936full-willow-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and/or through the iTunes Store? Willow is not available on neither Netflix Instant or the iTunes Store. However, a special edition version of the film will be released on blu-ray on March 12, 2013.

Unfortunately, in Hollywood, immense success by a director can and does many times serve as the end of that director’s career in terms of quality output. It could be that the director never had more than one good idea in him/her from the beginning. It could also be that the money and lavish lifestyle that follows that initial success makes the director creatively lazy. Future projects are evaluated less by whether or not they are interesting and original and more by their merchandising and franchise potential. In my opinion, this is what happened to George Lucas and this is what he envisioned for Willow (1988). I can go into a diatribe on what caused Lucas’ creative downfall, but there are plenty of websites and books out there that have explored this subject ad nauseam.

In 1972, Lucas came up with the idea for Willow. “Came up” is giving the man far too much credit because although the film has been frequently compared to Star Wars (which it does compare to), the story of Willow is suspiciously similar to Lord of the Rings (Lucas reportedly attempted to acquire the rights to LOTR, but he was unable to do so). Regardless, during the production of Return of the Jedi, Lucas sought to develop another franchise like Star Wars and he envisioned Willow being the perfect story to turn into a franchise. Warwick Davis, the titular star of Willow, was approached by Lucas on the set of Return of the Jedi, in which Davis played Wicket the Ewok. Lucas was sufficiently impressed by Davis’ performance to offer him the lead role of Wicket Ufgood. As to who would direct the film, Lucas turned to former child actor Ron Howard (who starred in Lucas’ American Graffiti), who had just completed shooting Cocoon and was looking to direct a fantasy feature for his next project. Willow was released in 1988, but as was the case with most fantasy films in the mid-to-late 1980’s (Krull, Legend, Dragonslayer, and Labyrinth), Willow ended up being a commercial box office disappointment and any prospects of it turning into a franchise series were over.

Willow is Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a dwarf (basically a Hobbit, but here they are called Nelwyns) who finds a human baby next to a river. It turns out the baby, named Elora Danan, is a special baby who is prophesized to end the evil reign of Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Reluctantly, Willow agrees to take Elora and find Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), an old sorceress who has been transformed into a possum by Bavmorda. On his journey, Willow encounters Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a mercenary swordsman who ends up helping Willow. Willow is also assisted by two Brownies (very tiny humans) (Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton) and eventually by Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), who is Queen Bavmorda’s daughter.

As I stated before, Willow’s storyline is hardly original. The plot is your run-of-the-mill quest, which is not only iconically illustrated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it is standard fare in a countless number of fantasy stories. Like in those stories, Willow features a hero who embarks upon a quest to find something in the face of formidable obstacles. These stories feature a lot of traveling, usually to exotic places and we see that in Willow (although I disagree as to how varied and exotic the locales in this film are other than in the very beginning of the movie where we see Willow and his friends traveling through the lush, green mountains near their village).

Willow’s plotline also hedges closely to Lucas’ very own Star Wars narrative (the film even contains the same transition wipes that Star Wars has!). Willow is clearly Luke Skywalker, both of whom begin their quest as farmers who dream of bigger and greater things. Luke dreams of joining the Academy and becoming a pilot while Willow dreams of someday becoming a great and powerful magician. Madmartigan is the Han Solo character, an arrogant, roguish, sarcastic mercenary with a heart of gold. Instead of the ‘Force’ we have magic, which is described similarly to how the Force works. Obi-Wan Kenobi is represented by The High Aldwin (Billy Barty), another dwarf who is a wise old magician in Willow’s village and who sends Willow upon his quest. Fin Raziel, the old sorceress that Willow seeks out, represents Yoda. The two Brownies, who are the film’s comic relief, represent R2-D2 and C3PO. Sorsha, who becomes Madmartigan’s love interest, is basically Princess Leia. Finally, we have Queen Bavmorda, who is clearly the evil Emperor and her right-hand henchman, General Kael (Pat Roach – he played in the first three Indiana Jones movies as totally different characters and in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Roach actually plays two separate characters, both of whom are killed), is Darth Vader.

