I first saw Willow years ago and I loved it. Val Kilmer was dashing as Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley was beautiful and hardcore as the Prince Sorsha. Good battled evil and good eventually won. Warrick Davis starred as the titular Willow. It had magic and its message was positive: believe in yourself.
Its reception by critics was mixed. One thing that made it remarkable were the special effects. Lucas was always good at that and his company, Industrial Light and Magic, came up with some new tricks to show Fin Raziel’s transformation back from an animal to her human form. Bavmorda’s two-headed dragon was pretty fantastic (maybe not in retrospect, with advances in special effects, but when you’re a kid, your imagination makes up for any shortfalls).
My Rating: 7/10
Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars. He felt like the story was “turgid and relentlessly predictable. Not much really happens, and when it does, its pace is slowed by special effects set pieces that run on too long and seem to be recycled out of earlier movies.”
‘Willow’ is certainly not a breakthrough film to a mass audience, but is it at least a successful children’s picture? I dunno.
Its pacing is too deliberate, and it doesn’t have a light heart. That’s revealed in the handling of some characters named the Brownies, represented by a couple of men who are about 9 inches tall and fight all the time. Maybe Lucas thought these guys would work like R2-D2 and C-3PO did in “Star Wars.” But they have no depth, no personalities, no dimension; they’re simply an irritant at the edge of the frame. Touches like that will only confuse kids who know that good dreams do not have to be clever, or consistent, or expensive, but that they should never, ever, make you want to wake up.
The New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, felt like it was a poorer re-tread of previous movies, including ‘Star Wars.’
Though every imaginable adventure-movie flourish found its way into Mr. Lucas’s amalgam, ”Star Wars” could simultaneously wink and marvel at the cinematic past. But as ”Willow” now strives for a similar effect, even ”Star Wars” has become fodder. So without anything like the earlier film’s eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, ”Willow” recapitulates images from ”Snow White,” ”The Wizard of Oz,” ”Gulliver’s Travels,” ”Mad Max,” ”Peter Pan,” ”Star Wars” itself, the Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950’s, the Bible and a million fairy tales. One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda and the White Rock Girl.
Maslin also felt like the film was encumbered by Ron Howard’s matter-of-fact style of direction and the lack of emotional center. “It relies on so much overstatement and repetition that it’s possible to grow tired even of the adorable baby.”
Variety said that “‘Willow’ is medieval mishmash from George Lucas, a sort of 10th-century ‘Star Wars’ tossed together with a plethora of elements taken from numerous classic fables. Even if Lucas has bastardized his own story with derivative and unoriginal elements, kids probably will love it.”
Between 1988 and today, many reviewers have commented on it being a ‘Star Wars’ retread. After all, the original story was by George Lucas and generally, things are similar:
- John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV
- The Washington Post review by Rita Kempley
- The Slant Magazine
- Scifi Movie Page
- Eye For Film
- SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review
- A straight comparison of Star Wars vs. Willow
I can see where they’re coming from. Generally, things are similar:
- A plucky underdog (Willow) who spends his days toiling on the farm but dreams of something more. He’s naturally gifted with the ability to harness a supernatural force.
- An elderly, bearded sage (High Aldwin) can also wield this force. He sends Willow on his quest to save the world.
- Willow gets another aged mentor (Fin Raziel) that helps him develop his gift. He has to travel a long distance to find this new teacher.
- He stumbles across the key (Elora Danan) to stopping the forces of evil.
- He’s accompanied by 2 guys (the Brownies) who provide comic relief. One of them is bossy towards the other.
- He meets a scoundrel and outlaw anti-hero (Madmartigan), who at first is only about taking care of himself.
- There’s a princess (Sorsha) who starts off clashing with the scoundrel but later they fall in love.
- They’re chased by a warlord (General Kael) who wears a cape and hides his face behind a mask.
- There is a supreme leader (Queen Bavmorda) of the forces of evil who can also use this force and has an imperial title.
- Willow travels to the seat of the resistance, only to find it destroyed.
- The anti-hero reconnects with an old friend (Airk Thaughbaer).
- The resistance launches an attack to stop the supreme leader. There’s urgency or all will be lost.
- Victory comes ultimately through the hero.
