Thursday, December 1, 2022

Movie Review: WILLOW (1988)

On the 100th episode of the Blasters and Blades podcast, I briefly discussed the movie Willow with the hosts. I referred to the movie as being "before my time" (it turns out I was actually around four years old, but at that point I was mostly interested in cartoons), much to the slightly-older host's annoyance. At the time I had not seen it, but lo and behold some time later, the film podcast Myopia Movies added it to the Season Nine lineup. So not long after DragonCon 2022, I watched it for the podcast...

Here's the link to the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In a faraway land, a prophecy predicts that a child will be born who will overthrow the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsha). To that end, Bavmorda, imprisons all late-stage pregnant women and has their child inspected after birth to see if they bear the prophesied mark--and one day the newborn Elora Danan (twins Kate and Ruth Greenfield) does. A sympathetic midwife smuggles the child out and Bavmorda dispatches her grim General Kael (Pat Roach) and warlike daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) to pursue the child.

But the child falls into the hands of the farmer and family man Willow Ulfgood (Warwick Davis), who aspires to do magic. Assigned by the village elders to find a human to look after said child, Willow soon encounters the rogue Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and the transformed sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes). Soon they're all allies on a quest to overthrow Bavmorda, with some surprising twists and turns along the way.

The Good

*For starters, Willow and his kindred are a very specific fantasy race--they're gnomes. This is the first and so far only time I've seen gnomes in an actual film. For the scenes in the gnome village it looks like Lucasfilm hired every dwarf actor in Hollywood--every adult seems to have some form of dwarfism and there are a lot of them who can play musical instruments, fight with weapons, etc. The only ordinary-sized people seem to be the children. This is a good thing on multiple levels--it's more authentic and real-looking and it provides employment for people who often live rather difficult lives. And their characterizations are varied--the gnome village has an obnoxious moneylender who covets Willow's land, there are full-time soldiers (who are actually fairly skilled--on Twitter I called them "the littlest pikemen"), and even a wizard. We even see their form of government--they seem to have a town council and direct democracy on certain major issues. These aren't a bunch of circus performers, but an actual complex society.

*Also, this is a world where there are non-human fantasy races in addition to ordinary people. In a world of only Homo sapiens sapiens who often look different, practice different religions, etc. we're often bigoted enough toward each other. Willow and the other gnomes get repeatedly referred to as "pecks" (a reference to a unit of measurement, approximately 12-14 pounds) even by people who are supposed to be heroic. It's a major sign of a character's moral growth that this person starts referring to them by how they call themselves (Nalwyn) rather than "peck."

*The film also has a good cast. I liked all three of the main trio--Davis, Kilmer, and Whalley.

*The movie is fast-moving and entertaining, albeit a bit on the cheesy side.

The Bad

*Unfortunately, I can kind of tell where the filmmakers are getting a lot of their inspiration from. Willow and his friend Meegosh, after being captured by the brownies, are sent on a quest to protect Elora by some kind of forest sorceress whom I refer to on Twitter as Galadriel's "non-union Mexican equivalent." Apparently the novelization explains more--including her relationship to Fin Raziel and Bavmorda--but I shouldn't have to refer to the novelization, deleted scenes, etc. for a movie to make sense. According to the novelization she was a senior sorceress (and also a forest fairy of some kind) mentoring Raziel and Bavmorda, the latter of whom went bad. In the film it's not even clear if she's human or some kind of elf, fairy, etc. Hence "Galaldriel's non-union Mexican equivalent." Making her human--and perhaps involved in the military resistance against Bavmorda we see elsewhere in the film--would be more original, but again, it's not in the film.

*Per the above, there's a lot of missing material that's included in the novelization, earlier drafts of the script, comic books, etc. that would have helped the movie make a lot more sense. For example, Bavmorda believes that even if she killed baby Elora, she'd be reborn in a new body and the prophecy would kick back in. Hence the elaborate ritual to banish Elora's soul to another dimension and/or destroy it completely so that never happens rather than simply murdering her at first chance. There's also a character's defection that has a lot more back-story in the extended universe, but in the actual movie it seems like they're mostly doing it out of love (or at least lust) for one of the good guys.

(I suggested in the podcast the movie could be a bit longer to fix these issues, but Nic cited the example of his own child getting bored later in the movie to point out this risks losing the attention of the primary audience. The deleted scenes pertaining to the defector character--beware spoilers--don't add many minutes to the film, although the last bit involving a character conscious while imprisoned in a crystal is so ridiculous and cheap-looking. A few bits of dialogue here and there would be fine, but lots and lots of new scenes, not so much. I still think it'd be doable, although we're about 34 years too late. If you want an alternative take that's not overly elaborate, check out this fan-fic here. Spoilers beware.)

The Verdict

Not perfect, but a fun and entertaining fantasy film. Also a means of teaching good values to the target audience (kids) without being preachy and annoying to adults. 8.5 out of 10.

And while you're at it, check out my novella Little People, Big Guns. Although it on the surface it looks rather tacky and exploitative, my intention was to get into the real life issues little people face--people ignoring them because they can't see them, problems functioning in a world designed for people much larger than themselves, health difficulties, bullying by bigger people, and even weird fetishization. Davis actually runs an acting agency that started out representing his coworkers with dwarfism and later included those who were unusually tall.

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