If you grew up in the 1980s, there’s probably a special place in your heart for Willow. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, it sadly wasn’t a huge hit when it was first released. So while Lucas originally planned it as the first part of a trilogy, this is the only Willow movie we ever got (although two novels continued the story).
Watching it now, it’s interesting to see how it is essentially a sword & sorcery version of Star Wars. Even in 1987 the comparisons were easy to make in 1987 – the wizened evil ruler of an empire with magical powers and her black-clad henchman, a young man called to a journey he isn’t sure he’s ready for, an aged mentor who teaches the hero the true path, a wise-cracking loner who has to learn the value of being part of something bigger than himself. However there are even more parallels now we’ve had the Star Wars prequels, not least a child with a prophecy hanging over them.
To be fair though, most of these ideas are taken from Joseph Campbell’s work on the classic hero story – something Lucas is known to be slightly obsessed with – so it’s little surprise there are similarities.
In the film, the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) has locked up all the pregnant women in her kingdom, fearful of a prophecy that a child will be born who could cause her downfall. However the prophesied child, Elora Danan, is saved and found on the banks of a river by the children of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), who’s a member of race of dwarf-like people called Nelwyns.
Willow dreams of being a sorcerer, but most of those who live in his village think he’s a joke. However when the High Aldwin (the wonderful Billy Barty) realises the baby Willow’s children have found is special, the unprepared young man is sent off on a quest to take child and give it to the first Daikini (average-sized person) he can find. This soon turns into an epic quest, with Willow being chosen as Elora’s guardian, teaming up with the self-centred warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and finding the sorceress Fin Raziel, who may be able to teach Willow the magic he yearns for.
They must reach Bavmorda’s stronghold, fending off the attacks of her daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), along the way.
Even after 25 years, Willow is still an immensely fun film, with plenty of magic, action and adventure. Admittedly some of it does look a little quaint, especially in the wake of Lord Of The Rings, but that’s more than forgivable. At the time it was made, Willow was at the forefront of special effects technology, much of which has aged pretty well. The film is famed for being the first use of computer morphing technology, used to transform Finn Raziel into various different creatures. Although CG has moved on enormously since then, it’s still a surprisingly effective sequence now. Indeed most of the effects still look pretty good, although it’s amazing looking at Willow’s stop-motion creatures and pre-digital SFX that only a few years later we’d have the likes of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
You might expect Blu-ray to show up the flaws in the monsters, magic and fantasy set design, but it actually enhances the fairly involved world Ron Howard and George Lucas created. There are occasional times when it highlights a shortcoming – such as an action-shot involving the aged Finn Raziel, which is obviously done by a stunt person in an old-lady mask – but most of the time it brings out the colour and visual fun of the movie. Sure it doesn’t look as epic as more recent, computer-enhanced fantasy, but it’s still a well created world that’s been given a good HD transfer (which was overseen by Lucasfilm).
Many of those who watched Willow when they were young will now have youngsters of their own. With some films, time (and indeed HD) results in the movie seeming less fun and any youngsters you show it to will probably be amazed that the aging film was once considered entertainment. However that’s not true of Willow, which still looks good and has a story full of heart that ensures it’s difficult not to get involved with. Today’s kids should enjoy it as much as those in the 80s did.
The special features on this 25th Anniversary Edition are a bit of a mixed bad though. There are only a couple of new things, while some old stuff is made to look new with fresh introductions. For example, ‘The Making of an Adventure’ seems like it’s going to be new when a 2013 Ron Howard pops up at the beginning, but he’s just there to introduce a 1987 documentary on the making of the movie. Likewise special effects legend Dennis Muren provides a new into for a 2001 featurette about the computer morphing technology used in Willow. While the new intros do feel slightly like we’re being cheated into thinking we’re getting something new when we’re not, luckily the content of these features is good.
As mentioned there is some new content though, including a selection of deleted scenes along with intros from Ron Howard. They’re pretty interesting, and include an entire subplot involving Sorsha’s father, which was dropped even though it involved excising moments from throughout the movie. There’s also ‘Willow: An Unlikely Hero’ which sees Warwick Davis talking about the making of the film and introducing some behind-the-scenes footage he personally shot on the set (using a video camera he bought with money he earned on Return Of The Jedi). It’s very interesting, as well as being a reminder Davis was just 18 when he filmed the movie.
Overall Verdict: While it is essentially Star Wars meets Lord Of The Rings, that’s not a bad thing, as Willow is an entertaining fantasy film that’s aged well despite its relative lack of modern digital effects. And with an HD upgrade it’s looking better than it has in a long time.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac