Lucasfilm has had its fair share of turkeys amongst those highly lucrative box-office cash cows, and 1988’s children’s fantasy film Willow represents something of a creative middle ground for the company. Somewhat lacking the storytelling verve of those Skywalker and Co. adventures, it certainly wasn’t anywhere close to the awfulness that was Howard the Duck.
It’s fairly meagre domestic box office take of just over $57 wasn’t enough to build a franchise on, but it ended up gaining a sizable audience and fanbase via the home video route which, alongside of the recent resurgence of lead Warwick Davis, is presumably why the film has finally been released on Blu-ray.
After the grandiose, show-stopping CGI-embellished worlds found in The Lord of the Rings series, there’s something reassuringly quaint and old-fashioned about this Ron Howard-directed fairy-tale. In what looks like the largest assembling of dwarfs and little people not seen since the emerald days of Oz, George Lucas (with a ‘story by’ credit here) can’t help but throw references in there from his other fantasy yarns.
The deployment of creative scene transitions often fool you into thinking a TIE Fighter will come screeching overhead at various moments in the film, but it’s that Joseph Campbell hero’s journey model which is very much reflected in the diminutive lead’s quest. Willow lives a peaceful existence with his family in a village not dissimilar to The Shire (minus the Grand Designs-esque hillside furnishings). The wannabe sorcerer’s life is turned upside down upon the discovery of a mysterious baby girl by the river who, unbeknownst to him, is destined to bring about the downfall of an evil tyrant of a queen.
Electing to help deliver the child to a suitable Daikini (full-sized human), Willow begins a journey which brings him into contact with a shamed warrior (Val Kilmer, displaying a likeable and goofy swashbuckling charm) a powerful sorceress who has been rendered impotent, having been turned into a possum by the aforementioned villain, and a whole slew of fantasy creatures cribbed from popular folklore tales.
Willow is an amiable enough yarn, but the issues which dogged the film on its initial release are still very much apparent. It suffers from a pedestrian story and a weak script (the exposition fairy arrives around the 40 minute mark) which bares all the hallmarks of those Phantom Menace-like infantile and wince-inducing attempts at humour and character interaction. Howard, coming of the likes of Splash and Cocoon at the time, has a good grasp of scope, and aside from the ground-breaking CG morphing technique towards the end (included in a documentary in the disc’s extra material) it’s really fun to see those practical, in-camera effects from ILM in this lovely-looking Blu-ray transfer, all of which have been spared from an unnecessary digital do-over (see George, it isn’t necessary).
Those hoping that the years have been kind to Willow may be a little disappointed, but there’s still much fun to be had in revisiting this world.
The three documentaries here are mostly made of older material which has been recycled, rejigged and bookended by newly-shot interviews with key players from the film. The best comes from Davis, who shares footage of the video diaries he shot whilst on location. A fresh-faced 18 year-old at the time, the actor’s buzz and excitement about headlining a huge film is a fun watch, and he even managed to capture a playful and jovial side to Lucas which has seldom been seen before.
The aforementioned look at morphing is in fact a documentary shot twenty years back, and while informative, the chance to compare and contrast that time with the modern world of CGI is solely missing.