But that can be said about a lot of movies. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces identified most of the above list as elements of the hero’s journey. Christopher Vogler expanded on this in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Basically, the hero’s journey consists of:
- The Ordinary World Where we first meet the soon-to-be hero. Willow is a Nelwyn farmer and a family man who wants to become a sorcerer.
- A Call to Adventure The inciting incident that disrupts the hero’s world. Willow finds Elora floating in the river. She’s a Daikini child who needs to be returned to her people.
- Refusal of the Call The reluctant hero tries to ignore the Call to Adventure. After a Nockmaar hound attacks the village, there’s an urgency to returning the baby. Willow just wants to stay home and be safe.
- The Mentor The archetypal wise old man (who need not be old or a man) opens the hero’s eyes (and often bestows a talisman). The High Aldwin selects Willow for the quest and bestows 3 magic acorns.
- Crossing the Threshold The hero answers the call and leaves his Ordinary World. Willow agrees to go and leaves with the group. He stays with it even after most of the rest are scared off.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies Following the tradition of storytelling, get the hero in a tree and then start throwing rocks. Willow comes across Madmartigan. Elora is snatched by Brownies. Elora is rescued. Willow encounters Madmartigan again. Sorcha catches them. Madmartigan rescues them and takes Sorcha prisoner. Brownie dust leads to love. Sorcha defects but Elora is captured.
- The Inmost Cave After overcoming a variety of obstacles, the hero nears the center of evil. Willow follows Elora to Bavmorda’s castle. Bavmorda turns everyone with him into pigs. Willow turns Fin Raziel back into a human.
- The Supreme Ordeal The hero faces, fights, and defeats evil. Sorcha, Fin Raziel and Willow interrupt Bavmorda’s ritual. After besting the magic of Fin Raziel, Bavmorda turns to fight Willow, but he sends Elora out of Bavmorda’s reach. She ends up being the victim of her own ritual and disappears.
- The Hero’s Prize The hero receives what is necessary to restore balance in the Ordinary World. Madmartigan and Sorcha choose to raise Elora. Willow is given a book to help him with his magic.
- The Road Back The hero returns home.
- Return with the Elixir Thanks to the hero’s efforts, the world is saved.
The above compiled list is courtesy of A/V A to Z: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Media, Entertainment and Other Audiovisual Terms.
Looking at the list, it could be said to apply to a lot of stories. But then, again, Epic/High Fantasy has all these elements. Heroes are called on an adventure which takes them out of their element. They have to interact with strange new peoples and cultures. They meet helpers and adversaries. They undergo trials. There are elements of the supernatural.
So where does that leave us? Is Willow nothing but a Star Wars retread? Let’s try comparing other Epic/High Fantasy films to the list:
* You might think Aragorn is a stretch, but Aragorn had lived for years as a Ranger of the North. Rather than claiming his place as the King of Gondor and Arnor, he served in the armies of the King of Rohan and the Steward of Gondor. Yes, he was probably always noble, but prior to the quest to destroy the ring, he seemed more content to live free of the weight and obligation of kingship.
Here’s 3 more:
So what do you think? Is Willow just a Star Wars retread? Or is it just one in a long line of stories that chronicle a hero’s journey?
Other Willow-Related Links:
AV Club Review – Ron Howard’s Willow is still raucous and ridiculous 27 years later
Review by Jonathan Rosenbaum – May the Formula Be with You – with a little politics thrown in
Deconstructing Willow – How ‘Willow’ is greatly similar to ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ moreso than ‘Star Wars.’
Forgotten Friday Flick review by Jason Coleman
John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV – highlights multiple influences on the film
What happened to the third acorn? – Warwick Davis answers the Willow question that’s been bothering us for 25 years
Not Coming to a Theater Near You review by Katherine Follett
The Hollywood Reporter – Revisiting George Lucas’ Forgotten Epic ‘Willow’
Ron Howard Says “Never Say Never” Regarding ‘Willow 2’
Common Sense Media says that Willow is appropriate for kids 8 and up
Metal Floss trivia about the movie: “11 Magical Facts”
Fast Rewind.com review
Birth. Movies. Death – “Why wasn’t Willow a bigger hit?”
Dennis Muren interview in The Telegraph: How Willow changed the movies
Cinemaphile.org review by David Keyes
Apercu’s Blog review