Reeling Backward: Willow (1988)

The underappreciated fantasy film from George Lucas and Ron Howard delighted the young audiences it was intended for, poked fun at its critics -- by name -- and is now set for a Disney+ reboot.

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Warwick Davis was just 17 years old when they shot “Willow,” a fantasy film George Lucas had been thinking about since 1972. He wanted to make a picture exploring the theme of the little guy standing up to the big bully, and had the idea of using Little People actors to lend a literal visual cue within a sword-and-sorcery setting. Lucas actually pitched the idea to Davis when he was just 11 and playing the Ewok Wicket in “Return of the Jedi.”

Imagine being a kid in a teddy bear costume, being asked by George Lucas if you wanted to star in his next big project. Shivers.

Like a lot of 1980s fantasy, “Willow” was unfairly maligned and misunderstood. Directed by Ron Howard, it was clearly intended for a younger audience — as were the “Star Wars” films, at least under Lucas’ helm — and so people like me tended to devalue it because it didn’t feature blood, guts and boobs.

What it is is a gentle, imaginative fable in the mode of “The Hobbit,” as a young nobody is plucked from obscurity to do great things and change the course of the world. Story-wise the film, written by Bob Dolman, starts out suspiciously similar to “Dragonslayer,” another favorite of mine, as a would-be sorcerer’s apprentice is sent off on a grand adventure for which he is clearly not prepared.

I revisited “Willow” for the first time in many years, watching it with my boys after buying it on Blu-ray — unaware it’s available on the Disney+ streaming platform. Oh well, I prefer physical media anyway. It’s unlikely the House of Mouse will ever go belly up, but I know I’ll always have my own copy.

The boys, 7 and 10, were absolutely enthralled by it, and I appreciated it a lot more than I remembered. I was subsequently thrilled to learn that Disney is planning a streaming series reboot out in 2022, and even more pleased to learn that Davis will reprise his role of the now much older Willow Ufgood.

The story is that the evil sorceress queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) is trying to preempt a prophecy that a baby girl born with a magical rune marking will prove her undoing. In having her minions try to kill the babe, the child Elora Danan is set adrift on a river in an earthen casket, very Moses-like, and discovered by Willow’s young children.

Willow is something of an outcast in his village, short (even for a Nelwyn, as his people call themselves), a bit of a dreamer who performs magic tricks and pines to be picked by their lone wizard, The High Aldwin (Billy Barty), as his apprentice and inheritor. He’s continually bullied by Burglekutt (Mark Northover), the mocking bald-pated landlord who keeps threatening to take Willow’s land.

The Aldwin assigns Willow and a few others to travel to the Crossroads and hand the baby over to the first Daikini (their word for big folk) who comes along. This turns out to be thief/swordsman/braggart Madmartigan, played with energy and glee by Val Kilmer, even though he’s been left to rot in a cage for unnamed crimes.

Together they go on a journey to see the good witch Fin Raziel (Patrician Hayes) to deliver the powerful wand of the fairy queen Cherlindrea (Maria Holvöe) to take on Bavmorda. Things don’t go quite as planned, as Raziel is cursed into animal form, which changes as Willow inexpertly attempts to use the wand.

Tagging along are a pair of Cherlindrea’s brownie servants, Rool and Franjean (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton), tiny squawking creatures that for some reason speak in French accents. Their job is to supply the comic relief as bickering servants in the mold of Tahei and Matashichi in “The Hidden Fortress” or R2-D2 and C3PO in “Star Wars.”

The baby Elora, with her bright strawberry ringlets, doesn’t say or do anything in the movie, her mere presence serving as integral to the plot while having no direct importance we can discern — a human MacGuffin.

I had long known, and loved, the fact that Lucas named one of the film’s sub-villains, General Kael, after the late and great critic Pauline Kael, who seemed to take special delight in belittling Lucas’ projects over the years. Played by the hulking Pat Roach, Kael is a fearsome presence in his black armor and skull mask, though he doesn’t have a defined character beyond generic evil sword-swinger.

Kael (the critic) seemed to take the joke in good humor, and then proceeded to trash the movie in her review — though, in fairness, most critics did at the time.

I had not known before now that the two-headed stop-motion dragon that Willow and Madmartigan fight near the end was unofficially named the Eborsisk, in “honor” of Siskel and Ebert — who both gave the flick a thumbs-down, though I doubt they were aware of the appellation.

Personally, I have absolutely no problem with filmmakers taking cracks at critics in their movies — glass houses and all that. Though I like it when it’s done with a smile and shiv, as “Willow” did, rather than awkward, inept fury as with “Malcolm & Marie.”

Some things about the film haven’t aged very well. Howard himself has said the special effects, an early offering from Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, seem “quaint” today. Howard was a newbie to action movies and the battles aren’t especially memorable, though Kilmer has a neat little trick where he spins his sword in a circle, catching the handle in mid-air.

One thing that doesn’t stand up is the romance between Madmartigan and Sorsha, Bavmorda’s cunning warrior daughter played by Joanne Whalley. She’s depicted as a thoroughly despicable character, doing all sorts of depraved things at her mother’s behest, until Madmartigan is touched up with a faerie charm potion and professes his love for her, and she undergoes a near-instantaneous conversion to the good side.

I mean, 1980s Val Kilmer was pretty hot stuff, even in the awful long black wig they give him. But in story filled with strong women — the final epic battle between Raziel and Bavmorda is conspicuously man-free — Sorsha registers as a two-dimensional tart, severely underwritten.

(Kilmer and Whalley, neither big stars at the time, received top billing above Davis — a bit of a diss for the title character.)

“Willow” ends about where you’d expect, with Bavmorda vanquished to the dark realm of nothingness she’s tried to send Elora to, Madmartigan and Sora affianced and Willow returned home a hero. He’s even gifted a spell book by Raziel, and I for one appreciated the inclusion of that crucial aspect of role playing games that doesn’t usually make the transition to fantasy films: the dividing of loot.

Though I wouldn’t claim “Willow” to belong to the first tier of fantasy cinema, it’s undergone a deserved positive reckoning over the decades as many people who saw it as youngsters cherished its tender charms and passed it on to the next generation.

Personally, I can’t wait for the streaming show, and to see a more mature M. Ufgood in action.

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