Running time: 126 min.
Release date: May 20, 1988
Willow is a foray into high fantasy told through the hands and camera lens of Ron Howard, with the storytelling provided by George Lucas. It tells the story of a person small in stature but big in courage and determination, about an underdog who attempts to triumph over evil and do what is right in the eyes of himself and his family. So if you take this type of tale and add special effects to it, with two Hollywood heavy-hitters behind it, one would logically come to the conclusion that you have the makings of a great and memorable film. However, that is not the case; the film is merely passable in most respects and could be deemed a disappointing venture.
In Nockmaar, the evil sorceress queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) has imprisoned all of the pregnant women of the kingdom after learning of a prophecy that stated a female child will be born that will lead to the end of the queen's reign. A woman gives birth and we know the child is special because she was born with a mark. A midwife steals the child away for protection, but is eventually caught up to by the queen's hounds, which resemble some type of wild boar. The woman puts the baby on a makeshift raft and sends the girl down the river toward some unknown destination, out of the reach of the Bavmorda. The girl is found by Nelwyn farmer Willow (Warwick Davis) and his young children and he and his family immediately fall in love with the child.
During a village celebration, the village is attacked by the hounds of Nockmaar, leading Willow to declare that he has the baby the hounds are looking for. The High Aldwin (Billy Barty), who is a wise old wizard, chooses Willow to return the child to her own people, known as Daikini (which is basically this world's name for "humans"). A small group is chosen to accompany him and they set off on their journey. Along the way, the group comes across a man locked inside a cage. His name is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and he is an unsavory sort in the beginning. He agrees to take care of the child if they would just release him from the cage. The rest of the group go home while Willow stays behind out of duty to the child. Madmartigan takes the child and Willow reluctantly says goodbye. However, soon after, Willow discovers that Brownies (small fairy-type people) have taken the baby and their queen tells Willow that he must complete the journey. He is reunited, mostly by accident, with Madmartigan, who eventually becomes bound to Willow in helping him complete his journey. Bavmorda's daughter, Sorsha, leads a charge to find the child and crosses paths with Madmartigan, which leads to a most unconvincing romance between the two that then leads into a most unconvincing change of heart by Sorsha.
Another part of the story revolves around the character of Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), who has been turned into a possum by Bavmorda. Willow attempts to perform magic to change her back into a human but fails more than once. These scenes were meant to add humor to the film, but the film was already attempting to do that with the Brownie characters Franjean and Rool. These two pixie-like characters were more of an irritant and obnoxiously annoying than helpful to the plot.
It is the story and how it unfolds that holds the film back from being something above average. The story tries to reach for heights that it probably should not have been reaching for. The special effects are there to help, and for the most part, they are impressive, especially in the scene involving a two-headed dragon. However, the build-up to the final scene took much too long and the lack of any true humor held it back. The scenes involving the high-strung Brownies were not very funny, as I'm sure they were included in the story in order to give it a light heart. Val Kilmer as Madmartigan is fine, but there was not much depth to his character and his motivations for helping Willow in his quest were very muddled at best. Perhaps the worst character in the film is Joanne Whalley's Sorsha. She does her mother's bidding and seems to be on the same page, but for some reason, her about-face into helping the heroes was not handled in a decipherable manner other than "falling in love" with Madmartigan. Quotes are used there because that romance angle was not fully developed into something convincing.
Willow has its heart in the right place in regards to how it views the main character and Warwick Davis certainly carries himself well on-screen. The special effects by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic are certainly solid, but the movie still lacks a sense of wonder, mainly because it slogs through the story in such a deliberate manner. One would think that it would have time to stop and wonder at the strange world the characters inhabit. Ron Howard did what he could with the material provided to him by Lucas and screenwriter Bob Dolman, but ultimately, it is the story that fails the audience.