Ron Howard’s Willow

Today I watched Ron Howard’s Willow (1988)

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In a fantastical time of warriors and sorcery, the great wizard queen Bavmorda rules with an iron fist.  But there is a prophecy that states that a baby girl with a special birthmark will herald her downfall, so she imprisons all the pregnant women and kills their babies.  Prophecies are pretty hard to defeat though and the babe is stolen by a midwife before being sent down a river in a basket to escape the queen’s hounds.  The baby, named Elora Danan, washes up on the riverbank near the farm of a kindly Nelwyn named Willow Ufgood.  Nelwyn’s are this film’s version of the Hobbit and Willow wants nothing more than to be taken as an apprentice by the town’s local mage, but has failed numerous times to meet his expectations.  With the baby comes the savage hounds of Bavmorda and the town decides that they need to get rid of the baby since it brings danger to their town.  Willow ends up being volunteered for this task but the undertaking becomes a true quest as Willow becomes involved in the prophecy, along the way meeting cunning swordsman Madmartigan, a pair of brownies, and a goodly sorceress who was turned into a rodent.

Willow is one of the notable highlights of the Eighties fantasy craze, and is among the most widely known titles in that canon along with Conan the Barbarian.  Being at the tail end of this movement, Willow is blessed with some incredible special effects, pioneering some digital morphing effects that still look really cool today.  The film just has a great look all around with some great costumes, sets, and monster designs.  It creates that lived in world that was popularized by Star Wars without presenting the entire world as a ruin, which is an odd thing many other fantasy films of the time did.  Unfortunately I think the director was too focused on the effects and subsequently the human performances suffer somewhat.

I don’t think the acting here is entirely bad, but it seems that the best acting moments were brought by the actor, not coaxed out of them by the director.  To highlight this, Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Madmartigan, in which he just plays it like modern Val Kilmer, not some fantasy rogue.  There are definitely many moments which benefit from Kilmer’s natural charisma and is certainly not phoning it in, but then there are just so many moments where his modern mannerisms seem incongruous with the rest of the world.  Warwick Davis, who plays our titular hero, is also a little inconsistent in his performance.  Davis just seems to be inconsistent in terms of being motivated from scene to scene, but when he is on point, he delivers and the film would most certainly be less without him.  I think the only two performances that are 100% solid would be Jean Marsh as Bavmorda, and Patricia Hayes as the transmogrified sorceress Fin Raziel.  The two of them chew an incredible amount of scenery but are both total badasses in the classic wizard sense, Hayes also has to do a bunch of animal voices throughout the film, which she does with gusto.

Actually now that I think of it, Ron Howard did put a lot of energy towards one performance, and that is the baby’s.  They must have taken so much footage of the baby actors to get all the perfect facial expressions, the effort there shows.  And all in all the rest of the actors are totally good enough to drive the largely visual story.  This film is an entertaining roller coaster of adventure that climaxes with two old ladies punching the tar out of each other, which is both odd and pretty darn cool if you ask me.  Willow may have seemed rather paint by numbers at the time of it’s release, but time has shown it’s unique qualities as a film that goes further into the disturbing violence than most fantasy aimed at families, but brings in all the humour of said family film.  It’s a movie for young adventure hounds who will not balk at a hairy troll being turned into a giant testicle which then continues transforming into some kind of two headed dragon abomination.  4/5

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