The UnPopular Opinion: Willow

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!


George Lucas has gotten a bum rap over the years. Despite being the genius who ushered STAR WARS into our world, Lucas has not had such luck with any projects since the saga began. Hell, Lucas barely got through the release of the STAR WARS prequels and decided to give up the movie business entirely because of bitchy fanboys on the Internet. Still, there are positive elements to each of his successive projects after STAR WARS, including the nostalgia surrounding HOWARD THE DUCK and the epic WILLOW. No film has stood the test of time quite as well as WILLOW which deserved to become a monumental franchise and yet fizzled at the box office with barely any recognition. Decades before Peter Jackson was able to bring THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the big screen, WILLOW was the benchmark for high fantasy epics and remains an enjoyable blockbuster to this day. Made for less than $50 million dollars, WILLOW has long been considered a cult favorite but deserves to be looked at as so much more. WILLOW has long been called insipid, predictable, shallow, and many more negative names while being considered no better than a children's flm. Some have even compared it to a weak adaptation of STAR WARS itself. Like STAR WARS, WILLOW is culled from a long history of rich fantasy tales and ranks as one of the best of all time.

KRULL, DRAGONSLAYER, LEGEND, and LABYRINTH. These four films preceded the release of WILLOW and were all met with negative reviews and poor box office. Since then, each of those films has become a cult favorite of fans and recognized for aesthetics and more. WILLOW was developed by George Lucas in the years following RETURN OF THE JEDI as he felt there was something missing from the fantasy genre. Partnering with director Ron Howard in the hopes of making WILLOW the equivalent of Lucas' partnership with Steven Spielberg on INDIANA JONES, the duo created a film that clicked with audiences, just not a wide enough population of them. Still, when you revisit WILLOW, now approaching it's 30th anniversary, you find that the film is not derivative but rather a worthy addition to the STAR WARS legacy. From the perfect score by James Horner to the cinematography by Adrian Biddle (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), WILLOW looks like a film that cost a hundred million dollars.

Willow, The UnPopular Opinion, Drama, Fantasy, Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Ron Howard, George Lucas

Let's start with the chief complaint about WILLOW: that it is a mish-mash of classic fairy tales and legends. Well, of course it is! Like STAR WARS, WILLOW is inspired and based on a massive library of stories that come together to create a new story. I would not go so far as to call WILLOW a Cliff's Notes version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but it has all of the high level elements of that story. You have the warrior who is masquerading as someone lesser, the halfing who is destined to save everyone, the wizard with the white hair, the evil sorceror, the female archer, the magical creatures, a dragon and the prophecy that destines them all to cross paths. Whereas THE LORD OF THE RINGS spanned six films and over twenty-four hours to tell that story, WILLOW is able to condense the highlights into a rip-roaring, fast-paced two hour journey. Many have criticized the film for having uneven pacing and a lackluster story arc, but this is a film where the dearth of supporting characters exist solely to advance the story of Willow Ufgood. As cool as Madmartigan is and as much as I wanted to learn the backstory for characters like Raziel and even the skull-faced General Kael, this is a showcase for Warwick Davis. Long a player in Lucas' STAR WARS saga and later the star of the LEPRECHAUN franchise, Davis shines in every scene he is in.

Unlike casting actors and then digitally changing them into Hobbits, WILLOW has a huge cast of actual actors who are diminutive in stature. This lends an authenticity to the film. Even while they may not be all the best actors out there, it makes WILLOW feel more tangible in a world full of fantastical creations. What WILLOW accomplishes as an overall production was quite astounding for 1988. I remember, as a seven-year old, seeing WILLOW in the theater and wanting to learn more about this realm. I wanted to know the massive tapestry of backstories and sequel tales but none ever came. Now, nostalgia plays a big part in the films we love as children, so I felt compelled to revisit WILLOW for this column. I have seen the movie dozens of times over the decades, but my most recent viewing cemented how wrong critics and audiences were to dismiss this movie upon release. Films that rely heavily on special effects don't always age well but this movie stands the test of time. WILLOW was a landmark film in the use of morphing technology by Industrial Light & Magic. While you can still see the use of green screen and some obvious effects layering on screen, the overall film feels as realistic and any movie of the era.

Willow, The UnPopular Opinion, Drama, Fantasy, Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Ron Howard, George Lucas

Joanne Whalley and Val Kilmer, who would marry in real life, had some damn good chemistry as Sorscha and Madmartigan. Hell, this may be Val Kilmer's best performance of his career. Madmartigan is clearly a cross between Aragorn's bravery and Han Solo's brash rogue. Kilmer carries every scene he is in with a combination of confidence and humor that makes stars out of actors. Kilmer also has great chemistry with Warwick Davis as the mismatched friends. If Kilmer is the Han Solo of this film, Davis is clearly the Luke Skywalker. There is not a wasted scene featuring these characters. If I have any complaints, it is that we do not get nearly enough of them. George Lucas, knowing that there were waning chances for a WILLOW theatrical sequel, developed the story for a trilogy of novels that followed the life of the infant Elora Danan as she leads her people in a war as a teenager. I held out hope for a long time that those novels would spark a film sequel but it never happened. Still, the books (written by X-Men legend Chris Claremont) are representative of just how amazing this world can be.

But, I can wax nostalgiac about this film as much as I want. As I said before, there is one element of WILLOW that makes it an instant classic: James Horner's score. Few scores are as immortally beloved as this one. It is sweeping and stirring and will make you feel swept up in adventure the moment you hear it. I, personally, find the score for WILLOW to be superior to that of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. WILLOW is also the reason why I was so confident when Ron Howard was attached to direct THE DARK TOWER. That film, while still one of my most anticipated movies of the year, feels like it is lacking the high fantasy elements of the novels that I was expecting to see. The use of physical locations and limited green screen in WILLOW is proof positive of what Ron Howard can do when engaged in a sweeping cinematic epic. Like I said before, very ltitle feels artificial in this film which goes a long way to standing the test of time.

Willow, The UnPopular Opinion, Drama, Fantasy, Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Ron Howard, George Lucas

Watching WILLOW 29 years after seeing it on the big screen, you know what I noticed? When Madmartigan is released from his cell and is handed Elora Danan, you can clearly see the baby is a doll. I also noticed that when they are racing down the mountainside on a sled, Willow is clearly a mannequin. You know what? Neither bothered me. The action and humor is still intact and even the brownies fit seamlessly in the movie as if they were really there. WILLOW is not some nostalgaic product of the 1980s that I cling to since it stuck with me as an impressionable young kid. Rather, WILLOW is a damn fun film and one that stands the test of time better than LABYRINTH, KRULL, or DRAGONSLAYER. In fact, WILLOW has some effects that hold up better than the recently released HOBBIT trilogy. WILLOW is a film that should be watched by anyone who loves the grand journeys of epic studio entertainment and anyone who just enjoys a great tiime at the movies.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected], spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!
Source: JoBlo.com



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