With Disney+’s new Willow series coming up on November 30th, we wanted to take a look back at one of our older columns. Please enjoy this freewheeling discussion of Ron Howard’s original movie and everything that makes it wonderful, as the inimitable Leigh Butler and her sisters revisited the film back in 2016 for the first entry in the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia, a series which ran until 2018.
When I told Liz and Kate that this would be our first nostalgia movie, their response immediately proved why I had chosen to do this project with them, for they both instantly turned to me and bellowed “WILLOWWWW! YOU IDEEOT!” in quavery goat voices, and this is why my sisters are the most awesome sisters evar.
Thus we settled down of an evening to rewatch this semi-classic staple of our childhood viewing habits, and see how it measured up all these years later.
[FYI, this post is rife with spoilers for the movie. You Have Been Forewarned.]
I use “semi-classic” advisedly, because one of the first surprises in deciding to use Willow as our first nostalgia film was how freakin’ hard it turned out to be to acquire (legally). It is available NOWHERE to stream. Netflix doesn’t have it on their DVD list, and neither does Redbox. And the only place I could find to buy it online that wasn’t a sketchy eBay bootlegger from Korea was for fifty-four dollars on Amazon. Fifty-four dollars! I mean, WTH. [Editor’s note: here in 2022, you can find the movie at Disney+ and other streaming services, because we live in the future now!]
So clearly the studio has not put a lot of effort into keeping Willow in circulation these days. This seems ridiculous to me, but in fact Willow was something of a disappointment, performance-wise, when it was released in 1988. It wasn’t a flop (in fact it was the 14th highest-grossing film of that year), but considering it was a Ron Howard film produced by George Lucas, starring Val Kilmer at the height of his popularity as a movie star, it had been expected to do a lot better than it had.
But this is probably at least partly due to the fact that high-concept, high-profile epic fantasy films were more or less an anomaly in the ’80s, at least in the States. It’s not like it was in the ’00s (the Oughts? The Aughts? I have no idea how to refer to that decade, weird), when everyone and their CGI dog was scrambling to get on board the Lord of the Rings gravy train. In the ’80s, making straight fantasy films was a huge risk, and it looks like the studio decided Willow had been a bad one.
Fortunately, though, I have awesome geeky friends, one of whom owned a copy of the DVD from back in the day, and graciously lent it to my nostalgic cause—even if she did almost give me a heart attack by giving it to me in a Phantom Menace DVD case. You’re hilarious, Bethany.
Anyway, I can officially declare that it is a crying shame the studio has/had so little faith in this film, because my sisters and I universally agreed that, technical issues aside, Willow holds up remarkably well as a movie, and I enjoyed it now just as much as I did back in the day.
There are technical issues, of course. Another sign of the studio’s disinterest in the movie is how shoddy the DVD transition was, especially with the sound. It might have been my set-up, but I’m pretty sure the alleged “5.1 Surround” setting on the DVD was kind of a big fat lie. I mean, unless the filmmakers intended the background birdsong (for example) to drown out all the dialogue, but I tend to think they didn’t.
Sister Liz in particular was indignant about this, because as she pointed out, the sound effects were some of the best (and most memorable) parts of the movie for us. And she’s right, though mostly my kid-self remembers the grosser ones, like when Val Kilmer’s character impales a dude on a serrated sword, or when Willow’s jacked-up magic peels all the skin off a troll. Right before it turns into a giant two-headed fire-breathing… thingy.
You know, like always.
(By the way, this movie was rated PG, presumably because there were no boobs in it. Remember, parents, Sex is Evil, but graphic violence is fun for the whole family!)
Speaking of giant two-headed fire-breathing thingies, that of course was the other technical issue with the movie, which was that… yeah, the special effects really do not hold up to modern eyes. As I recall, in fact, they really didn’t hold up to the eyes of three decades ago, either.
But, 1988 was a weird year to be trying something this ambitious, because it was literally moments before the computer-generated special effects industry came out of its infancy and changed filmmaking, particularly SF filmmaking, forever. Willow has hints of that; the “morphing” sequence where Willow turns the sorceress Raziel back into a human being (eventually) was considered ground-breaking at the time:
But… well, it don’t look all that impressive these days, do it. And the rest was mostly an awkward amalgamation of bad greenscreen technology and Harryhausen-esque stop-motion animation.