Unlike Lucas more recent efforts, Willow is not a complete disaster of a movie and I think he can thank the talents of director Ron Howard and screenwriter Bob Dolman for preventing it from being so. Nevertheless, despite its strong and promising beginning, Willow devolves into a boring, expensive mess. Like I said, there is nothing original about this story, but the first 30 minutes or so of the film are absolutely engaging and the story moves at a nice brisk pace. I was caught up in James Horner’s rousing score, Adrian Biddle’s beautiful cinematography, and the wonderful performances by Warwick Davis, the other dwarves (noteworthy is his wife, Kaiya Ufgood, who is played by Julie Peters), and Val Kilmer. Lucas made a great choice in casting Warwick Davis, who has a memorable face and an infectious, winning personality that immediately wins you over (and I’m sure his casting was partly influenced by how great of a doll or action figure he would make). True is also of Val Kilmer. His performance and character may not reach the same heights that Harrison Ford’s Han Solo did, but he provides the most excitement in the movie.

One of the film’s strong points is that in the beginning, the story emotionally connects you to Willow’s attachment to the baby, his love for his family, and his motivation to embark on his journey. Much of this is helped by the strong performances, but overall you are not left questioning Willow’s actions or, worse, not care about the main character. Unfortunately, one of Willow’s chief downfalls is its failure to sufficiently establish the high stakes of the story. There are a few vague lines peppered throughout the film about Queen Bavmorda being poised to take over the world, but other than that the only times we see Bavmorda before the film’s climactic battle is her storming around her castle and ordering her henchmen to find the baby. There is absolutely no sense that the world is in danger, that a war is raging, and that Willow and the baby represent the world’s final hope. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings establishes all of this remarkably well. You immediately get the sense that Frodo faces huge obstacles to destroy the ring in a mammoth struggle that has engulfed Middle Earth. You get none of that in Willow. On a smaller note, its never quite clear just what Willow is supposed to do with the baby. Is he supposed to find her human parents? The film fails to provide a good explanation.

Willow starts to fall apart at the point where Madmartigan and Willow reach the castle of Tir Asleen, where they expect to find the baby’s final sanctuary and help from the castle’s army. Instead, the two come upon an empty castle whose residents have been encased in ice and the castle has been overtaken by trolls. Bavmorda’s goons then show up and a battle begins to rage between Willow and Madmartigan against Bavmorda’s soldiers. The remainder of the film serves as the story’s climax and it is probably the most awkward and most boring looking battle sequence I have ever seen put on film. It becomes immediately obvious that Ron Howard does not know how to stage fights and battles. Madmartigan’s expert swordsman skills look come off looking like a child madly waving a stick around. This is a bit surprising considering Lucas’ involvement. One would think that Lucas would have brought some of his action stunt choreographers to stage these sequences out.

In the late 1980’s, computer effects were right on the cusp of being sophisticated enough to allow filmmakers to achieve anything they wanted. Willow pioneered what was termed “morphing,” which basically allowed a character to transform into different things (James Cameron perfected this technique in The Abyss and Terminator 2). In this film, the technique is used to transform Fin Raziel into different animals and finally into her human form. Considering the infancy stage of the effect, it surprisingly does not look horrible even by today’s standards. What does look bad is the blue screen technique used for the Brownies. By now we are used to seamless integration of various elements into one shot and so when we see blue screen employed, its distracting enough now to take us out of a movie. Besides, the comic relief provided by the Brownies was painfully unfunny and downright irritating and the film would have benefited without these characters.

Willow is a poor man’s version of The Lord of the Rings. It is predictable from the very first frame of the movie. Willow has a promising beginning that is helped by James Horner’s score (where you get to hear Horner’s signature shahukachi flute used throughout the film and hear him recycle some of his old stuff like Aliens) and strong performances from the actors. However, the film tends to rely too much on its big budget special effects rather than on delivering a captivating storyline. Kids may still enjoy this film, but adults will find this film, especially its 2nd half, yawn-inducing.