Summers are packed with blockbusters that weren’t. Every year we encounter highly-touted flicks that are supposed to dominate the box office, and every year some of these fail to do so. Some are relative, such as 2001’s Pearl Harbor; the movie made almost $200 million but didn’t live up to expectations. 1998’s Godzilla also suffered from elevated anticipation, as its $136 million take fell far short of its goal.
And who can forget the much-hyped 1993 showdown between Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero? The two were supposed to duke it out, but it was a total mismatch, as the dinosaurs easily devoured the Terminator. (As did many others, for Hero’s $50 million gross left it behind many other films from that year.)
1990’s Dick Tracy was supposed to produce Batman-size profits, but it failed to find a tremendous audience. It may not have been an outright flop, but it lacked much staying power. 1990 was the true year of the underdog, as unheralded efforts like Pretty Woman, Ghost and Dances With Wolves cleaned up at the box office, and a cute little boy took home the big bucks in Home Alone, the year’s top hit.
1988 wasn’t as competitive as 1990, which meant the so-so performance of Willow seemed even more disappointing. Eventually that winter’s Rain Man would be the big money-maker for the year, while Who Framed Roger Rabbit did best during the summer period. As for Willow, the much-hyped George Lucas production tried to recapture his Star Wars glory days but his collaboration with director Ron Howard failed to create much of a stir.
Perhaps that’s because the film is so relentlessly ordinary. Willow starts like an outtake from The Ten Commandments, as we learn of a special baby who will eventually cause the destruction of evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). When the ruler finds out that this tot will ruin her, she orders her troops to find the kid - conveniently marked with a symbol on her arm - and give her the boot. However, the child - named Elora Danan - is sent floating down a river, just like Moses, in hopes that some kind soul will rescue her.
Of course, that happens, as the family of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) locates the baby. Despite his objections, his wife Kaiya (Julie Peters) and children Ranon (Mark Vande Brake) and Mims (Dawn Downing) rule the day, and eventually Willow talks to the local council. He urges them to send a party to return the tot to her own kind; Willow and his diminutive clan are known as Nelwyn, while taller folk are called Daikini. The leaders agree and Willow is nominated as the appropriate party. Aided by a few others, he sets out to take Elora Danan back to her normal life.
Basically they’re an undiscriminating lot, as they plan to dump her with any Daikini they find. The first one they encounter happens to be imprisoned in a cage, but that doesn’t stop them. They free Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and after he gives his word to take care of Elora Danan, off they go toward home! However, the baby is quickly taken from Madmartigan, and Willow again is stuck with her after he rescues her from the really tiny Brownies who stole her. Most of the others just don’t care any more; they figure they did their job. From there, Willow continues his lonely quest to evade Bavmorda’s forces and take Elora Danan to safety, though he’s accompanied by Franjean (Rick Overton) and Rool (Kevin Pollak), two elfin Brownies who come along after a spirit named Cherlindrea commands them to help him. Willow’s loyal Nelwyn friend Meegosh (David Steinberg) also comes along for a while, but an injury eventually forces him to head for home.
Essentially the rest of the film follows Willow’s quest. They re-encounter Madmartigan, and eventually he and Willow form a grudging alliance. They also recruit a powerful sorceress named Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), though there’s one problem: Bavmorda transformed her into a small rodent, and although he’s an aspiring wizard himself, Willow lacks the confidence to cast the complete restorative spell.
Also included in the mission is sexy warrior babe Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). She’s Bavmorda’s daughter, and she seems intent to betray her mother. However, she ends up doing this in an unanticipated manner, as she allies with our heroes for one “winner takes all” battle to settle matters.
At best, Willow is moderately entertaining and enjoyable. At worst, Willow is moderately entertaining and enjoyable. That’s its problem: the film lacks the personality and character to make it stand out from the crowd. On the positive side, I liked the fact it included a vertically challenged hero. The number of films that place a little person in the lead can be counted on one hand, and Willow seems especially unique since he’s regarded as a true hero and isn’t there for comic value. Willow differentiated between the height of the different people, but not in an openly disparaging manner; some of the Daikini refer to him in a mean way as a “peck” - apparently a common slur against the Nelwyns - but this just made them seem nastier and wasn’t there to mock the little folk.
In addition, Kilmer offered a nicely vivid and charismatic performance as Madmartigan. Despite the character’s obvious Han Solo roots, Kilmer provided enough charm and spark to make the part seem reasonably distinctive. Madmartigan will never be seen as a classic role, but at least Kilmer added some life to the part.
