PG --and if you listen to the Disney+ reason for it, that's probably an inaccurate description of why. Disney+ says the PG is for some depictions of tobacco use. Okay, also, there is some straight up violence and scary parts to this movie. The troll's transformation alone is some Cronenberg level nonsense. There's a lot of questionable themes that may not have survived the test of time as well, but I'll talk about that later. Regardless, PG.
DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
It's December. I have to get this out because, even though I'm alone in a room right now, I gotta get this elephant out of here. It's December and I'm blue. Why is melancholy so much harder to handle around the holidays? When bad things happen, I can shake it off to a reasonable extent? Have the holidays created a sense that I expect people to be nicer? I'm saying all of this because I was surprised by how much I like Willow, but I don't know if I have the emotional honesty to convey that in my writing right now. Sure, this paragraph is dramatic. But you know what's the best thing about this paragraph? No one will read it.
I think my dad hated Willow. 1988 was a weird time for fantasy films. Willow may have been the death knell in the whole practical effects fantasy boom that included movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and Conan the Barbarian. The reason that I think my dad may have hated this movie is that I barely remember this film. I mean, I definitely saw it as a child. When I say "definitely", I mean "90% sure" because memory is fickle and I don't want to stand by anything. Maybe it was me who didn't like the movie and my dad who was of the mindset that I am now that watching something new goes a long way. Now, I'm not going to say that Willow is a perfect movie. It's far from that. Heck, as much as I enjoyed it, I mostly just watched it to prep for the new Disney+ show that I hear good things about. But I'm of the opinion that the world wasn't really ready for Willow yet, despite the fact that we had those other movies that I mentioned. There might have been fantasy-fatigue or simply a closemindedness to accepting a big-budget film led by a man with dwarfism. I don't know if you know this, but the 1980s were not particularly kind to anyone.
I am going to play devil's advocate for my dad. (Probably not the best term to be using for someone who is dead, but it's there now and Lord knows I'm not going to backspace if I don't have to.) The movie starts off in my least favorite way, a title crawl. I know that Lucas did it in his other tiny film, Star Wars. Now that I think about it, most fantasy requires a SparkNotes guide to the world. But there is a lot of heavy lifting that those title cards are doing. The entire background of a prophesy is happening in that section, not to mention that we have to discuss how much we should hate Queen Bavmorda. It's one of those scenarios where we are told what to believe, but not why we should believe it. Now, once the movie gets started, Howard gets the audience to hate Bavmorda as much as title cards tell us that we should hate her. But that's almost because Bavmorda is entirely built around well-worn archetypes and tropes. I can't imagine my dad (whom I've put a lot of responsibility on in this blog) wanting more of this movie that he already dislikes. But in terms of the title cards reflecting problems with the film as a whole, he might have a point there.
Willow, as a whole, might be a four-hour film stuffed into a two-hour movie. Now, we're used to the four-hour epic fantasy. Each Lord of the Rings extended edition runs about that long. Even those movies have a prologue explaining a lot AND they are beasts of films. But there might be something in saying that these films are ahead of their times. There's two things that really stand out from Willow being one of those all-time-great classics: time and money. The two are linked. It's not that Willow is cheap. But a lot of Willow is going to the special effects budget and not a lot goes into the mise-en-scene. I'm going to use another cheap-looking, but honestly pretty great fantasy films: Army of Darkness. 1988 didn't have the hindsight to look back on The Lord of the Rings films as examples of what fantasy could be. Instead, there was this obsession with fantasy films being places that had a lot of dirty old rocks and everything was designed in either silver or black. Honestly, both Willow and Army of Darkness have the same visual look to them. If you showed me a still of any scene that didn't have a major character or set piece, I probably couldn't tell the difference between the two. Okay, I'd probably recognize Army of Darkness because I'm sure I'd just see Ted Raimi hanging around that set. But you should understand my point.
