Warning: This article contains what can only be described as an almost unhealthy amount of Star Wars referencing. Reader discretion is advised.
It’s funny how things work out. A 19yr old Ron Howard starred alongside Harrison Ford in George Lucas’ 1973 breakout feature American Graffiti, forging a friendship that would see the former grow from actor to director, eventually helming 1988’s Willow, a film produced from a story conceived by George in 1972. And 30 years to the very week of Willow‘s US release, Solo: A Star Wars Story is due to land in cinemas worldwide, directed by Howard and with a little assistance from Lucas, telling the tale of a younger version of Ford. This almost feels like it completes a cinematic cycle, gears interlocking seamlessly to drive an adventure almost five decades in the making.
But let’s wind back to the mid 1980s. George Lucas had written the stories for a pair of Ewoks spin-off projects, Caravan of Courage and The Battle For Endor, but these had failed to capture public interest the way Star Wars had. Having already recruited actor Warwick Davis during the filming of Return of the Jedi, plans were drawn to film an earlier story, a high-fantasy tale where little people would take centre-stage without the need for exaggerated costumes or makeup. This had originally gone by the slightly less-subtle title of Munchkins.
Meanwhile, Ron Howard was already earning a solid reputation as an entertainment-director with the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Splash under his belt. It was while 1985’s Cocoon was in post-production that he came aboard the Lucasfilm’s Willow production as director, while screenwriter Bob Dolman crafted the original story into screenplay-form. But Lucas knew that his effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, still had some strides to make before they could completely realise his vision. Slowly, surely, threads drew together to weave the tapestry which was finally unveiled 30 years ago…
In another land and time, the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) translates a prophecy telling that a child with a distinctive birthmark will bring her downfall, and so imprisons all the pregnant women in her realm with a view to destroying the infant and reigning supreme. When the midwife delivers a baby that matches the prophecy’s description (Kate Greenfield, Ruth Greenfield and Rebecca Bearman starring as Elora), her mother manages to get the girl smuggled out of the castle, away from danger and hopefully to freedom. Cast downriver on a raft made of reeds, Elora arrives at a far-off Nelwyn (dwarf) village where she’s discovered by our hero, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a husband, father and affable farmer who dabbles in conjuring tricks and dreams of becoming a sorcerer.
Suspecting the child’s significance, the elder-council decrees that she can’t be looked after in the village, but must instead be returned to her own kind, the Daikini (‘tall’ humans). But with Bavmorda still on the warpath and sending her own daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) to retrieve the infant, the journey to an unknown destination will be anything but straightforward. Destiny catches up to all on the path as Willow inadvertently recruits thief and ne’er-do-well Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), and pair of Brownies (elf-like creatures) Franjean and Rool. All the while, Elora looks on from the papoose on Willow’s back. Helpless in a physical sense, but with an aura suggesting she’s wise beyond her years. There will be fairies, there will be goblins and there will be a giant two-headed creature that’s not quite a dragon but is close enough given the rest of the story. Here be adventure…
The good news is, Willow has aged surprisingly well.
A large part of that is down to the talent involved on both sides of the camera, but it can’t be ignored that the story itself is so rooted in classic folklore that the audience enjoys a sense of familiarity from the very first scene. The film opens with a series of ‘catchup’ cards establishing the setup, the equivalent of ‘once upon a time…‘ for one generation, and ‘…in a galaxy far, far away‘ for the next. Indeed, with Warwick Davis leading as the farmer who reluctantly answers the call to adventure, this has Uncle George’s fingerprints all over it.
The story plays out as a sort of cross between classic Disney fairytales and Lord Of The Rings, with a dusting of Endor-lore thrown in for good measure (both visually and tonally, Willow is very much the third part of a trilogy begun with the aforementioned Caravan of Courage). Ron Howard has said that it was his intention to tell a story showing that heroes come in all sizes. His movie is a very literal way of doing this, but an effective one nonetheless. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, where a little guy is introduced alone as a novelty but turns out to be of great importance, by showing Willow in his village at the start of the film, surrounded by people of the same stature, this establishes the normality which the hero will depart.