Nonetheless, Madmartigan’s roots did show, and Willow displayed many other elements that seemed pilfered from other flicks, especially the Star Wars series. I wouldn’t mind that so much if Howard gave the package more flair and pizzazz, but as it stood, the film seemed competent but bland for the most part. Nothing about it appeared unique or particularly well executed. No, it never came across with any terrible weaknesses, but it lacked the panache that would create something memorable.
Actually, I did find two aspects of Willow that stood out as particular negatives. For one, I absolutely hated the Brownies. With their exaggerated French accents, they seemed like outcasts from a Monty Python skit, and they offered nothing of value to the movie. Indeed, they appeared to exist just to create comic sidekicks akin to R2-D2 and C-3PO, but at least those two had an impact on the Star Wars movies; Franjean and Rool are just there to be annoying. And annoying they were, as they harmed virtually every scene in which they appeared. Willow would have been much more enjoyable without these obnoxious characters.
In addition, the special effects of Willow have not aged well. The Brownies showed the gravest weaknesses, as the superimposed actors blended poorly with their surroundings. Not only did the Brownies act like they came from another movie, but also they looked like it too. A two-headed dragon offered another example of weak effects, and Willow often seemed surprisingly cheesy for such a big-budget production that involved a slew of respected effects personnel.
However, even had it sported spiffier visuals and lost the annoying Brownies, Willow still would have been only moderately entertaining. The movie provided a reasonably enjoyable experience, but so much of it appeared rehashed and stale that it could never overcome its borrowed origins. Most elements were executed with reasonable skill, but nothing showed much flair or personality. Ultimately, Willow was a watchable but lackluster fantasy.
Important note to filmmakers: if you want your summer blockbuster to live up to expectations, don’t openly mock movie critics in your work! Willow includes a couple of pokes at noted reviewers. Most obvious was General Kael (Pat Roach), Queen Bavmorda’s Darth Vader-esque henchman, but the film also includes a two-headed dragon called the Eborsisk. Siskel and Ebert also got jabbed in another summer disappointment, 1998’s Godzilla.
Willow appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not totally flawless, I thought Willow consistently looked quite good, especially for an aging film.
Sharpness appeared crisp and detailed throughout virtually the entire movie. I saw no concerns related to softness or fuzziness, as the picture maintained a nice level of clarity and accuracy. Some minor moiré effects caused a little shimmer at times, but those problems remained modest, and I witnessed no signs of edge enhancement or jagged edges. Print flaws came across as quite minor for a somewhat older flick. A few speckles cropped up on occasion, and the superimposition required to display the Brownies introduced a few small defects, but as a whole, I thought the image looked very clean and fresh.
Colors always appeared nicely warm and rich. The movie featured a rather naturalistic palette, and the DVD imparted them with a fine glow and depth. The hues appeared lovely and distinct, and they showed no signs of any problems. Black levels also seemed dark and dense, and shadow detail was clear and appropriately heavy. Firelight sequences looked especially attractive, as they displayed clean and accurate lighting. In the end, I found Willow to provide a very appealing visual experience.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Willow showed more signs of age than did the picture, but it still seemed positive. During much of the movie, the soundfield demonstrated a fairly strong forward bias. Within those segments, I found the mix of offer solid stereo imaging for the score, and a good spread to the effects also occurred. Elements seemed somewhat speaker-specific at times, but they blended together reasonably well, and they presented an acceptably active and engaging piece.
During most of the movie, the surrounds seemed somewhat passive. They contributed pretty good general ambience and also reinforced the score, but they rarely did more than that. Rarely, that is, until the final act of the film, when the rear speakers finally really came to life. They offered a quite active presence at that time, which made sense, since the conclusion created the movie’s primary extended action sequence. At those times, surround usage appeared quite compelling, and the track offered a vivid presence.
Audio quality seemed good but unexceptional. Dialogue sounded fairly natural and distinct. The lines lacked great warmth, but they remained accurate and lacked any problems related to intelligibility or edginess. The score worked best of the bunch, as it usually appeared pretty rich and robust. Low-end response could have been stronger, but the music still showed reasonable range and vividness. Effects sounded clear and crisp throughout the film, and I discerned very few signs of distortion, but they usually suffered from an absence of bass. Much of the time these elements simply lacked the punch that would make this good soundtrack great for its age; some fine low-end cropped up toward the end of the film, especially when the Eborsisk cranked into action, but that was a rare incident. Nonetheless, the audio for Willow appeared very good for its age.
