Wednesday, July 18, 2012

REVIEW: Willow

Director: Ron Howard
Year 1988
Willow is an exceptional fantasy film that is brimming with tall tales, fun adventures, and a cast of characters that truly make this movie an enduring personal classic of mine, though it has sadly proven to be an underappreciated gem among the masses of moviegoers. Directed by Ron Howard and imagined by George Lucas, this magical film showcases a wide breadth of familiar fantasy archetypes while still managing to create something that feels fresh and exciting. With a world that feels wholly realized and a visual history blooming from within its fast paced and beautifully rendered runtime, Willow is an 80’s fantasy entry that truly nails the wonder that these films elicit to an open and imaginative audience and the amount of fun that there is to be had within this flick is tremendously copious and extremely satisfying. 
The film begins with a prophecy which foretells the demise of the evil sorceress Queen Bavmorda by the hands of an infant Daikini child named Elora Danan. This baby of the prophecy, born under the oppressive rule of Bavmorda, is secreted away by a midwife and sent down a river in hopes that somehow her destiny will unravel and the prophecy will come to be true. Lending a hand with fate, the child comes into the unlikely care of a young Nelwyn named Willow Ufgood, who though short on stature but tall on heart, takes the baby in against his own better judgment. After his village is attacked by a savage beast, which has been sent by Bavmorda to track down the child, Willow presents his unexpected discovery to the village council. After much deliberation, they deem it necessary to take the baby outside the village borders and deliver it to any Daikini willing to take her in. This sets into motion an adventure that takes Willow, a humble farmer and aspiring sorcerer, far past the safe borders of his town and into a world filled with sorcerers, warriors, and creatures beyond belief. Determined to keep the innocent Elora Danan safe from harm, Willow sets off on a journey that introduces him to a rogue swordsmen named Madmartigan, a pair of pint-sized creatures called Brownies, and a powerful sorceress named Fin Raziel who has been trapped in animal form by the maleficent Queen Bavmorda. Together this rag tag group of heroes must traverse the dangerous wilds of this savage and war-torn land, in hopes that they make it unscathed to Tir Asleen where the child will be safe and the prophecy will be fulfilled. No adventure goes perfectly to plan, and with the case of Willow’s unexpected journey, it’s those thrilling and surprising moments that really inject a sense of fun into this adventure. Get ready because this is one fantasy world that you won’t soon forget.

Warwick Davis plays the role of the titular character Willow, and he brings an aura of experience to his family-centric performance which defies the fact that he was only eighteen years old when he took on the demanding role. With this being his first attempt at leading a film, you’d be hard pressed at finding fault with his actions and overall portrayal of the courageous little farmer who never gives up. In fact I’ve got nothing but praise for Warwick, seeing that he must have had an overwhelming sense of pressure put on his shoulders when given the opportunity to headline such an ambitious film as this one. What I think is most compelling about Davis’ journey in the movie, and in taking on the role in general, is that each individual situation mirrors each other so closely that I tend to find it inspirational that we get an opportunity to view both the cinematic and real world journey that this actor takes on. This duel existence gives the whole experience an added bit of depth that comes off as nothing less than magical. Warwick Davis’ performance is heartfelt and genuine in its portrayal, allowing for the heart of the film to really shine in his representation of this highly enduring character.
Another standout in this film is the role of Elora Danan, played by one-time actresses Ruth and Kate Greenfield. These twin sisters may be just infants wearing auburn colored wigs, all the while restricted by swaddling wraps, but damn can they make some of the most expressive facial expressions. I don’t know how much time Ron Howard spent on directing the two, while he waited for that perfect reaction, but this infant team really hit it out of the park. I feel kind of silly praising the acting work of two newborn babies, but every time I watch this film I’m floored by how diverse and pertinent their expressions are when the time comes for them to interact with the rest of the cast. It sounds ridiculous to say, but without the memorable moments that their collaborative efforts were able to bring to the film, I doubt that we would have cared as much for the character of Elora Danan or the fulfillment of the prophecy.

As great as both Warwick Davis and the twins are in this film, none of them bring as big of a spark to the fun of the film as Val Kilmer in the role of the greatest swordsman that ever lived, Madmartigan. This is the role that Kilmer was born to play. He brings so much energy and charisma to the character of Madmartigan, that I couldn’t imagine the role being filled by anyone else. His mannerisms, his look, and his dialogue are just so iconic within this film, that I find it impossible to withstand its charm and appeal. Kilmer reportedly adlibbed most of his dialogue, and the creative fluidity of this approach seemed to have paid off. The character brings so much life to the narrative and such a tremendous aspect of fun to the proceedings, that I’d expect that the movie would be far less entertaining and engaging without his presence and the outstanding performance that Kilmer infused into the role. The flashy nature in which he wields his sword, the daring heroics that showcase his bravado, and the smart-ass lines that come out of his mouth are priceless, and without any of these Willow the film would be far less of an enjoyable experience.
Paired up with Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, in a classic romantic angle that befits Han Solo and Leia’s turbulent courtship, is Joanne Whalley in the role of Sorsha. Ever since watching this movie in my youth, I’ve been smitten with the character of Sorsha. Whalley allows a fire to grow within her rebellious portrayal of the seasoned warrior and her breathtaking looks and jaw-dropping passion is a perfect match for Kilmer’s rogue swordsman. It isn’t surprising that after meeting on the set of Willow, the two got married in real-life. Though they divorced after only eight years of marriage, I’d still like to imagine that they’re together off in cinema land somewhere, but that’s just the weirdo movie lover in me. Anyways, Whalley does a tremendously enchanting job as Sorsha, and the chemistry that Val Kilmer and her share ignites up the screen whenever the two come together. There may be an abrupt character turn within the arc of her role in which casual viewers will grip about, but on the whole Whalley nailed the atmospheric pull of her character, making for a strong female role that is both fierce and feminine while being completely and utterly sexy.

