Things really were more acceptable in the 80s weren’t they? In between David Bowie’s domed thrust bucket gyrating round a Labyrinth, and Fred Savage asking his Grandpa Columbo about ‘inconceivable’ Princess Brides, kids had a whole host of fantasy films to choose and be mentally scarred by. And as movies became legend and favourites became nostalgia trips, wise family elders introduced their kids to ‘the films they grew up on’ that actually harboured heavy doses of nightmare fuel they thought were forgotten. One of the strongest entries being Ron Howard’s 1988 cult favourite, Willow.
Written by George Lucas and checking just about every box available in the hero’s journey, the Warwick Davis-starring story saw the Star Wars familiar as a wannabe sorcerer, who is tasked with transporting a baby that will lift the darkness from the land cast by an evil Queen. Upon review, it’s clear that this tale of sword, sorcery and baby sick doesn’t try to distance itself from from the galaxy far, far away. Davis as the simple farmhand with dreams beyond his village echoes that of a Skywalker, complete with two bickering comedic sidekicks, and a romance bubbling between a princess and a charming rogue, in the form of Joanne Whalley and Val Kilmer, respectively. The film even ends with two old supreme forces going up against one another in a scrap, while our hero looks on helplessly. Like it or not, the force is strong with this one, but one thing that it had an issue with was the tone it was trying to nail.
Upon its release, Willow was met with mixed reactions, not simply for its plot details echoing other beloved stories, but the retina-scarring scares by way of body horror for under 12’s. As lovely as it is to wander about the Nelwyn village, it’s a matter of seconds before these happy villagers are running for their homes and you question if any child actor on screen is acting, or genuinely scared out their minds. Alongside applying prosthetic to hyperactive Rottweilers, Willow also broke new ground with its morphing CGI, and turning Val Kilmer’s Han Solo-esque Madmartigan and a bunch of other soldiers into pigs. It’s an excruciating sequence that looks cut from The Island of Dr. Moreau and would no doubt have Cronenberg raising a glass at the sight. Kids on the other hand may never watch Babe the same way again.
And yet, there’s a charm all of its own that hasn’t faded with Howard’s fantasy flick that kicks in as soon as James Horner’s score swells and we meet the heroic Willow Ufgood and his family. Much like Peter Jackson would conjure decades later at Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday in The Fellowship of the Ring, Howard safely establishes us in this magical world showing us just how nice it is for Willow, before throwing demon dogs into the mix and sending us on our merry way, and the most credit must be for the hero taking us along for the ride. This was Warwick Davis’ first onscreen role that didn’t see him hiding behind an Ewok mask, and before he would terrorise Jennifer Aniston as The Leprechaun. Here he’s having a ball, carrying his own against the already established star of Val Kilmer and building some genuine emotion through the highs and lows of his quest. While the story may be ropey, Davis is the immovable knot that keeps it in check and most importantly, a still compelling watch.
It’s worth noting during the build up and eventual launch of Disney+, Ron Howard has said talks of a Willow 2 have been held, with plans to head straight to the streaming service (well, it worked for The Dark Crystal). In which case, for those that don’t know their Burglekutt’s from their Bavmordia’s, Willow might be that 80’s gem that got away, while others that have already been tested by two headed monsters and Val Kilmer squealing like a pig, might want to travel back to this fantasy world.
Be warned though, therapy is not included.