Forget All You Know: Ron Howard's Willow (1988)
Ron Howard has one of the most interesting and diverse resumes in Hollywood, with a career spanning multiple genres and styles. With that, he's a hard director to pin down in terms of what you're going to get with a final product but if you were to boil it down you'd get one genre that fits nicely, the “crowd pleaser.” That's certainly the case with his 1988 collaboration with George Lucas, Willow, a tale of magic and strange creatures set in a world not much unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Lucas began writing the basic story in the 1970s with the goal of making the ultimate fantasy adventure and like Star Wars, his greatest success, he took note from modern classics. Whereas Star Wars was inspired by the works of Akira Kurosawa (The Hidden Fortress), for Willow he took an appreciation of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, planning to use all the movie magic at his disposal to make a movie that audiences of any age could enjoy. He would hire his friend Ron Howard to direct as Howard was hot off the box office successes of Cocoon and Splash. Even if the film wasn't a huge hit at the time, it's grown in popularity over the years thanks to a vocal fanbase that loves the picture not just for nostalgic value but for the darn good adventure contained within.
You've heard the story before, “In a time of magic and war, one young hero must find himself and do the impossible,” and although the story may be familiar, the way in which it's told is smart and invigorating. There's of course, a prophecy that tells a child will be born that will usurp the power and throne of an evil Witch Queen and that Queen will do anything in her mystical powers to prevent it. And so that child is born and found by young Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) in a small farming village inhabited by little people. Major credit needs to be given to Lucas and Howard for the cast of little people assembled for Willow. By all accounts, this cast of over 200 has yet to be matched and it's honestly great for representation. Unfortunately due to visual effects and discrimination a cast such as this isn't likely to be seen again, at least for quite some time. It's a breath of fresh air to see these characters played by actual little people and not average sized actors utilizing digital effects ala Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films. If nothing else, Willow can be seen as a celebration of the other and the fact that it's a ripping adventure is just a bonus.
The cast is both capable and entertaining from Davis having the unlikely charm of a leading man and at times even matching or eclipsing his costar Val Kilmer, a huge star at the time. They have a great rapport and that chemistry is another point that makes Willow so entertaining to watch. Add in some dazzling, for their time, visual effects, and this is a fantasy film that can be watched, even today, with a sense of childlike wonder. You're constantly asking yourself “how did they pull that off?” and even though the answer can be obvious, there's enough of that classic Lucas movie magic to make everything just the right amount of mysterious.
It's also very scary at times, or at least it was when I was young. The evil Witch Queen Bavmorda, played with a scenery chewing relish by Jean Marsh (Hitchcock's Frenzy) is a great villain and another curiosity for a live action fantasy film. Normally the Big Bad in these stories is a man but here you get a woman absolutely stealing the show. She's truly powerful, with magic skills that would make Tolkien's Saruman blush and Rowling's Voldemort flee in terror. Even scarier, and a source of many childhood nightmares is her right hand, General Kael (named for the acerbic film critic Pauline Kael) with his skull mask and brutal fighting skills and merciless army. The Goro to Bavmorda’s Shang Tsung, he's a terrific foil for Kilmer’s reluctant hero and their final battle is as thrilling as anything else on display.
Willow is indeed a crowd pleasing blockbuster and right in Howard's wheelhouse. His trademark humor and smart use of action are on full display, both of which, along with the terrific cast make this a fun trip down memory lane for those that grew up on it. If you haven't experienced this entertaining fantasy adventure, it's hard not to recommend you do. Willow may be increasingly hard to find these days, with the home video release unfortunately out of print, but if you can find it you'll be in for an adventure like few others. Just remember, like the poster says, to “Forget all you know, or think you know.”