1988, Bob Doleman, Children, claymation, dwarves, evil, fantasy, George Lucas, Jean Marsh, Joanne Whalley, Julie Peters, Kevin Pollak, landscape, magic, Patricia Hayes, Rick Overton, ron howard, Val Kilmer, Warwick Davis, Willow
Written by: Bob Doleman and George Lucas
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh, Patricia Hayes, Kevin Pollak, Rick Overton, Julie Peters
What is it about Willow that it has hung on to some amount of familiarity in the 20+ years since its release? The story, a simple journey/quest, is not all that unique or compelling. The characters and the environments, as is so often the case with one-off sci-fi or fantasy films, don’t really get a chance to fully form so they rely on tropes to fill in the blanks. The dialogue and the sentiment are as corny as any that has ever been involved with a George Lucas project. All of this should have amounted to a nice and forgettable film, one that faded from the cultural memory but Willow hasn’t. Before I discuss why I think that’s so, I’ll give a quick rundown of the film.
It has been foretold that a child will be born who will bring about the destruction of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). The Queen, obviously unfamiliar with Greek Tragedy, orders imprisonment of all pregnant women and the death of the child. When the child, Elora, is born and identified by the mark on her arm, the Queen arrives to kill her only to find a midwife has escaped with the child. Long story short, the child ends up in the care of a dwarf named Willow (Warwick Davis) who must stop the Queen and save the child’s life with the help of a thief (Val Kilmer), a good sorceress (Patricia Hayes) and two brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton). The story moves in mostly predictable strokes, with a few interesting action pieces mixed in and all drawn together by expansive and gorgeous landscape composition.
Such a plain story as this survives, I think, for one reason. The one thing that makes Willow stand out in a sea of derivative fantasy is the way it celebrates the “other.” The dwarves, known here as Nelwyns (or, derogatorily, Pecks) are an admirable and hardworking society, driven by their love for each other. Madmortigan, the thief, is given a chance by Willow and proves himself to be quite a brave warrior and is rewarded with love. Even the tiny brownies are given their time to shine. There is more to Willow than just rooting for an underdog. Underdogs can be, and usually are, beautiful in the standard way. I didn’t get it right away, but late in the film there is a scene in which the good sorceress Fin Raziel finally receives her human form again and director Ron Howard pauses a minute on her naked body for just an extra beat. Fin Raziel is an elderly woman, and it struck me as unusual that Howard would showcase her body in such a delicate way. This is a children’s film so this is gentle, not graphic, but still it stands out. In Willow Howard and Lucas are celebrating the small, the aged, and the forsaken, those that have been marginalized by society.
The result is a film with a larger-than-expected emotional core, despite its saccharine and sentimental pieces. We cheer for Willow as more than the hero of a children’s film; we want to see him succeed as a symbol of that which is non-traditional, a herald of cinema that does something special.