Fox // 1988 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 13th, 2013
"I serve the Nelwyn."
Magic acorns, diabolical skull-faced villainy, and full-body porcine transformations...now in glorious high-definition!
Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh, The Changeling) has a vision. One day, all that she surveys from the comfort of her mildewy black tower will live under a veil of fear from her fearsome Nockmaar army. One snag: there's a prophecy out there that a child will bring about her downfall. So she does what any megalomaniacal she-witch would do; round up all the local pregnant women, grab the chosen one in infant form, and perform an excruciatingly complex ritual to banish the child's soul to the netherworld.
But an act of kindness by a wet nurse springs free the child, who through a series of Moses-like events ends up in the arms of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, Life's Too Short), a spunky diminutive farmer. When Bavmorda's reach finds Willow and his bucolic village, he is thrust into an adventure that will have him rowing a boat in a storm, throwing magic acorns at 2x4s, enjoying the toboggan ride of his life, and suffering incessant verbal abuse at the hands of an elderly woman masquerading as a goat.
Through my ten year-old eyes, I can still see the trailer, a raucous amalgam of swordplay, sledding, and a bad guy who may or may not have a skull for a face. And then the stinger: a shot of a dragon roaring down at me, its jaws wide open.
"Dad, we have to go see this movie!"
And we did. Me and my father, hunkered down in the Paris Theater in New Hartford, New York, with James Horner's score thundering and Willow blowing my mind, forever guaranteeing itself a spot atop my Favorite Movies of All Time.
As a kid who kept primarily to what the MPAA recommended, I found Ron Howard's fantasy opus a complete revelation. Sure it's easy for me to sit here and point to all the references -- Biblical, Tolkien, and otherwise -- George Lucas leaned on to bring his sword and sorcery project to life, but at the time Willow electrified me. If you were to brainstorm a checklist of totally awesome stuff that would appeal to a ten-year-old-boy and turned it into a movie, that movie would be Willow.
A two-headed dragon that breathes fire.
A bitching wagon chase.
Troll poop jokes.
A cauldron full of hot oil dumped on a group of bad guys.
I'm not afraid to admit that this formative experience with my dad has governed much of my adoration for Willow. But, come on, this movie is sort of great, isn't it? What I especially love is how it evolves as a viewing experience. Following a fairly grim opener, where we learn of Bavmorda's forced birthing prison and later see a kindly nursemaid get mauled by those demon dogs, things get pretty light. Willow jams a flaming stick through his arm, engages a heated agrarian dispute with Burglekutt, indulges in some Gulliver's Travels cosplay, goes on an exciting wagon ride with an escaped felon in drag, and gets kissed on the nose by a fairy.
What magical PG-rated fun!
Then the final third of the film kicks in and all hell breaks loose. Madmartigan (Val Kilmer, The Saint) -- the Alpha male against whom I have always measured myself -- sets up a series of lethal booby traps in an abandoned castle and slaughters a legion of Nockmaar soldiers single-handedly, and does it so effectively he seduces Sorsha (Whalley) even though he fans on an attempt to kick a bad guy in his face while she watches. He follows that up with a flying body press from a catapult launch on top of an unsuspecting troll and, then -- for no other reason than to ensure Sorsha never again thinks of another man's groin -- he causes a dragon's head to explode, even though it was actively helping his cause by devouring his enemies. Things get even darker in the finale, where the PG rating is aggressively pushed in the face by slitted throats, Nockmaar soldiers scalded with burning oil, numerous spear impalements, and the mother of all Final Bad Guy fights. This single sequence sparked my evergreen love for action films, with a timeless bout where Madmartigan turns General Kael into a pin cushion. I remember some rumor that the up-close shot of Kael taking a sword in the belly was deemed too intense for some dainty little Euro country and was excised in the cut, but I failed to find any corroboration during my research, so I'll assume it was true.
All this to say...well, I'm not quite sure anymore. As I wrote all that, I got James Horner's "Wagon Chase" theme stuck in my head and flashed back to those days gone by, when my brother and I, armed with cardboard swords and Styrofoam shields, would march into the woods across from our house and hold the line against the rampaging troll hordes until the last of the daylight burned away.
Willow (Blu-ray) is a magnificent release, packing a wallop on both ends of the A/V spectrum. The sparkling 2.40:1/1080p transfer (AVC-encoded @29MBPS) is a treat, with lots to feast your eyes upon, from the wildly different milieus to the controlled havoc, exactly what I hoped for in a HD picture. The only demerit: a few of the archaic visual effects are betrayed by the enhanced resolution, specifically any scenes involving the Brownies. For sound, we get a rich DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, clean, sweeping, and a proper servant of Horner's classic score.
As for extras, the bad news first: no commentary. Big missed opportunity. The good news? The new stuff is awesome. Ron Howard intros a vintage making-of documentary and Warwick Davis offers a ten-minute guided tour of some video footage he shot on-set. Fun insights everywhere, but the jewel is the deleted scene package, contextualized by Howard. We get three robust sequences, all of which were excised for good reason (if that "Fish Boy" segment had remained, I would have remembered Willow primarily for a year's worth of shrieking nightmares), but nonetheless transfixing. Watching this long-lost footage is like leafing through the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time. Rounding out the package, a recycled featurette with a new intro about the proto-CGI morphing sequence, and a gallery of matte paintings used in the film. In related news, you know what's great? Matte paintings. Just kidding.
My parents did a pretty good job raising me, but Willow made me the man I am today. And I'm awesome.
At long last, Not Guilty!
Review content copyright © 2013 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 6.0 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Image Gallery
* DVD Copy