Willow (1988)

   George Lucas is a man that, despite any hatred he earns amongst fans for his knack of going back and editing less-than-desired things into his films, truthfully has created some wonderful stories for people of all ages. From our own back yard with Indiana Jones, or a galaxy far far away, we have been enthralled by his films and the imagination brought about from them. Far from a one trick pony, even the genres of the films have a broad scale that  you don't always get to see from a lot of modern producers, and in this case his contributions on story to the Ron Howard directed film can be found abound.

Willow is one of these grandiose movies, the original "Lord of the Rings" spirit of movies (albeit one told in much less time) with plenty of heart, adventure, and daring. Clocking in at 126 minutes (roughly two hours), it weaves a wonderful tale full of interesting characters, diverse locations, and magic. Stay with me, and let me take you on an adventure through the movie that is Willow!

At its very core, Willow is a movie with great heart.  We begin the film with a text scroll, elaborating to us everything we really need to know about the back story of the film - there is an evil sorceress queen who prophecies show will be defeated thanks to a specific baby girl, so said sorceress Bavmorda (played by Jean Marsh) searches for this girl with the intent to banish it's very soul to a place from whence it shall never return. Right off the bat, we are shown that this baby has been born, and that a handmaiden is convinced by a pleading mother to escape from the castle and save the baby. After some unfortunate events happen to the escaped handmaiden months (or years) later, the baby is found down river (where it went on a comfortable floating basket ride) by a family of Nelwyn. This is where our adventure begins proper, as the child Elora is found to be the cause of a recent attack by a rather frightening dog-beast, and the High Aldwin (played by Billy Barty) sends a group of Nelwyn to take the Elora back to Daikini lands, protected by the titular hero Willow Ufgood (played by Warwick Davis). After coming across a locked up Madmartigan (played by Val Kilmer), the main band of Nelwyn decide to leave the baby with him, only for Willow to find out from the great fairy of the woods he has been chosen by Elora to protect Elora.

From here, we go on an even larger quest for Willow, and are introduced to even more characters - The great sorceress Fin Razel (played by  Patricia Hayes when she finally is returned to human form), the evil Bavmorda's daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) , a pair of brownies, some trolls, Bavmorda's general, and many others. In the end, it comes down to being a main story of believing in oneself and the power you hold, with some minor stories of love and revenge mixed into the over-arching story of saving Elora from Bavmorda's ritual.

The actors all do a wonderful job here of pulling of their roles - to the point where even the actors playing Willow's kids deliver their lines with great believability. Surprisingly, even the little baby Elora has some great 'acting' moments, in which a wonderfully fitting facial expression is displayed (the quizzical "Oh dear..." face still makes me laugh), and helps to add to the wonder of the film. A large portion of the humor comes from the two brownie characters Rool (Kevin Pollack) and Franjean (Rick Overton) and their goof-ball behaviors. Willow is a likeable character, and could easily be juxtaposed on any real-world person who is capable of great things and just doesn't have the belief in themselves that they are as amazing as they can be, and his counter-part Madmartigan helps sustain a careful balance of personalities through the larger portion of the movie. With Willow, we get to watch as his character develops into one that believes in what he is capable of, whereas with Madmartigan we get to watch the character become more responsible, more worried about others instead of only worrying about himself. On both counts, we have the baby Elora to thank for this.

The costumes here are also wonderful. The clothes of the "common" folk are what we would expect from a period-type movie, and the armor sets are simply wonderful! From the General's skull-faced helmet and nasty spikes to the little brownies and their hats made of mouse-heads, details are splendid and you can really get a feel of the character off of a picture alone without any real explanations needed (you see Bavmorda and you just know in your gut that she is an evil person). The dogs (that show up in the earlier parts of the movie) are some of the most frightening dogs I have ever seen, having some kind of large, furry prosthetic placed on top of them to give them an almost lion-like warthog appearance that just oozes threatening vibes. In comparison to that, the trolls we are introduced to later on look a bit like people in hairy ape suits, but even then it's at least not cheap hairy ape suits!

Speaking of the trolls, now would probably be a good time to get into the special effects of this film. Being an older movie, one might expect some less-than-stellar by today's standards effects albeit certainly not cheap ones we might see in some direct-to-video flick. Good news here: these are done wonderfully! From making characters seem smaller than possible (the brownies for instance), to making giant two headed monsters they hold up well with the times. There are a few moments in particular (when the trolls first enter the scene for example) where it's a bit noticeable that some movie magic is getting used, but the claymation used on the large fire breathing two headed beast holds up far better than a lot of claymation I have seen over the years (including Terminator), being downright fluid at times. The Fin Razel transformation scenes are particularly a treat, leaving the watcher to wonder just how on earth they managed to do it (especially earlier on), and the travel scenery was at times breathtaking. Of course, it's not entirely without it's little hiccups here and there, but most of them are minor and shouldn't ruin the enjoyment of this title (at one point during a scene where a shield is being used as a sled, we can actually see the runners underneath the shield) but it doesn't hurt to know they are there either.

The musical score here gives just the right tone you need for a movie like this. When the action picks up, so does the orchestra and it really helps to emphasize the action while still not overpowering the scene. We get audio queues at time as well, in the case of this magic love potion-esque fairy dust one of the brownies caries, to signify when things are happening (like falling in love with a cat). During fights, steel on steel has a satisfactory ring, and the punches tend to have the usual impact sound one would expect to hear - in a few fights we even get to hear the fabled Wilhelm scream. 

What it comes down to with this movie is the mood you find yourself in. If you want a great fantasy-setting adventure movie with plenty of action and magic to keep you interested for the two hour run time, you should certainly give this one a shot or buy it (it's easily a film that can be watched and enjoyed multiple times). It carries a powerful message about believing in oneself, and that you don't have to be large in stature to do the right things, all the while being something that the entire family can watch. Some parts might be a bit frightening to really small children, and there is some fighting, but it's a far better selection than many modern movies, and it's one that even after twenty-plus years still carries a feeling of magic and awe about it, as any true epic adventure should.

Willow (Special Edition)
Starring Val Kilmer