Though this Special Edition release of Willow isn’t exactly packed to the gills with extras, it does provide a few good pieces. First up is an audio commentary from actor Warwick Davis, who offers a running, generally screen-specific track; at times he wanders away from the material on screen, but he usually stays with the displayed topics. Frankly, I didn’t look forward to this commentary. Most actor tracks are better in concept than they are in reality, and I just had a bad feeling about this one. However, despite my negative attitude, I found Davis to give us a nice run-down of the production and a variety of interesting subjects.
On the negative side, Davis leaves a few too many empty spaces, and he also occasionally tends to simply tell us what’s happening onscreen. However, those concerns stay minor through most of the commentary, and Davis usually proves to seem quite warm and winning. He takes us through many different issues, from locations and sets to effects and physical challenges. He goes over the ways in which Ron Howard and George Lucas differ as directors, he tells us what it’s like to work with Val Kilmer, and he provides a seemingly endless stream of fun anecdotes about the shoot. Davis appears reasonably frank during the track; he doesn’t dish any real dirt, but he comes across as open and engaging nonetheless. All in all, I rather enjoyed this commentary, as Davis offered a very solid discussion of Willow.
Willow: The Making of an Adventure starts with these words: “In a time of sequels and spin-offs, Willow is truly one of a kind.” Uhhh - yeah. After those overreaching claims for this derivative film, we find a fairly fluffy little promotional piece. From 1988, the featurette lasts 21 minutes and 25 seconds and it mixes the usual components. We see some movie clips and shots from the set along with interviews from principals such as director Ron Howard, producer George Lucas, visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, actors Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, and Joanne Whalley, casting director Jeremy Zimmerman, make-up creature designer Nick Dudman, producer Nigel Wooll, location manager John Bernard, as well as in-character comments from actors Rick Overton and Kevin Pollak as Franjean and Rool.
I definitely could have lived without the latter moments, especially toward the end of the program, when it degenerated into an excessively cutesy discussion of the Brownies. In addition, “Adventure” was most definitely a promotional piece, and it existed mainly to promote the film. Nonetheless, the show had some good moments, most of which stemmed from the consistently interesting material from the set. The interviews were periodically interesting, but it was the behind the scenes footage that offered the most useful information. Overall, this was a pretty mediocre documentary, but fans will enjoy the candid shots of the production.
A new featurette also appears. Titled From Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking, this 16-minute and 55-second piece looks at that subject. We find a few film clips but mostly watch behind the scenes material as well as new interviews with Lucas, Muren, Howard, ILM Senior VP of Production Patricia Blau, associate visual effects supervisor Doug Smythe, and Terminator 2 director James Cameron. In addition, a few of these folks and some others appear via 1988 interviews. The program gives us a nice little look at the history of computer-generated effects, with an obvious emphasis on morphing. It covers the topic pretty well as it goes through the work on Willow and also discusses uses in later films like Ghostbusters II and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It isn’t a terrific program, but it merits a look.
In addition, we find some ads. We get three 15-second TV spots and five 30-second promos. The disc also includes two theatrical teasers and one full theatrical trailer. A Photo Gallery provides 45 decent pictures from the production.
Willow tosses in an Easter egg as well. Go to the “Special Features” menu and select “Trailers and TV Spots”. From there, highlight “More” then click to the right. You’ll see a fairy; press enter and you can watch a 1988 featurette called “The Making of Raziel’s Transformation”. The eight-minute and five-second program mixes the usual movie clips, behind the scenes shots, and interviews with Lucas, Muren, and George Joblove of ILM’s Computer Graphics Division. This was a pretty promotional piece that seems very redundant alongside the “Morphing” documentary, but since it’s an Easter egg, I won’t complain too much.
Willow includes the THX Optimizer program. Also found on The Phantom Menace and Heathers, this seems very similar to the THX Optimode available on other DVDs like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Tora! Tora! Tora!. It purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimizer or the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
13 years after it first hit theaters, Willow remains a fairly mediocre film. While it offers some fun and modest enchantment, it shows its roots too strongly, as it seems awfully derivative of other flicks. It could be reasonably entertaining, but it never rose above that level. The DVD provides quite positive picture and sound, and it also includes a roster of pretty interesting extras. Willow doesn’t do a lot for me, but the DVD’s a nice piece of work, and fans of the fantasy genre will want to give it a look.