Warwick Davis is, it hardly needs saying, fantastic in the title-role. He was 17 when filming and already had a handle on performance that many actors don’t acquire until much later. While the screenplay has many comic moments, Davis is the straight-man, leaving the rest of the cast to bluster in his wake. He adopts an uneven transatlantic twang in his vocal delivery, perhaps as an attempt to subconsciously explain why his wife Kiaya (Julie Peters) sports a British accent, while their two children (Dawn Downing and Mark Vandebrake) sound distinctly American. It’s a credit to Warwick’s screen presence that this doesn’t derail things, despite being a constant throughout the film.
Val Kilmer brings his best ‘Han Solo’ to the boisterous Madmartigan (also sporting two ‘padawan braids’, hairstyle fans), the cynical grifter who finds himself helping the farmboy against his better judgement, but comes round to the value of Doing The Right Thing. And much like Harrison Ford’s archeologist alter-ego, he also gets to go one-on-one against wrestler turned Lucasfilm favourite, Pat Roach. And speaking of which, Willow‘s chase/fight scene across two carts hurtling through a forest bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar sequence in 2008’s Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. The Lucas DNA here is remarkable.
Pursuing the Star Wars thread further, Joanne Whalley makes up the third-part of the central trio, the feisty daughter of an evil overlord who slowly falls for the scoundrel’s charms. Comic relief comes in the form of Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton as Rool and Franjean, the two Brownies who join the party to bring incessant bickering and slapstick humour, like a prototype Jar Jar Binks. Although at their worst excesses, the pair serve more as a foreshadowing of Lucas’ troubled 2015 animated adventure, Strange Magic.
James Horner is clearly having a whale of the time with the film’s triumphant score, while sound designer Ben Burtt has managed to slot (at least) three Wilhelm Screams in for good measure. Fans of the Bechdel test will raise a smile when the ground-battle outside the castle serves as a backdrop to the final climactic confrontation between Jean Marsh, Joanne Whalley and Patricia Hayes. Naturally, Willow shows up in due course (it’s his film, after all), but it’s great that there’s a pivotal sequence in a 1980s action/adventure movie with just women on screen, and it doesn’t make that A Thing (although I’m aware that by pointing this out, I have made it A Thing). In terms of quiet diversity, this movie perhaps doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
But into each escapist adventure, some gremlins must fall. Willow‘s Achilles’ heel turns out to be some (although by no means all) of its vaunted effects-work. While the morphing technology developed especially for the film was groundbreaking at the time, digital effects age notoriously badly (Exhibit A: the 1997 addition of Jabba The Hutt to A New Hope). It’s not difficult to imagine that a contemporary telling of the same story would be largely identical, but with flashier visuals. The heavier effects-shots here are what drags this back into the 1980s. But, like most pieces of its age, this is entirely forgivable because of the commitment in its execution, and the retrospective knowledge that the film was a stepping-stone in ILM’s industry-leading work.
And speaking of a modern iteration, rumours persist of a sequel or broader follow-up. Ron Howard has recently told that the project is ‘under consideration’, Warwick Davis has been consistently open to expanding the original story, and Val Kilmer has been playful with the idea since 2013. There seems to be enough public and industry interest to sustain a movie which follows Elora’s adventures as an adult, and it’s certainly true that many a sequel has been built on shakier foundations.
And yet the lack of expansion on Willow over three decades means the movie retains almost a cult following. Fondly remembered, but firmly set in its time. Lucasfilm released a Blu-ray version of the film in 2013, and it’s currently available to watch on several proprietary streaming services (dependent on your region, of course).
If you have a hankering for adventure and a couple of hours to spare, you could do far, far worse than catching up with Willow…