But you know, back in the day that was just par for the course. By now, seamless and invisible special effects are both expected and ubiquitous, to the point where no one even bothers to talk about them anymore. But when I was a kid, the obvious fakeness of most special effects was something you just accepted and pretended to ignore, the same way theater-goers are accustomed to ignore the obvious fakeness of a proscenium stage set. It was a feature, rather than a bug, in a way, and thus those filmmakers who were clever and/or innovative enough to circumvent that fakeness were the ones worthy of comment, rather than the other way around.
The important thing for us, back then, was not the fact that the troll crawling up the wall was obviously a green-screened stuntman clumsily matted onto the rest of the frame, but that watching Willow try to protect a baby against it with nothing but a wand he didn’t know how to use was wonderfully tense and dramatic.
So from a special effects standpoint, Willow is kind of lousy. But from practically every other perspective, it’s pretty damn awesome, if you ask me.
Although actually, Liz points out an exception: the pig transformation scene was in fact masterfully done—probably helped along by how it was mostly done via makeup and prosthetics, something Hollywood’s had down since approximately the ’20s.
Although that scene was really most notable for Jean Marsh’s fabulous scene-chewing. Jean Marsh, in fact, may possibly be the best evil queen in Hollywood history, and I say that with all due respect to Charlize Theron. The movie doesn’t give us even the slightest backstory or reasoning for why exactly Bavmorda is so hella evil, but honestly we don’t really need any, because Marsh sells it like nobody’s business.
I maybe would not have been so sanguine about the lack of context if this were a fantasy novel, but given the time constraints the movie is under, I found it sort of refreshingly expedient that it didn’t really bother wasting our time with elaborate worldbuilding or backstory. Instead it relies on a sort of set of Assumed Fantasy Tropes, summed up in the opening titles: we are in an unspecified medieval-ish fantasy setting (that doesn’t look anything at all like New Zealand, nope, nosiree), the evil queen is evil, Magic A is Magic A, prophetic princess is prophetic, and now on to the action.
Subtle? No. But that’s okay, sometimes. And the film had the mix of humor and drama that, in my opinion, is what makes this kind of movie work. It’s a delicate balance to strike: you want the laugh-out-loud moments, but you also don’t want it to descend into pure camp, either. So you have Kevin Pollak (in his debut role) as a tiny Brownie:
But you also have Pat Roach as the (to kid-me) genuinely terrifying General Kael:
Whose skull helmet, incidentally, may be cinema’s most awesome evil helmet. Even if this time around we couldn’t quite resist shouting “by the power of Greyskull!” every time he appeared on screen. Sorry, we are terrible.
But it was Val Kilmer, surprisingly, who provides the bulk of the comedy in the film, from cross-dressing to hilarious reaction shots. I remember laughing uproariously at the scene where he becomes magically twitterpated with Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha:
But I’m pretty sure it was about a hundred times more amusing watching it as an adult. Sister Kate comments that Val Kilmer in this movie maaaaay have been part of her sexual awakening, and I certainly can’t blame her, because damn if the man can’t pull off long hair and braids like nobody’s business.
Although, this time around, all three of us found ourselves a bit more enamored of the extremely golden Airk:
I’m just saying, there were genuine cries of dismay when he was killed, even though we all knew perfectly well it was coming.
The casting wasn’t all excellent: the Fairy Queen Sherlindrea (that’s a total guess at the spelling, by the way) looks like a reject from an overwrought ’80s music video:
(And also, Sister Kate was not impressed with her in general. As Kate says, she’s all like, here, have this wand that will totally not do anything you want it to, up to and including turning trolls into giant two-headed fire-breathing monsters instead of killing them, kthxbi. Seriously, woman, would it have killed you to include a wand tutorial pamphlet or something? Sheesh.)
But the actress playing the good sorceress Raziel was great, even if she spent most of the film playing various animals, and I loved Joanne Whalley as Heel-Face Turn character Sorsha:
It’s worth noting that one of the things I loved best about Sorsha, then and now, is not just that she is obviously a kick-ass warrior (her serrated sword is so badass), but that no one, ever, even once questions her presence as a warrior, or her right to be there. Even though she is clearly an anomaly (we do not see a single other female soldier in the movie, on either side), no one gives her so much as a second glance, much less questions her ability to fight, even after she defects to the side where she is no longer protected by her relationship to the queen.
She has a slight case of boob armor, true, but the fact that I found it so difficult to find a screen shot showing that proves that one thing that is not happening in this movie is Sorsha—or any female character—being objectified, at all.
