Imagine George Lucas, holed up in Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, coming up with new ideas for films. George has had his chances to develop new franchises, no doubt envious of the way his friend Steven manages to keep reinventing himself, even winning an Oscar but when George sits down at his desk with his favourite blue and green lined writing pad and No. 2 pencils, what is it that prevents him from getting beyond 'little guy fighting against the system'.
You see, George sees himself as that guy and the film industry at Hollywood, south of Skywalker Ranch, is the system and little George has been battling that enemy for almost 30 years. That plot is in everything he has ever done - Luke Skywalker against the Empire, Indiana Jones against the Nazis, Richard Dreyfuss, the nerd in American Graffiti, winning out against older, tougher and cooler opposition and Anakin Skywalker in the Tattoine pod race. Ever since Warner Bros cut THX 1138 without his permission, Lucas has been consumed by that plot, unable to move away from it, reliving that battle when he felt alone and up against Francis Ford Coppola, who was supposed to have been supporting him at Zoetrope, and the studio who took his debut feature from him.
Lucas' problem is that he doesn't know when to stop - isolated at Skywalker Ranch, his screenplays and story ideas have become ever more lumpen, subtlety has disappeared completely and just in case we didn't get the 'little guy fighting against the system' plot, Lucas became obsessed with using short actors to really drive that point home. After the shades of darkness present in The Empire Strikes Back, it was back to standard Lucas fare with the Ewoks fighting the might of the Empire with sticks and stones. Lucas couldn't let these guys rest as the world turned against them or just lost interest - he followed up Return Of The Jedi with Caravan of Courage and Battle For Endor. Where Episode I should have been a roaring move into the formation of the Empire, what Lucas produced was the misadventures of a tousle-haired moppet against his enslavement, his fight to become a Jedi and a trade embargo. Lucas even has the most powerful Jedi in the universe no more than a metre tall.
"Do you see it yet?" Enough George, we get it!
And then there's Willow - Lucas' spin on a fantasy story. The film is about…well, you know what it's about but to recap, Willow Ulfgood, played by short actor Warwick Davis, lives in a land where three species live apart - the normal human-sized Daikini, the shorter Nelwyn and the very short Brownies. No one species likes or trusts any of the others and it is into this world that Elora Danan is born who is fated to end the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Bavmorda already knows of this prophecy and imprisons all pregnant women to kill Elora as she is born. However, a midwife smuggles Elora out of prison immediately after her birth, places her in a reed basket and lets her float down river where she is found by Willow.
Willow finds Elora and brings the baby home to his village of Nelwyn people, all of whom are played by short actors, some of which have acted previously like Kenny Baker, others for the only time. However, given the mistrust between them and Daikini, he is told to take it away. As he brings the baby out of his village, the village elder instructs him to give it to the first Daikini he meets. Unfortunately, this is Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer, locked in a cage and left to die by the roadside by persons unknown. Madmartigan might be a great swordsman and fighter but Willow distrusts him though he is the only Daikini who volunteers to look after Elora.
Willow and Madmartigan are joined in their quest by two Brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton), Princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), who is the daughter of Queen Bavmorda, and Fin Raziel, a powerful sorceress (Patricia Hayes). They must learn to trust in another and overcome the prejudices of their races. They face great danger, trek through beautiful scenery, filmed in England, Wales and New Zealand and, of course, be the little guy fighting against the system.
Most of the actors acquit themselves well with only Val Kilmer really standing out. Whether or not there is any truth in the Mad Val stories of later years, he was a very charismatic actor in his first starring roles and he gives the impression here that he enjoyed playing Madmartigan though much of that might be to do with meeting Joanne Whalley on set, who he later married. Whalley also does well and it's regrettable that she never fulfilled her potential, following on from her star-making roles in Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective. Unfortunately, Warwick Davis is not entirely capable of carrying the title role on his own - he's not a bad actor, but at only 17, Willow might have come too early in his career for him to do it full justice.
The villains are, however, caricatures with Queen Bavmorda the worst of the lot. Pat Roach plays General Kala and he doesn't do a bad job - you quickly get past the point where you expect him to refer to himself in the third person as Bomber - but the problem is that the most evil act he and Bavmorda perpetrate is when they change an entire army into pigs.
If that all sounds as though everything that fulfils the basic requirements of a fantasy film is present and correct, then it is, yet Willow never really satisfies. The main problem is that Willow never presents its characters with any real sense of danger for, unlike many similar films, death is never present. Fantasy films often use the death of a major character as a device to add some emotional depth to a genre that, in its filmed form at least, often struggles to become genuinely affecting. Look at any good example of the genre such as Fellowship Of The Ring, where a major character appears to die in the Mines of Moria, or Krull, where Ynyr dies after the meeting with the Widow Of The Web, which is the most touching section of the film. Without following their lead and avoiding any real sense that a character could die, Willow becomes closer to Disney's The Black Cauldron, meaning that it's no classic but a fairly enjoyable romp.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 PAL and certainly looks better than any recent screening of it will have done. My most recent viewings prior to this have been on digital satellite and this DVD is a clear improvement over that but there are still misgivings. During the 1980s, ILM were using stop-motion, which was then superimposed onto live-action scenes. The problem was that in spite of doing this many years after Harry Harryhausen, it looks considerably worse - think of the Rancor in Return Of The Jedi and the incredibly poor way that was represented - and the main beast here, the Eborsisk, is not really that much better. Add in Ron Howard's typically flat direction and Willow lacks the sparkle that is expected of a fantasy film.