I will say that two hours serves the eponymous character of Willow pretty well. Throughout those two hours, we see a strong character arc of a man who doesn't want to leave his family, but acknowledges the moral good of a situation. When forced to confront his scruples, he discovers that his is more willing to sacrifice for others, regardless of the consequences to himself. He is fallible, lacking confidence in the greatness that few see in him. Instead, he listens to the world and their opinions of him until he examines himself more closely. Nah, Willow is a fully fleshed out character. It's just that...other characters aren't. To a certain extent, Madmartigan is a bit more defined than other characters. We know his arc. It wasn't surprising to know that George Lucas wrote this because Madmartigan is a bit too much Han Solo at times. But we meet Madmartigan while he's already in a cage. The cage is too much shorthand for me. We get that he's a scoundrel, but there isn't much more to pick up beyond that. It's almost that he becomes something greater than himself because he meets a baby. Okay. That's fine. But the thing about Han Solo is that we see Solo make choices before he meets Luke. (There's a lot of genius that is accidental in the first Star Wars film, by the way.) Yeah, he's great by the end, but in almost the same way that Anakin just becomes evil by the end.
But now we have to talk about Sorsha. And this is where the movie genuinely has problems for me. Sorsha is woefully underwritten and might be one of the worst written women characters in fiction. Willow isn't a small movie. This is not something that Mystery Science Theater would be quick to spoof, despite the fantasy themes. Sorsha starts off as a villain. In fact, for a good chunk of the movie, she is THE villain of the piece. Sure, Kael is there. But as Pat Roach is wont to play, he's the silent villain. He's the Jaws of the movie. I'm talking about the Richard Kiel Jaws, not the rubber shark. Since I keep coming back to The Lord of the Rings well, I mind as well continue making the same comparison. If Bavmorda is Sauron, Sorsha is the Saruman of the film. Willow, Madmardigan, and the baby whose-name-starts-with-an-E (sad December. Not looking it up.) aren't runnign away from Bavmorda because she's sitting comfortably in her very uncomfortable castle. Sorsha is the threat of the movie.
It's 1988 and I have to forgive a lot. But 2022 Tim sees love potions and rolls his eyes. Now, it would be pretty bad if Sorsha becomes a good guy because she had a love spell put on her. What is almost worse is that she becomes a good guy because someone else has a love spell put on them. Madmartigan, through wackiness, is overwhelmed by a love potion that makes him fall in love with the first woman that he sees (thank God, of age. For a second I thought it was going to be the baby). He says all of these kind words to Sorsha, again the villain who wants to kill them all. She's confused by his kind words, but a kind of confused that makes her question her entire way of life. Now, because the story needs to progress, Madmartigan reads that he's about to be captured and destroys Sorsha's tent. I don't know how he had the presence of mind to do that considering that this love potion makes him act like an idiot in every other way. Later in the film, Madmartigan has captured Sorsha. The love potion has worn off so hard that he didn't even remember what he said while under the influence of the love potion.
And that's when she falls in love with him? There's some odd Stockholm Syndrome going on there. She has a few kind words and then he goes back to being abusive to her? Now, we're on Team Madmartigan because he's one of the heroes and doesn't want to kill a prophesy baby that will bring the world out of darkness. Okay. But from Sorsha's perspective, she sees this baby as a threat to humanity. Yeah, change your perspective because you don't want to kill a baby. I can get that. But changing your mind because this guy said a few romantic words to you once? That is some underwriting of a character. The thing is, I highly doubt that an imaginary four-hour cut of the film would fix this character trait in a reasonably way. It seems like the love potion was something that was probably considered hilarious at the time that absolutely doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
But the big takeaway about Willow is that it holds up way more than it has any right to. Yeah, the special effects are a bit dated for 2022. But if you are a fan of detailed practical effects, this movie has them in spades. The humor is mostly pretty good. Sure, there's a lot of corniness happening, especially Madmartigan in a dress. But even if you are just watching the movie for a cute baby who somehow must have been filmed 24 hours a day to find the best facial expressions, that's worth it. It's so much better than I remember it being.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.