Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 99, 2013)
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.
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 moneymaker 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 Willow’s 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 gets chosen as the appropriate party. Aided by a few others, he sets out to take Elora Danan back to her normal life.
The Nelwyns are 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 quickly gets taken from Madmartigan, and Willow again finds himself 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 and go on their way.
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 (Maria Holvoe) 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 restorative spell.
Also included in the mission is sexy warrior babe Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). She’s Bavmorda’s daughter, and she appears to want 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 like the fact it includes 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 unusual since he’s regarded as a true hero and isn’t not just there for comic value. Willow differentiates 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 makes them seem nastier and isn’t there to mock the little folk.
In addition, Kilmer offers a nicely vivid and charismatic performance as Madmartigan. Despite the character’s obvious Han Solo connection, Kilmer provides enough charm and spark to make the part seem reasonably distinctive. Madmartigan will never be seen as a classic role, but at least Kilmer adds life to the part.
Nonetheless, Madmartigan’s roots do show, and Willow displays many other elements that seemed pilfered from various 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 stands, the film seems competent but bland. Nothing about it appears unique or particularly well executed. No, it never comes across with any terrible weaknesses, but it lacks the panache that would create something memorable.
Actually, I do find two aspects of Willow that stand out as particular negatives. For one, I absolutely hate the Brownies. With their exaggerated French accents, they seem like outcasts from a Monty Python skit, and they offer nothing of value to the movie.
Indeed, they appear to exist just to create comic sidekicks akin to R2-D2 and C-3PO, but at least those two had a positive impact on the Star Wars movies; Franjean and Rool are just there to annoy.
And annoying they are, as they harm virtually every scene in which they appear. Willow would be much more enjoyable without these obnoxious characters.
In addition, the special effects of Willow have not aged well. The Brownies show the gravest weaknesses, as the superimposed actors blend poorly with their surroundings. Not only do the Brownies act like they came from another movie, but also they look like it too.
A two-headed dragon offers another example of weak effects, and Willow often seems surprisingly cheesy for a big-budget production that involved a slew of respected effects personnel.
However, even if it sported spiffier visuals and lost the annoying Brownies, Willow still would be only moderately entertaining. The movie provides a reasonably enjoyable experience, but so much of it appears rehashed and stale that it never overcomes its borrowed origins. Most elements are executed with reasonable skill, but nothing shows much flair or personality. Ultimately, Willow is 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 is 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.