Monday, September 29, 2014
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.
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.
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.