One of the many residual effects of the massive success of the Star Wars trilogy was the boom of fantasy films that arrived in theaters in the mid-1980s. Movies such as Legend, Masters of the Universe, The NeverEnding Story, The Princess Bride, and others were all released within the span of a couple of years, and each to some degree featured sprawling sets, evocative atmospheres, and extensive use of prosthetics and puppets. These elements were staples of George Lucas’s storytelling, a quality that proved to be a strong companion to the Star Wars films’ grand visual and narrative design. It wasn’t long after the trilogy had wrapped that even Lucas himself had dipped into the bankable commercial lore of fantasy moviemaking when he produced Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. His own contribution to the subgenre followed two years later at a time when fantasy appeared on the decline. With an original story by Lucas, Willow was met with widespread ambivalence upon its release. Retrospectively, however, the film’s graceless hybrid of Star Wars-style mythmaking and leftovers from the short-lived fantasy period in commercial cinema that Lucas inspired offers a pointed reflection and portrait of the filmmaker that has grown more compelling as the full trajectory of Lucas’s career has emerged in view.
Of course, Lucas didn’t direct Willow (we’ll get to that later), but the film bears his authorial stamp almost immediately at the outset. In fact, you don’t even need to see the trademark Lucasfilm logo to sense the filmmaker’s touch. The setting and storytelling influences may diverge from those of Star Wars, but the same propensity for merging age-old legends is evident. Instead of drawing from Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, Lucas and screenwriter Bob Dolman fold elements of the Grimm brothers and J.R.R. Tolkien into a nakedly bibilical framework. Take the prologue: Willow opens on the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), who orders the slaughter of all newborns for fear of a prophecy predicting the usurping of her power. But the blatant bibilical allusion doesn’t end there. Lucas and Dolman also add a dash of Moses for good measure, when a baby born in secret is placed into a basket and floated down a river. Then, after the baby is discovered by Hobbit-esque folk called Nelwyns, Willow shifts into Star Wars mode, slowing down to allow the larger world to develop.
wThe structural resemblances to Star Wars thicken as the plot develops, particularly in the department of character dynamics. For example, after the title character (Warwick Davis) resigns himself to protecting the baby, he meets the wise-cracking Han Solo-esque Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a man who proves his value in a fight, but whose loyalties are in question. Other Star Wars touches abound, from the sidekick duo (half of which is played by a young Kevin Pollak) standing in for C-3P0 and R2-D2 to the sub-villain General Kael (i.e., Darth Skeletor), who inexplicably dons a black cape and skull mask while marching around looking intimidating despite not accomplishing much of anything. (To be fair though, Darth Vader didn’t do very much in the original Star Wars either.)
All of this would otherwise be acceptable if Willow carried off a modicum of Star Wars’s charms. Outside of the earnest and grounding turn by Davis, however, the characters and accompanying performances are uniformly maladroit, particularly Kilmer’s bumbling warrior. Beyond the scope of characterization, the film exhibits a nearly complete absence of rhythm, both within individual scenes and as a whole. That grating quality comes courtesy of director Ron Howard, who has an eye for elegant visuals, but lacks the sense of movement and pacing from shot to shot and scene to scene that’s so integral to allowing a story as absurd as this to dig in and embed itself on the imagination.
The film is better off working from the straight fantasy mode rather than emulating Star Wars. It showcases technical bravura in the form of meticulously crafted special effects (such as the two-headed dragon that appears during the film’s high point) and a lush James Horner score. Willow is also notable for its charming early scenes starring dozens of little people. But these highlights only underline the film’s fundamental faults. With each shapeless chase and action set piece that ensues, the sheer misjudgment of the attempt to fashion Star Wars in a new package becomes more obvious and aggressively overshadows Davis’s strong lead performance and the production polish of the fantasy elements.
Given the directorial deficiencies on display, it would be easy to pin Willow’s broader failures on Howard. But the real blame falls on Lucas, who was known for unmistakable attention to detail, but instead seemed satisfied offering up a shoddy replica of a proven formula in the most convenient narrative scenario. Willow spelled the end of a fad that Lucas helped initiate, and it was just the beginning of the public criticism that Lucas received in the years to follow. He has earned harsh criticism for selling out on good storytelling in place of toy sales and finding new ways to package his older works to maximize profits. Astute filmgoers claim evidence of these developments in Return of the Jedi, but a more apt summation of Lucas’s shifting priorities is Willow, a cold calculation of a film that isn’t so much a signal of a filmmaker’s waning touch as waning interest.
I don’t doubt that Lucas believes in his stories. His Star Wars prequel trilogy is, after all, an expensive display of a man cocooned from outside voices. But those films also conveyed the wistful sensibility of an artist trying almost desperately to rekindle the passion that enabled him to build a commercial empire that eventually detached him from that very passion. But if the prequel trilogy represents Lucas’s self-conscious attempt to recapture the days before he transitioned from artist to mogul, then Willow is the tragic statement of a mogul who had us all think that he was still an artist.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2.