Our review of Willow (Blu-ray), published March 13th, 2013, is also available.
Good things come in small packages.
In the mid 1980s there was a boom in old time sword and sorcery tales, including such fare as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan The Barbarian and the cheesy Marc Singer flick The Beastmaster. While on his very long hiatus between Return Of The Jedi and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas gave out the story of Willow for production (as well as executive producing the film). Also during this time period came Howard The Duck, but that's a different and altogether much more frightening tale. Willow also marked one of Ron Howard's early directorial efforts, before he hit it big with films like Apollo 13 and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I've read on the Internet that fans have been eagerly awaiting Willow on DVD, and it's finally here care of Fox Home Entertainment!
Facts of the Case
Willow tells the story of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, Leprechaun), a "little person" in charge of a baby who bears the mark of the one who is to bring about a foretold prophecy. Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) is a snotty little ruler who is in dire straits of being overthrown by this baby that bears the mark, for this will mean her demise. A quick thinking midwife sends the marked baby down river before Queen Bavmorda is able to get her hands on it.
While playing at a local river Willow Ufgood's children find the lil' cute bundle of joy washed up on land. After a meeting with the council, it's decreed that the child should be taken out of the village and given away. Willow and a few other villagers head off with the child. On the outskirts of the village Willow runs into Madmartigan (Val Kilmer, Top Secret!), a dashingly handsome and cunning swordsman who decides to help Willow on his quest.
Along the way the courageous men will battle trolls, soldiers and two-headed monstrosities…but will the be able to fulfill a prophecy facing Queen Bavmorda and her treacherous army?
There aren't a lot of "big" movies left from the 1980s that I haven't seen. I think that I've seen more movies from the decade of decadence than from any other decade of movie making. In fact, some of my favorite movies (including Re-Animator, Back To The Future, and Fletch) came from the '80s. When a certain DVD came for review, it was a gentile reminder that there was apparently one big film from the '80s that I yet to see: George Lucas and Ron Howard's epic sword and sorcery tale Willow.
Willow tries hard to find a balance between big budget action and cutesy kiddie fluff. There were elements of Willow that I really enjoyed, and elements of it that were cloyingly grating. Below is a list of what I liked and didn't like about Willow:
LIKED: The fanciful action sequences and mood. Many of the battle scenes were explosive and fun. Both Lucas and Howard outdid themselves with many of the breathtaking scenes.
DISLIKED: Two small elfish creatures called "Brownies" who seemed out of place in the film. During pivotal moments these two second rate Lewis and Martin rip-offs would bungle their way on screen and quip some wisecrack that would destroy the mood of the film (and the usually funny Kevin Pollack played one of them)!
LIKED: Val Kilmer's cocky and funny portrayal of Madmartigan. While I'm not a fan of most of Kilmer's films (Batman Forever solidified my distaste for him), I found his performance in Willow to be entertaining and humorous.
DISLIKED: The cheesiness of some dated special effects. Obvious blue screen shots and stop motion models are abundant, and while not horrible, they remind you that special effects have come a looooong way since Willow.
LIKED: Warwick Davis (who was only 18 years old at the time of filming!) and his band of merry dwarves in his village. Nothing entertains like seeing little people drinking, dancing, and being merry. Davis is a charismatic performer who has a genuinely likable screen presence.
DISLIKED: The characterization of Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), Queen Bavmorda's cruel and deceptive daughter. Halfway into the film, Sorsha has a change of heart with the sudden realization that she likes Madmartigan. After a quick kiss, she does a 180 from being a vindictive witch to a sweet, doe-eyed cutie. Say what?
LIKED: James Horner's John Williams-esque music score. The action theme will be very recognizable to many filmgoers (it's been used in countless theatrical trailers), and the score is a very fitting companion for the film.
And so on, and so on. As you can tell, I had mixed feelings about Willow. There were countless times in the film where I was sucked in, then spit back out. The production values for Willow are exceptional; both Lucas and Howard have pumped a lot of cash into the film and much of it has ended up on the screen. I can see why over the years this film has grown on moviegoers. Many of the actors give excellent performances, and the film moves at a brisk pace without too many lulls (the exception being a somewhat slow start). However, I think that a good chunk of that production money might have been better spent on a few rewrites in the script. The storyline is hardly anything overly original or clever—a prophecy, a chosen one, a quest to defeat the evil queen. Been there, done that. In the end, Willow is really a great film for both adventure seekers and those with children. The violence is tame (at least tame by today's standards), and the moral of the story is mighty: no matter how small you are, there is no obstacle too big that you can't overcome it!
Willow is presented in THX certified 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Fox has done an excellent job on this title making sure that all aspects of the transfer are clean of any large defects or imperfections. A small amount of grain or dirt shows up, but it's never anything that will detract from the viewing. The colors, black levels, and flesh tones are all even and bright with edge enhancement kept to the bare minimum. While this may not be a perfect transfer, it is very, very good and worth checking out.
Audio is presented in a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that is also fairly impressive. Most of the dialogue comes from the center speaker, while effects and background noise often fill all the surrounding speakers. For a film that was released over 12 years ago I was very happy with this remix. Dialogue, effects, and music are all clear of any distortion or hiss. Also included on this disc is a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track in English and Spanish, as well as English subtitles.
It's a good thing that Fox made the decision to make Willow a special edition, or there would have been a stampede of angry '80s fans knocking at their doors. Starting off this special edition is a commentary track by actor Warwick Davis. Surprisingly, this track is very chatty and informative (seeing as Davis was only an actor in the film). The track is filled with all kinds of anecdotes and stories about the production, and Davis seems to be genuinely proud of his work in the movie.
Next up is a 20-minute promotional feature produced in 1988 titled "Willow: The Making of an Adventure." This featurette is much better than most of those cheesy promo features, and the interviews with Warwick Davis, George Lucas, Ron Howard, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, and the two annoying pixie guys (oh Mr. Pollack…what a horrible way to start your movie career) are insightful. Unfortunately, this feature is very worn with a bevy of scratches and dirt showing up during the proceedings. A more recent feature is the 24-minute "Willow: Morf To Morphing" which is a look back at the visual effects, focusing mostly on the (then) groundbreaking computer effects. Once again, interviews with Howard and Lucas are included, as well as with Industrial Light and Magic mastermind Dennis Muren and some of the ILM crew. While not quite as interesting as the first feature, this one is worth the time if only to see the first computer effects utilized in the movie (the forgettable Young Sherlock Holmes).
Finally there is an extensive photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills and pictures (around 50 of 'em), plus a very nice array of theatrical trailers and TV spots (including two teaser trailers and a theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen, and eight full frame TV spots).
Sometimes cute and cuddly, other times dark and brooding, Willow should appeal to those looking for a mix of action, humor, and the 1980s. While I don't think Willow is anywhere near the top ten best '80s flicks made, I do think it's worth seeing with the beautiful new transfer and nicely remixed soundtrack. The addition of some decent extra features makes Willow a must have for die-hard fans!
Willow is free to go…hey, if nothing else, it's leaps and bounds above Lucas' Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Actor Warwick Davis
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