The original stereo sound has been remixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack but the original mix is also available here. The 5.1 soundtrack is subtle with the rear channels only really noticeable during atmospheric scenes, particularly thunder and rainstorms during the final battle. The original stereo mix often sounds just as good.
Feature Length Audio Commentary: Warwick Davis has provided a decent commentary, sounding happy when remembering the experiences he had when making the film and giving the impression that a number of the actors, though not including Val Kilmer or Joanne Whalley, have stayed in touch since, even those who have not continued to act. Many of Davis' anecdotes are, however, a little flat but this may be a reflection of his age during the making of Willow but he is very happy to discuss the public reaction to Willow both when it was made and when it was issued on VHS but this is no doubt because it was mostly positive. Davis, however, fails to mention much of the critical reaction towards Willow that disliked the film.
Willow: The Making of an Adventure Featurette (4:3, Stereo Surround, 21m40s): This is a bit of a missed opportunity. The documentary dates from 1988 and it is no more than a typical promotional piece from that time, although to be fair, such froth hasn't gotten any better since. The featurette contains a number of interviews with stars and there is a short argument at the end as to really the star of the film. Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton appear in 9" tall, as their characters in the film, and joke about their treatment on set.
From Morf To Morphing (4:3, Stereo Surround, 17m01s): Willow is, believe it or not, an incredibly important film in the special effects world as it was the first time morphing was shown on screen, work carried out by the computer graphics division at ILM. Computer graphics on film had been done before on Young Sherlock Holmes, also by ILM, but the digital footage in that case had only been superimposed on film.
What was actually important about morphing was not the morph itself, which was only the end result, but that it demonstrated that live action could be converted from film to digital storage, manipulated within a computer system and printed back onto film. After Willow, there was to be no end to the use of CGI and if you blame it for the identical appearance of films in 2002, blame George Lucas, ILM and Willow.
The documentary isn't bad with contributions from Dennis Muren, effects expert at ILM, George Lucas and Ron Howard and consists of original video interviews from 1988 including test footage demonstrating to Ron Howard that the process could work. There are retrospective views from 2002 allowing those involved in the production of the effects in Willow to examine the impact of those early techniques in films that followed and how CGI was perfected.
Dennis Muren is interesting and candid about work at ILM and this documentary provides a short but worthwhile look at the beginning of CGI in film.
TV Spots and Trailers (4:3, Stereo Surround): There are three 15sec and five 30sec TV Spots with three Theatrical Trailers which are all very alike, using many of the same scenes from the film and similar voiceovers.
Photo Gallery: 45 stills from behind the scenes taken during the making of the film.
Easter Egg: Finding this will unlock a documentary from 1988 on the special effects used in the film. There is some footage duplicated from the From Morf To Morphing feature but in this case, at least all of it is from the year the film was made.
I have checked this on both a Pioneer DVD player and a DVD Drive on a PC using a range of software players. The Easter Egg worked on the DVD player but did not work on any of the software DVD players on the PC.
I wanted to like Willow more than I actually do. I came back to this after watching Krull and Fellowship Of The Ring and found both of those, particularly the latter, far superior. I also watched The Black Cauldron and found it more enjoyable than Willow. The Black Cauldron is truly a kid's film with no attempt at a crossover appeal and feels more assured than Willow because of it. Willow always occasionally to make an approach to an adult audience but which you soon find out is an empty gesture, usually accompanied by a knowing wink. The problem is that a knowing wink never convinces and if the joke isn't actually funny - and George Lucas did not become famous as a comedian - the whole film falls flat.
The director, Ron Howard, had just finished Splash and that demonstrated a comic ability but after the struggle to complete The Empire Strikes Back on time and budge, Lucas never gave the impression that, as Executive Producer, he enjoyed relinquishing control to a director. The view at the time was that Howard was a director for hire with Lucas pulling the strings and this viewing, years later, reinforces that fact. This is a post-Empire Lucas film, just really not that good and without the Indiana Jones or Star Wars franchise to support it.
George Lucas always maintained that Star Wars was a kids' film but one which crossed over to a much larger audience. Willow did not and that, no doubt, accounted for its failure. The film simply never really works and without going too far into its second hour, you'll be watching the display count down to the end of the film. There are better ways to take a trip back to the fantasy genre of the 1980s - even the sequels to The Beastmaster are preferable to this. Even children, excepting the very young who may be frightened off by some of the monsters, are much more aware of film convention now than in 1988 and will find little to enjoy here as it will fail to connect with them at either a serious or comedic level.
As the film approaches its final battle, Willow's army is as strong and as many as the one he is about to face, he has as great a warrior in Madmartigan as General Kala and with Fin Raziel, as powerful as sorceress as Bavmorda. Even Bavmorda's daughter has joined Willow so the "little guy fighting the system" story just doesn't ring true any more.
Up in Marin County, with Lucasfilm, Lucasarts, ILM, THX, pre- and post-production facilities, some of the finest worldwide, and a writ-happy legal department looking down on Hollywood, nor does George Lucas' vision of himself.