Even Madmartigan at his deepest (and most justified) level of hatred for her, never once makes any kind of comment, slur, or insinuation about her gender. Nor does he try to keep her from participating in their campaign after they get together. Sorsha’s femaleness, in fact, is simply never an issue in the movie, and this was amazing, especially for the time period. Possibly it was simply for lack of time that this never came up, but make no mistake: the utter lack of sexism shown toward Sorsha’s character in this movie, inadvertent or not, made an indelibly positive impression on me as a kid, and it struck me again now. Because it was awesome.
Also worth noting, while we’re on the subject: Willow passes the Bechdel Test in the first 30 seconds of its screentime, which is not something many Hollywood movies can boast, especially not in the ’80s. In fact, that was really a standout thing in general about Willow: its lack of bigotry. Or rather, its firm underlying message that bigotry is stupid.
Willow is constantly derided as a “peck” in the film by the “normal,” taller Daikini race, which is a made-up but nevertheless effective slur on the smaller stature of Willow and his fellow Nelwyns, reflective as it is of our own culture’s ingrained disdain for anyone perceived as weaker or unfit, a category which also often includes women as well as little persons, disabled persons, or basically anyone who isn’t a big strong man-type person.
And yet, in the end, it was the little person, Willow, and the women who were central to the resolution of the conflict.
Even the prophesied savior in Willow was a girl—a baby girl, to boot. So while Madmartigan and Airk and all the other big strong male warriors of the piece may have been vital to the cause of good, they were ultimately secondary to its success. I found that fascinating back in the day, and quite gratifying now.
In that vein, I could not fail to also note that while little people have always found the most work in the fantasy genre in Hollywood, for better for ill, I think I quite liked how complete and independent a society the Nelwyns were shown to have in Willow:
I’m not sure, but this scene in the beginning is possibly the largest number of little people ever shown on screen at once in a Hollywood movie, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about it. Including most especially the appearance of Billy Barty:
My sisters and I were convinced that he had been in the original 1939 Wizard of Oz, but it turns out we were wrong. Though Barty had actually appeared in films prior to 1939, he was not in Wizard of Oz. However, he is still awesome for his roles in (among many, many other things) Legend and Masters of the Universe, both of which we’ll probably be covering at some point on the Nostalgia Rewatch, but even more so for the fact that Barty founded the advocacy group Little People of America, which today boasts over 6,000 members.
This amazing show of diversity, however, is really owed to one person, and that of course is Willow himself, played by Warwick Davis.
Davis is probably best known to younger audiences for his portrayal of Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter movies, and to horror aficionados as the titular character in the Leprechaun series, but to me and my sisters, he will always be Willow first and foremost. It wasn’t until years later, in fact, that I learned that Davis had actually made his film debut playing the Ewok Wicket in Return of the Jedi, and that George Lucas had so loved him in the role that he later more or less invented Willow wholesale, specifically for Davis to have the chance to play the lead character.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about George Lucas these days (and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone there), but I have to say that on this score? That’s one of the coolest things he’s ever done.
However, all other considerations aside, my sisters and I all agreed emphatically that by far the standout performance in this movie was, in fact, given by the infant(s) playing the prophesied princess herself, Elora Danan.
No, I’m dead serious. Her expressions throughout the movie, in context, were priceless. I mean, look at this:
She was reaction shot GOLD. And I don’t even want to know how many hours of footage some poor 2nd Unit director had to spend filming her face before they collected enough perfect expressions to use, but man did it pay off. I don’t think we really cared that much about her as kids, but this time around my sisters and I fairly chortled with glee every damn time Elora’s face appeared on screen, because OMG.
And, yeah. Basically, I would say that if you can hunt down a copy of Willow—a not inconsiderable challenge, sadly—it’s more than worth your time to watch it again, because as long as you can give the lackluster special effects a pass, it is a funny, dramatic, engaging, and suspenseful film that does everything a stand-alone fantasy story ought to do, and does it well, and along the way manages to be a lot more inclusive and progressive than it perhaps even ever intended to be.
We should have more movies like Willow around. So says me!
A version of this article was originally published in June 2016.
Leigh Butler is a writer and critic who likes to examine the impact of sociocultural issues on popular science fiction and fantasy works (and vice versa). She was a regular columnist for Tor.com from 2009 to 2020, with four series to her name: The Wheel of Time Reread, A Read of Ice and Fire, Reading The Ruin of Kings, and the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia, as well as many individual articles. She lives in New Orleans, where she is working on an original novel.