Looking back at WILLOW

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Matt Donabie revisits the 1988 fantasy epic, Willow.


George Lucas conceived the idea for Willow way back in 1972, ten years later he shared the concept with Warwick Davis on the set of Return of the Jedi, talking to him about the title role. It would be another 3 years until Lucas approached Ron Howard to direct, and a further 2 years and 7 drafts of screenplay development by Bob Dolman before the movie was ready to go before the cameras.

The story features that unmistakable Lucas touch, and Howard's on screen vision adds his own distinctive magic. They are both masters of movie making, both possessing that innate ability of being able to tap into the humanity of any given story - take as example Lucas' early work with American Graffiti and even THX-1138, and Howard's Parenthood, Night Shift and Apollo 13. They both know exactly how to convey a story to their audience. It's the difference between being a true filmmaker, and just someone to whom an opportunity is handed who simply hasn't the insight or sense of human nature to know what to do with it.


The story of Willow is set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...perhaps. A baby comes into the care of the elvish Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and his wife, Kaiya (Julie Peters). This infant bears the birthmark of the one prophesied to come who will put an end to the tyrannical rule of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). But the Queen also knows of the prophecy and is seeking the baby bearing this telltale mark. For the sake of his village, as well as the safety of the child, it falls to Willow to transport the baby to a safe haven beyond the boundaries of his land and the reach of Queen Bavmorda. So Willow sets out upon his journey, and along the way finds an ally - maybe - in the person of the self-proclaimed `World's greatest swordsman,' Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), and together - sort of - they embark upon an adventure that will ultimately lead them to a final confrontation with the evil Queen herself.

It all sounds a little Lord of the Rings-ish, and in fact is often referred to as Lord of the Rings-lite. They do share similar themes, and even though Willow is not remembered as fondly as Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien, both of them were ground breaking movies in their own way.
Willow pioneered the 'morphing' technique that became so vital to the success of films like The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. However, Willow is decidedly not a special effects movie. Yes, the f/x do play a big part in the film, but at no time do they supersede the story. And because of that, Willow makes the necessary emotional connections with the characters possible. This takes the whole film to a higher level.


Warwick Davis does a very good job of bringing Willow to life, as does Val Kilmer in the flashier role of Madmartigan. Joanne Whalley is smoulderingly beautiful as Sorsha, daughter of the evil Queen, and Jean Marsh as her mother, Bavmorda, is deliciously sinister with a wickedness that is shamefully delightful.

Whilst rewatching this recently it struck me all over again just how much Julie Peters excels as Kaiya. It is only a supporting role, with extremely limited screen time, but she captures your attention with a sincere and affecting performance. Peters has such a pure and natural manner that it's hard to believe this is an actor playing a part, her ability is a true gift that endows her with a quality and a presence that would make her an asset to any film, as she certainly is here. I was quite stunned to discover that Willow is her only feature film (source- IMDB). It's a singular success, however, and one of which she can be proud.


Overall Willow is an entertaining, enlightening film, rich in characterization and metaphor. The movie has a subtle message and a moral that unobtrusively makes a statement about diversity and the value of an individual's contributions to the society of which he is a part. As well as successfully showing us that one person can, indeed, make a difference.


Upon release critics panned Willow for being unoriginal, but being original was never the point of this movie. The point was to entertain, to make us thrill to a tale of high adventure, a tale of dragons, of far away lands, of swords and sorcery. The point was to convey this adventure to the audience in the best possible fashion, and no other family fantasy film that went before it had ever done this so exceedingly well.

Willow is visually stunning. It is glorious to gaze upon (filmed in England, Wales and yes, New Zealand), and delivers a transporting experience, truly filled with magic. To this day, Willow really remains a journey definitely worth taking.
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