Sunday night without Alexandra DuPont is like Billy Barty without nonstop squinting. Attorney, physicist, former teen actress, and uncredited Smashing Pumpkins session guitarist, Lexy now takes a break from her consultations on two high-profile sequel screenplays to have a gander at the new DVD of “Willow,” a movie that would define disappointment for a generation.
Thanks as always to The DVD Journal for the regular loan of the comely (and versatile!) Ms. DuPont’s fabulous Sunday-night reviews!
Review by Alexandra DuPont
It is a time of dread....
Seers have foretold the birth of a child
who will bring about the downfall
of the powerful Queen Bavmorda.
Seizing all pregnant women in the realm,
the evil queen vows to destroy the child
when it is born....
Even with that infanticidal, King Herod-ish opening narrative crawl, it's hard to get too terribly excited about Willow, which makes its DVD debut on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
Released five years after Return of the Jedi, Willow seemed to find executive producer George Lucas in a bit of a narrative rut. (Here, as in Jedi, he took executive-producer and "story-by" credit; Ron Howard directed from a screenplay by Bob Dolman.) By 1988, Lucas' Star Wars trilogy had entered the cultural fabric, and his effects company and THX accreditation arm continued to push moviemaking's technical limits but Lucas wanted to create another mythological "tent pole" series exploring his pet thematic hobbyhorses ("the hero's journey," small-scale vs. large-scale, the power of courage and fealty in overthrowing tyranny and redeeming rogues all that rot).
And so, with the rights to Lord of the Rings apparently unavailable, Lucas concocted the story of tiny Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) a "Nelwyn" (i.e., an ersatz Hobbit) who's conscripted by a wizard (the great Billy Barty, playing an ersatz Gandalf) to deliver a magical baby named Elora Danan (an ersatz One Ring) into safe hands (i.e., into the ersatz fires of Mt. Doom).
Along the way, Willow gathers together a Fellowshi er, pack of traveling babysitters, redeems the warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), shifts the allegiance of the warrior princess Sorsha (Joanna Whalley), learns wizardry from a wise old sorceress (Patricia Hayes), and helps overthrow an empire run by the aforementioned Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).
(Oh, and lest you think Lucas didn't have a larger "tent pole" series in mind, see his apparently quite boring Chronicles of the Shadow War trilogy of novels [Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star], conceived by Lucas and written by comic-book scribe Chris Claremont. They chronicle the further adventures of the diminutive wizard whose name gets changed early on from "Willow Ufgood" to the much cooler-sounding "Thorn Drumheller" and a grown-up, spoiled-brat Elora Danan.)
To its credit, Willow delivers its story in a coherent, often charming fashion at least after it navigates a leaden opening half-hour set in a Nelwyn village (a sequence of historic interest as the single largest gathering ever of "little people" on a film set). And there are some interesting, non-Hollywood diversions in the narrative for example, there's an obsessive focus on scale and caste (there's a race of people called "Brownies" that's even tinier than the Nelwyn, two of them played with doofy French accents by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton); then there's the leisurely way Willow gathers its protagonists over the opening 45 minutes....
The only problem is, those narrative "oddities" had already been worked over in Star Wars and Willow wasn't distinctive enough to qualify as a "thematic riff." Despite a few nice bits, cool effects, and winning characters particularly a lively, improvising Kilmer as the rogue swordsman Madmartigan there's a certain deja vu to the proceedings, beyond even the obvious Lord of the Rings pilfering. To wit, a handy chart:
Willow = Luke
Madmartigan = Han
Brownies = R2-D2 and C-3PO
Princess Sorsha = Princess Leia (including romance with charming rogue)
Queen Bavmorda = Emperor
General Kael (subtle!) = Darth Vader/Boba Fett
Bavmorda's Castle Nockmaar = Death Star
And that's just a warm-up. Locales, monsters, and assorted story points all line up more or less Lego-perfect. The unfortunate side effect of all this brazen similarity is that particularly with story-solid but visually workmanlike Ron Howard at the helm Willow feels like a B-team effort. The "little people" playing Nelwyn villagers, while impressively front-and-center and not wearing creature masks for a change, aren't uniformly good actors; the infrequent action sequences lack the visual crispness of the Spielberg/Lucas "A-team," and James "Self-Plagiarism" Horner's score, while possessed of some nice melodies, seems intrusive and labored in a way that John Williams' best work isn't. Oh, and there's a running visual joke where a Nelwyn trader (Mark Northover) keeps getting puked and shat upon an unfortunate foreshadowing of Phantom Menace's own fart and poop humor.
Still, I've never quite understood the unreserved vitriol some people hold for Willow. It's a mixed bag, sure, but there's some fun to be had. For one thing, Kilmer is insanely winning as Madmartigan, and his violent romance with Sorsha, while abruptly staged, is probably the movie's most passionate element. The effects are among the best of the "low-fi" pre-digital era (and mark ILM's first use of "morphing," making this an important transitional work, effects-wise). A climactic battle with a two-headed dragon, while a little choppy animation-wise, is quite a bit of brutal fun. And you've got to like any fantasy film that sidelines almost all of its lead characters to climax with a brutal, elderly-sorceress catfight. Mrrowr!
* * *
ABOUT the DVD and EXTRAS....
Fox Home Entertainment's Willow: Special Edition DVD looks great. The extras are polite and not terribly plentiful not that they needed to be anything other than such.
First up, there's a commentary track by veteran "short actor" Warwick Davis, who was more or less cinema's first (and only) serious midget male lead. Davis is extremely well-prepared so prepared, in fact, that he seems to have recycled many of the same anecdotes almost word-for-word in his recent Onion AV Club interview.
The commentary's a benign affair, with Davis talking about the differences between Lucas's and Howard's directorial methods; his awe of Billy Barty; the challenge of learning how to act subtly without a creature mask; the fact that John Cusack and Matt Frewer were both up for the part of Madmartigan; his great relationship with Val Kilmer (whom Davis, unlike many people in the entertainment business, seemed to like a great deal); his abject terror during the filming of any and all action/suspense sequences; and of course his encyclopedic knowledge of the world of short actors (Davis, for example, instantly identifies three actors in a background festival band as having appeared in Time Bandits). One does wish the actor would offer a little more dish (even Ron Howard has said in interviews that the Nelwyn-village set was basically an "insane," hedonistic party), but Davis's genial self-effacement and fond memories of the production are, for lack of a better word, winning.
As for the other extras: There's the original 1988 featurette "Willow: The Making of an Adventure" (21:30), which features Ron Howard with a porn-star mustache and George Lucas a good 50 pounds lighter both pretending the "Brownies" were actually two-inch-tall actors flown in for the production. Yes, it's as cringe-worthy as it sounds. Then there's the brand-new "From Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking" (17:00), which explores the digital technique invented for Willow that would fairly abruptly change the face of special effects forever. There's also a photo gallery of mostly behind-the-scenes shots, eight TV spots ranging from 15 to 30 seconds in length, two theatrical teaser trailers, and a full theatrical trailer.
(All this advertising material, by the way, should show how big a deal Lucasfilm expected this movie to be in 1988. But please an action/fantasy entitled Willow? It sounds like a bloody gardening programme.)
Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
Single-sided, single-layered disc (SS-SL)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, Spanish)
English and Spanish subtitles
Audio commentary by Warwick Davis
Original 1988 featurette: "Willow: The Making of an Adventure" (21 min.)
Featurette: "From Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking" (17 min.)
Theatrical trailer, two theatrical teasers
Eight TV spots
Behind-the-scenes photo gallery