At a brisk two hours, Ron Howard’s Willow condenses the schematic structure of the original Star Wars trilogy and then reupholsters it with Middle-earth environs and folklore, trading in George Lucas’s furiously creative and expansive elements of future technologies for the world of earthy, natural magic (Lucas, of course, is credited both for the story and as an executive producer). In for Luke Skywalker is the titular hero (Warwick Davis), a farmer and amateur wizard (read as Padawan) whose children lead him to a baby they found floating down the river. Naturally, the child is burdened by destiny, born the foretold destroyer of the evil Queen Bavmarda (Jean Marsh) and thus marked for death, likely to be doled out by her warrior daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley).
And so Willow finds himself the leader of a demimonde, tasked with protecting the child and returning her to a member of her race of Daikinis; the hesitant adventurer himself is of the race of dwarf-like Nelwyns. As the film pushes on, Willow is abandoned by his fellow Nelwyns and is joined by a small group of helpful strangers, including a Daikini outlaw name Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), two mouse-sized Brownies (Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton), and a powerful sorceress trapped in the body of a possum. The ramshackle community they form and the adventurous journey they set out on are expectedly classical in their conceits, derived primarily from Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, as well as from The Wizard of Oz, but Howard, working from Bob Dolman’s script, can hardly summon the majesty the material and its stew of influences demand.
Lucas’s main talent has always been his ability to create worlds and detail them with a plethora of diverse characters, landscapes, and interiors, but Howard doesn’t share this skill. He’s a director of intimate family moments, characters beset by historical circumstances, and though Willow finds himself similarly at the mercy of fate, the world around him feels constrictive and tightly navigated, even in moments of seeming failure and climactic turns. There’s no sense of journey because Willow and his crew never seem truly at the will of the wilderness they must battle before reaching Bavmarda. The small conflicts that arise on the way are calibrated to build up the film’s sense of humor or the romance between Madmartigan and Sorsha or the incremental advancement of Willow’s abilities. When Willow and his gathering end up at Bravda’s high castle, there’s no sense of earned destiny or foretold arrival because the film is engineered in such a way that their presence was clearly inevitable before Willow even walks on screen.
The cast is dutifully game and the Harryhausen-indebted special effects help give the film its faint pulse, but the film shows no joy in adventuring. One of the most prophetic and moving elements of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is the sense that a true journey changes you and thus changes what you want from existence and though Howard is obviously under no obligation to share that opinion, his overwhelming belief in the importance of family and the home, and the need to—and glory of—return, makes every moment spent away from his wife and kids feel burdensome. Plagued by pig-men, packs of wild warthog-rat-wolves, two-headed troll-leviathans, and some bad-ass with a skull helmet, the world of Willow, in all its fantastical vastness, advertises the fact that you not only can indeed go home again, but that it’s also the only thing worth doing with your life.
The settings and wardrobe of Willow are crucial to tolerating its faults, and Fox has smartly done their due diligence in highlighting these attributes. You can see the worked-in dirtiness of Madmartigan’s outfit and the texture in the fabric of Willow’s hand-woven threads, and the dark soil, verdant forestry, and pearl-white snow are atmospherically immersive. Black levels are nice and inky, and clarity is excellent. The audio is similarly excellent, with dialogue crisp and out front, but backed up forcefully in the back end with James Horner’s rousing score and ample, dense sound effects.
For those who really love Willow, this is about as good a gathering of extras as you’re likely to see short of a full-cast commentary. The deleted scenes with commentary from Ron Howard are entertaining and the director sounds enthusiastically engaged with the material. The three accompanying featurettes are distinct and interesting, focusing on the making of the film, the visual effects, and a production diary by Warwick Davis. One wishes there was more about the genesis of the film and Howard’s relationship with George Lucas, but otherwise these extras rightly cover the film’s most memorable aspects. A gallery of matte paintings used in the film is also included.
Ron Howard’s faux-Tolkienian epic of burdensome adventuring gets a royal treatment from Fox with an excellent A/V transfer and a solid bundle of extras.