale, I noticed a fantasy novel for sale that was co-written by George Lucas. Upon further inspection, I spotted some copy on the cover announcing “An all-new saga based on the movie Willow.” After about crapping myself, I promptly borrowed 35 cents from my wife and purchased the item. It turns out that there are three novels in the Chronicles of the Shadow War series, which star a 19-year-old Elora Danan as the protagonist. So if you can’t get enough of the Willow universe in your life, you should probably read these books, if you haven’t already.
7. Cute Baby. If you’re like me (and I assume everyone is, because I’m an egomaniac), you are in your late thirties and childless. During the rare moments when you’re not sobbing in your workplace bathroom, you’re likely trying to catch a glimpse of an adorable infant on TV and movies. Well, look no further than Willow! This film features the cutest fucking baby you’ll ever see. In fact, the character Elora Danan is so cute, it actually took two babies to portray her (I believe the character Michelle from Full House suffered from a similar cuteness requirement). Willow features roughly 105 scenes with this delightful little lovenugget. Elora is so silly. She’s got this giant hair (wig) and quite a smile. So adorbs you’ll almost forget that you’ll be the last of your bloodline.
8. High Fantasy. Don’t get me wrong: I love Game of Thrones as much as the next guy. Buuuuut sometimes it’s just a little too “real” for me. Am I right or am I right? Sure, it’s got a couple dragons and the occasional shapeshifter, but aside from those elements, GoT is pretty similar to the events of the actual Middle Ages, when aristocratic landowners were doing everything they could to gobble up all the control.
Willow is different because nearly every major character is of a fantasy race. There are magic acorns that turn people to stone. There’s fairies, Nelwyns, trolls, and, yes, dragons. Magic is around every corner, and action, too.
9. Badass Tie-ins. Leave it to George Lucas to make sure there was plenty of Willow crap to buy. And, all these years later, much of the crap still remains! There are action figures, comics, stickers, two board games (one of which looks really good even by today’s standards, and has been on my “to buy” list for ages), trading cards, and more, all for the taking for that special Willow enthusiast with too much disposable income. You can still find all of these really easily on eBay, many in the original packaging. Unlike Star Wars and other, more popular, movie ephemera, Willow stuff can be scooped up on the cheap. And that, dear readers, is part of what makes it so special.
10. Digital Morphing. Willow is the first feature film to include digital morphing. You know, the effect from the Michael Jackson video “Black or White” that happens right before MJ smashes a car with a crowbar, grabs his crotch 1,000 times, and tears his shirt off? It’s a great scene, too. Willow, following Cherlindrea’s instructions, finds the daikini sorceress Fin Raziel on the island where she’s been banished. Having been turned into a possum by the evil queen Bavmorda’s horrible magic, Raziel explains to Willow how he can change her back to her true form. But Willow, being the fuckup that he is, can’t seem to get the spell right. So he causes her to morph from a possum to a goat to an ostrich and everything else besides a daikini. When Fin Raziel last saw herself, she had been a beautiful young woman, but that was decades before. By the time Willow gets to her and gets his shit together enough to change her back, Fin Raziel is a wrinkly old lady.
There’s so much more that makes Willow an amazing movie, too. The part where Bavmorda turns the Daikini army into pigs, Madmartigan in drag, and the sickest villain ever, General Kael (my kingdom for a General Kael costume! I so want to cosplay him). The love story between Madmartigan and the fierce female warrior Sorsha, which led to a real-life marriage between Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, is not to be missed either. And don’t forget the Death Dogs! If you’ve never seen it, go on down to Blockbuster Video and rent it on Betamax tonight.