Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
What makes Willow important enough to discuss in my Throwback Thursday column? For one thing, this film is rare in the fantasy genre, and in popular culture as well, because the lead character is a little person. For another, George Lucas conceived the film back in the ’70s, but he waited years to find the right director and the right degree of special effects—which he found in 1987 with Ron Howard. After a life in front of the camera, Howard had decided to step behind the lens and was on quite a streak when he and Lucas began conversations. Fresh off Cocoon, he really wanted to direct a fantasy. Along came Lucas and an actor named Warwick Davis.
(Note: I am referring to Warwick Davis and other actors of his stature as little people because that is what Davis has said he likes to be called. It is not intended as a slight or derogatory term.)
Davis plays the title character in this 1988 not-quite-epic fantasy adventure. After his children find an abandoned baby by the river one day, Willow the Nelwyn embarks on a quest to return the baby to the Daikini people—the Nelwyns being a race of “little people” and Daikinis being “tall people.” Constantly fighting adversity and prejudice in the Daikini world, Willow is thrust into a conflict between the evil queen Bavmorda and the good sorceress Razel. Along the way, he encounters a warrior named Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer, who equally annoys and helps him. (When I was a kid, I thought his name was Martigan and that he was mad—like Mad Max. Anyone else?) Kilmer plays the antagonistic odd-couple role very well opposite Davis, and his performance makes me wonder what kinds of movies he would have given us if he had jumped wholly into the action/adventure genre.
There are a number of action set pieces, which make the film is almost too formulaic with them—constantly working to give just the right amount of down time between action before ratcheting it up again. However, I do want to give a shout out to Pat Roach as the evil general Kael, who is under the leadership of Bavmorda. You always remember a Pat Roach villain, whether it’s General Kael or Lord Brytag in Red Sonja or any of the four times he died in the Indiana Jones movies (all of which are favorites of mine).
There are a lot of characters in this movie: Joanne Whalley as the evil queen’s daughter, who unfortunately isn’t given a lot to do except for fall for Madmartigan; Billy Barty as a Nelwyn sorcerer; Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton as comedic-relief brownies; and a host of others, some of which are definitely more fleshed out than others. Really, though, this movie is about Willow, and Davis brings a wonderful honesty to the character. He’s a family man with real-world troubles (having to pay the rent on his land) who doesn’t want to leave his family but feels it’s the right thing to do. He’s constantly trying to do what he thinks he should while constantly being told he can’t do it. The Daikini world constantly knocks him down, but the hero’s journey for Willow comes down to realizing he is good enough and can do things. It’s his own self-esteem that he ends up strengthening.
There’s a constant undertone of not judging a book by its cover, or a person by their size. Willow, as a little person, is consistently made fun of for his height and referred to by a derogatory term, but he chooses not to hear it, and when he encounters beings smaller than he is—Brownies and Fairies—he doesn’t belittle them for their size, instead listening to them. (As much as you can listen to the advice of a drunk Brownie . . . but the Brownies do help Willow on his quest and get him to where he needs to be.)
As mentioned earlier, Ron Howard directed Willow, and he stages a very workmanlike film. It is my opinion that Howard is a good director, but not a great director—I don’t think I’ve seen a bad Ron Howard film, but I also don’t think he has enough of his own distinct style that when you look at a film, you can say, “Hey, that was directed by Ron Howard.” This isn’t a bad thing, but he’s not quite in the league of a Spielberg, Kubrick, Fellini, et al. That said, Willow is a solid film, and re-watching it brought back fond memories of my early teens. It’s a great all-around family-oriented fantasy adventure along the lines of Krull, Legend, Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, with a unique little-person point of view.
Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.