The amount of memorable characters in this film could make for a rather lengthy book and each one of them has a distinct factor that aids in the fleshing out of the story and the ultimate feel of the world that Lucas has created. Take the side of good for instance, where we are given the interesting characters of Fin Raziel and the two brownies Rool and Franjean. Throughout the entire film, Fin Raziel is played by a series of random animals, from a muskrat, to a crow, to a goat, and then finally into her human form played by Patricia Hayes. Hayes does a wonderful job both in-front and behind the camera, for she provides the voice of all of her various animal incarnations. Her interactions with Willow and Madmartigan are humorous to say the least, and that can also be said for the brownies in their respective roles. Kevin Pollak plays the role of Rool, while Rick Overton takes on the character of Franjean. Both brownies are a hoot to watch and even though they provide nothing more than comic relief and another flavor of this fantasy driven world, their presence brings another bit of depth to the narrative and the perspectives that their tiny stature provides are highly entertaining and unusual to boot.
Now on the side of evil, we have Queen Bavmorda herself, played by the wickedly good Jean Marsh, and her intimidating juggernaut General Kael, played by Pat Roach. These two are the epitome of evil and their individual looks are outstanding. With the case of Queen Bavmorda, she is always draped in dark robes which cover her mummified wrappings, encased around her body, and Marsh looks absolutely frightening in the role. Her venomous disposition and menacing appearance makes for an iconic villain that truly defines the character classification. I love her portrayal of the power hungry sorceress who would even kill her own child if it defied her orders. Marsh’s performance is vividly grotesque and her presence in this film is potent to say the least. General Kael as well has a powerful existence in the movie with a visually expressive look that strikes fear in that cinematic sense of things. Covered by a skeletal mask, that strongly resembles the dread that Darth Vader’s mask inflicted on his viewers, Kael proves to be a force to be reckoned with within the context of the movie. Pat Roach and his bulking and intimidating frame go a long way in instilling a sense of dread unto the audience whenever he appears, as he provides another villain for this masterpiece that is not so easily shaken from ones mind. Needless to say, the characters in Willow are among cinema fantasy’s most iconic and memorable.

As outstanding as the cast is, they wouldn’t be much to look at without an equally amazing world to interact with and in the case of Willow, the film has an abundance of awe-inspiring locations and tremendously inventive techniques to bring the fantasy realm of Willow to life. If you’re a lover of masterfully done matte paintings then this is the film for you, because this production has some of the most brilliantly conceived and eye-opening creations that the fantasy genre has ever put out. We are presented with a number of establishing shots that look culled straight from a dream. From cascading waterfall backdrops, to looming castles in the distance, to sparkling ivory palaces, to picturesque mountainous landscapes, this movie has it all and each iteration is painstakingly rendered to look absolutely enchanting. If you look at it in more modern fantasy terms, Willow’s use of matte paintings to establish its sprawling world could be compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its effective use of swooping aerial shots to capture the look and feel of Middle-Earth. Each technique is effective in its own sense, but sadly the use of matte paintings seemed to be on a downward spiral by the time Willow wrapped up production. Still the nostalgic wonder of this type of filmmaking adds to the magic that is Willow, and unfortunately it’s a technique we won’t see resurrected anytime soon.
Along with the outstanding landscapes and locations that Willow provides, the filmmakers made a huge effort in inhabiting this fictional realm with some rather breathtaking and often grotesque creatures. There are some that are fantasy genre staples such as the fairies and the trolls, and then others that have been twisted into the film’s own unique standard of creations as is the instance with the two-headed dragon creature called Eborsisk. This stop-motion wonder is a real treat, and like the technique of matte painting, the use of stop-motion animation in this film marks an end of an era for the stylistic approach to bringing fictional creatures to life. In the instance of this film, each of these creations look fully realized and strikingly effective in their respective designs and you can tell that a lot of love and work went into their conception and placement within the world.

