George Lucas likes to mix things up. His most well-known brainchild, the incredibly successful Star Wars trilogy is essentially a spaghetti western, samurai story set in space. With Willow, he brings things down to earth to a familiar swords and sorcery setting. However that doesn’t mean he doesn’t stir a few extra things into the mixing pot. In Willow, producer Lucas and director Ron Howard bring together elements from The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings and even The Bible to bring us an epic tale of a little guy battling against the system.
Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davies) belongs to the Nelwyn community, a race of peaceful little people who live in the fields and forests; who fear adventure and are highly superstitious. One day, his two children find a Daikini (tall-folk) baby floating down the river, and although Willow at first resents the child he eventually comes to care for it. However when two monstrous dogs tear apart the village looking for the baby, the council decide that Willow must leave the village and give the baby to the first Daikini he sees. Unfortunately the first Daikini Willow finds is the rogue Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) who has been imprisoned in a crow cage and left to starve; clearly no fit guardian for a baby.
Willow doubts his abilities to protect the child, until the forest faerie-queen Cherlindrea tells him that the child has chosen him to be her guardian. It is revealed that the baby is the prophesised Elora Danan, destined to defeat the evil sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) who is terrorising the country. Willow is thus embroiled in a quest to keep the baby safe from the clutches of Bavmorda, her daughter and an evil General. Along the way he is helped by good sorceress, two mischievous brownies and Madmartigan himself, who eventually comes round.
The parallels are obvious: the baby floating down the river is a clear reference to the baby Moses in his basket made of reeds; the little man tasked with carrying something precious across the big, bad world is a nod to Frodo and the One Ring; and there are also parallels between Aragon and Madmartigan who start out as hunky but indifferent outcasts before becoming kings. Its familiar territory but the Howard/Lucas team bring it all together with such aplomb that it’s impossible not to get carried away with the adventure which sweeps from woodland villages, to ice-capped mountains and finally to Bavmorda’s fortress.
Kilmer has never been so charismatic or lovable as the insatiable Madmartigan who is as bigger fool as he is a great swordsman. The love story between he and Sorsha is a highlight due to their sexually-charged wordplay, which is considerably more exciting than the often monotonous swordplay. Sorsha asks, ˜what are you looking at?’ to which Madmartigan replies, ˜Your leg. I’d like to break it.’ It is lines such as this which display the on-screen chemistry which led to their off-screen marriage and perhaps a little of the dangerous heat which lead to their subsequent divorce (also off-screen.)
While they were impressive for their time, the special effects snap you out of the story and take away time which could have been spent on more character development. What are Madmartigan and Sorsha’s backstories? And how has Bavmorda managed to conquer half the realm? The filmmakers eschew these details in favour of lengthy slapstick fight scenes which turn the characters into parodies of themselves. It is this small but noticeable lack which separates Willow from the truly exceptional fantasy films.