“We need your help!” exclaims Willow Ufgood. Madmartigan sarcastically says, “My help? Why would you need my help? You’re a sorcerer.” Willow responds, “You’re a great warrior! And a swordsman! And you’re ten times bigger than I am, stupid!”
After a string of comedies (1982’s Night Shift, 1984’s Splash, 1986’s Gung Ho) and a sci-fi drama (1985’s Cocoon), director Ron Howard would embark on his first fantasy film, teaming up with executive producer George Lucas. While becoming only a modest hit, the film took a step forward in the evolution of special effects and has developed a cult status over the years. I never got to see Willow during its original theatrical release (too young); I finally saw it on the big screen three years ago at a midnight screening at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (a digitally remastered version to commemorate its 25th anniversary), and it was such a thrilling experience! This review of Willow is my entry in the Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Film Music Central.
1988’s Willow follows a Nelwyn farmer as he embarks on a quest to deliver a young baby girl, who is prophesized to end the rule of an evil queen, to a sorceress who can help her fulfill her destiny. Along the way they must avoid the evil queen’s army with the help of a disgraced warrior. Howard brought together a fine ensemble that includes Warwick Davis (as Willow Ufgood), Val Kilmer (as Madmartigan), Joanne Whalley (as Sorsha), Jean Marsh (as Queen Bavmorda), Patricia Hayes (as Fin Raziel), Billy Barty (as the High Aldwin), Pat Roach (as General Kael), Gavan O’Herlihy (as Airk Thaughbaer), Maria Holvöe (as Cherlindrea), Kevin Pollak (as Rool), Rick Overton (as Franjean), David J. Steinberg (as Meegosh), Mark Northover (as Burglekutt), Phil Fondacaro (as Vohnkar), Julie Peters (as Kaiya Ufgood), and Tony Cox (as a Nelwyn warrior). Davis gives a strong performance as Willow, an aspiring sorcerer and little person who is given a monumental task in a big world. Kilmer is dashing and daring as the rogue warrior Madmartigan. Whalley shines as the evil queen’s daughter who tries to make her mark in a society dominated by men. Marsh is delightfully wicked as the evil queen (a role she had to have gotten thanks to her performance as Princess Mombi in Walter Murch’s Return To Oz).
The screenplay by Bob Dolman (based on a story by Lucas) explores the hero’s journey and other mythological tropes (Lucas’ involvement with the story explains the film’s similarities to his own Star Wars). Adrian Biddle’s cinematography reflects the somewhat dark tone of the film, and Allan Cameron’s production design creates a unique world with many different types of locations (the kingdom of Tir Asleen is my favorite). The Oscar-nominated special effects by Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Michael J. McAlister, and Christopher Evans are incredible (especially the breakthrough use of digital morphing technology). Barbara Lane’s costume designs reflect the various cultures depicted, and Nick Dudman’s makeup design is first-rate (especially the creature effects). The Oscar-nominated sound design by Ben Burtt makes the film even more thrilling to listen to (especially the battles). The editing by David P. Hanley, Mike Hill, and Richard Hiscott moves the film at a good pace, ensuring it never becomes boring. James Horner delivers a thrilling, adventurous score filled with multiple motifs, including a memorable main theme. Howard’s Willow is a nice addition to the fantasy genre (although it’s much darker than you’d think) that has held up well for almost thirty years and has grown into a cult classic.