After tackling the long list of characters and discussing the positive aspects of the filmmakers’ attempts to make a believable and inhabited world, where else could I go from here? Well the action and memorable moments of the film, that’s where! This movie has an abundance of awesome and spectacular set-pieces that just grab you and take you for one hell of a ride. One of the first instances that come to mind is when Willow and Madmartigan, posing as a woman, narrowly escape the grasp of Sorsha and her goon squad. They take off in expert fashion after commandeering a horse drawn wagon, making hast down a disheveled dirt road. Hot on their tails is a group of Nockmaar soldiers, and thus starts the outstanding chase sequence that showcases some of Madmartigan’s skill as an expert warrior and Willow’s tendency to nag like a scorned parent. The interactions between Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis in this sequence is just entertaining as all hell, as they bicker between each other while fending off the onslaught of foes who continue to board their slowly deteriorating transport. The sequence is as masterfully done as one could ask for and there are shades of Indiana Jones in this energetic twist of events.
Another magical moment occurs when Madmartigan and Willow are forced to single-handedly defend themselves against a small army of Nockmaar soldiers led by the infamous General Kael. Held up in the deserted fortress of Tir Asleen, the two set a series of booby traps in anticipation for when the army breaks down the gate and floods into the courtyard. What occurs when Kael and his men finally burst through is something so unexpected, but ultimately one of the best moments of the film. When they blast through the main gate, Madmartigan takes a few of the men out with a couple of trusty cross-bows which quickly run out of arrows. Forced to make a last stand, he jumps up from behind his cover and begins performing a few badass flips of his sword before yelling at the top of his lungs in order to intimidate the oncoming soldiers. Not knowing that a giant two-headed dragon has just emerged from the pond right behind him, Madmartigan sees the reactions of the Nockmaar soldiers and thinks that he actually scared the shit out of his attackers. With a shit eating grin, Madmartigan takes in the scene, only to moments later hear a giant foot come crashing down from behind him. Looking up he sees the monstrosity that everyone was so taken aback by and he high tails it outside of the castle with the rest of the soldiers. After a few moments, Madmartigan realizes where he is and who he is surrounded by and after General Kael yells to apprehend him, Madmartigan sprints back into the castle and the whole place erupts into chaos. That scene and the following battle between the two-headed Eborsisk and the Nockmaar battalion are priceless, and they are rivaled only by the end battle that juxtaposes Madmartigan versus General Kael against the backdrop of Queen Bavmorda versus Willow and Fin Raziel. Without a doubt, the fantasy film Willow, is an epic adventure that pulls out all the stops in delivering a movie that is just packed to the gills with fun and entertaining stuff.

Willow is a classically presented fantasy film that goes above and beyond the call of duty as it delivers a story that is enthralling, emotional, and down-right fun. Shamefully shunned during its release and wrongfully prosecuted, the movie is an inspirational portrayal of good against evil and the epic struggle that we all have in proving our worth to the world. Warwick Davis gives a landmark performance as Willow, the loving husband and father who left the safety of his home and family behind in order to protect the life of an innocent child that he had quickly come to love. The inclusion of Val Kilmer as Madmartigan is absolute genius, and the personality and charisma that Kilmer was able to inject into the role of the greatest swordsmen that ever lived is without a doubt my most favorite character in all of cinematic history. In fact the pairing of Kilmer with Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha is a match made in celluloid heaven.
Overwhelmed with a stellar cast of characters and a fictional world in which was vividly and expertly portrayed, the film exhumes an intoxicating atmosphere that just brings this fantasy realm to life. The locations and visual look of the movie is just top notch, and the inclusion of some of film-making’s most treasured techniques like the use of stop-motion animation and matte painting work, plays out like a beautiful swan song for the methods that made most of us film lovers fall in love with this cinematic medium. I’ve always been disappointed that this film didn’t reach a bigger audience than it deserved, but I’m especially thankful for the hard work and dedication that went into creating this ambitious effort, even if it wasn’t fully recognized in its time. They don’t make movies like this anymore and that is a sad statement indeed. If you’re in the mood for a fun fantasy flick that sweeps you away from your normal everyday lives and into a realm where the impossible is possible, then give this one a try. There truly isn’t anything like it out there and if you’re lucky, it might just capture your cinematic loving heart like it did mine. In the immortal words of Willow, after he witnesses how badass Madmartigan truly is, “You are…..

Damn you Burglekutt! You pig!

Which one of my fingers looks more like a sausage?

If anyone calls you a peck out there, just punch them square in the nuts.


Willow's Travels.

Cherlindrea is one of those close-talkers.

Hello there Hilda.... Wanna breed?

Mamma put the coins on Madmartigan's eyes,
cause he sure don't believe what he is seeing.


Get off my wagon you cross-dressing weirdo!

Nice place you got here.

Life sucks when you're under Nockmaar rule.

You are my sun, my moon, my starlit sky.... plus you're HOT!

That sword is sexy! I bet it's Sorsha's.

I don't think David Bowie is at the end of this Labyrinth.


Help! There's a peck here with a curvy stick, pointing it at me!

Look behind you dude.

You're troll dung!

Out of the way! That peck is pissed!

The Pig Man!

Close the door Fin Raziel... were you born in a barn?!?!

Madmartigan is MAD!

Watch out for those lightning storms.... Shithead!

Don't they make a beautiful couple? Oh and nice beard weirdo.

Hooray! Willow's the man!

Now that's a lot of little people love!

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