Monday, September 29, 2014

Willow

As a filmmaker, George Lucas is known for drawing on old myths and stories and fashioning them in new ways that give them new resonance, often bringing them to life with state-of-the-art special effects. In 1977, he did it with Star Wars, which drew on old space operas like Flash Gordon. In 1981, along with Steven Spielberg, he did it with Raiders of the Lost Ark, inspired by the old action-adventure serials. Willow (1988), directed by Ron Howard, is Lucas's attempt to bring the same strategy to the fantasy genre. Drawing on elements from the likes of The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, King Arthur, and even the Bible, the film tells the story of an unlikely hero caught up in a "time of dread."

Let me start off the bat with a disclaimer: nostalgia can be a powerful thing. It can smooth out rough edges and transform what might otherwise be a mediocre experience into something magical. Willow was a favorite of mine growing up. I watched it more times than I can count, and it was one of a number of movies my family taped off the VCR (along with The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Story, and the final ten minutes of The Burbs). I still have a great deal affection for it, and there's still a great deal of it to admire, but with adult eyes, I can at least recognize its flaws, its cliches, and its more questionable creative decisions.

In a long ago age, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a farmer with aspirations of becoming a sorcerer who is also a member of a diminutive race of people known as Nelwyns, is plunged into adventure when his children find a giant or Daikini baby down by the river. Turns out, the baby is Elora Danan, who has been prophesied to bring down the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Willow finds himself Elora Danan's protector and sets out on a quest to shield her from Bavmorda's forces. Along the way, he is aided by the rogue swordsman Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), the transformed sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), and a pair of tiny creatures known as Brownies (Rick Overton and Kevin Pollak), but to defeat Bavmorda, Willow must learn to follow his heart and believe in himself.

At its most basic, Willow is Star Wars in Middle Earth. Willow himself is a cross between Luke Skywalker and Bilbo Baggins, Madmartigan is Han Solo with a sword, Raziel is Obi-Wan Kenobi with a touch of Yoda and Gandalf, Bavmorda is a stand-in for the emperor, and her muscle, General Kael (Pat Roach), is Darth Vader with a skull helmet and bushy beard. Magic can be seen as a substitute for the Force, and even the central conflict is about a group of individuals banding together to defeat a dark empire. Sure, it's familiar territory, but it's well done. I've also got to give props to James Horner's fantastic musical score; I think it's one of his best.

On the fantasy side, the Nelwyns are like hobbits - little, hearty people who value the comforts of home - and there are the assorted trolls, fairies, and dragons that Tolkien could have dreamed of. And in a bit of foreshadowing to Peter Jackson's adaptations of Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, Willow was filmed on location in New Zealand. There's just something about that country that makes it suitable for a fantasy film: the rolling green fields, lush forests, snow-covered mountains, and Bavmorda's fortress looks a bit like Mordor. Looking back, this sort of grounded realism, a real earthy yet exotic touch, helps Willow stand out even more so in today's age of CGI-created worlds.

The special effects are really good. Willow is one of the first movies (if not the first) to make use of morphing technology to show characters transforming into different shapes and beings. When Willow first meets Razeil, she's a rodent, and over the course of the film, he casts a number of spells that change her into a crow, a goat, and other critters before we see her in her human form. The movie also makes extensive use of blue screen to render the Brownies, who are only a few inches tall. In one scene, they tie down Willow and his friend Meegosh just like the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver. It's not always photorealistic, but it gets the job done. There's also the two-headed, fire-breathing dragon the Ebersisk (gee, what two famous critics could this nasty beast be named after?); it's a fearsome, impressive creation.

Now compared to the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Willow is a tamer picture, lacking the blood, gore, sex, and more adult themes of the Schwarzenneger picture, but it has enough darkness and sense of menace. I'll be honest, Bavmorda kind of scared me as a kid, especially when she transforms an attacking army into pigs (complete with disturbing, pained squeals of the victims and makeup effects that resemble the transformations in An American Werewolf in London) and one moment in her confrontation with Rziel when she appears to be dead. Plus, her entire motivation is to kill a baby and banish its soul to oblivion. She's up there, in my opinion, with the Queen from Snow White and the Wicked Witch of the West. Remember how in The Empire Strikes Back Vader uses the Force to mess with Luke Skywalker, even though if he wanted to, he could just kill him? That's how magic is in this world. Sure, there are some cute tricks and helpful spells here and there, but magic is often a powerful, dangerous element that can't always be controlled.

As I said, as an adult, I can recognize Willow's flaws more easily. The Brownies don't really serve a purpose to the narrative except as bickering comic relief; they're meant to be R2-D2 and C-3PO of this film, but they fairly useless. They're not Jar Jar Binks bad (Overton and Pollak get some laughs along the way). The film also has moments where it undercuts the would-be mythology with its pursuit of cheap laughs, such as when Madmartigan spends one big chase scene in a pink dress (this is after the brutish husband he cuckold hits on him unknowingly). Plus, as I said above, just about every story or character element in the movie has been done before.

Still, despite its flaws, Willow still resonates with me. It's an epic fantasy adventure, and at its heart, it carries a palpable message about the strength of the underdog, the one we least likely expect to become hero who ends up saving the world through his courage and strength of character. Willow is not a warrior, nor is he a sorcerer (not yet), but it's his bravery, his wits, his love, and his determination that unites the forces of good against the forces of evil. Ironically, that message is closer to the spirit of Tolkien's work than Peter Jackson's adaptations, which are more focused on the big, fantasy battles. Willow is about finding faith in yourself.

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