Starring: Val Kilmer, Warwick Davis, Joanne Whalley, Billy Barty, Jean Marsh, Patricia Hayes
Written by: George Lucas
Directed: Ron Howard
Original Year of Release: 1988
Studio: 20th Century Fox/ Lucasfilm Ltd.
Run Time: 2hrs, 6 minutes
If you can believe it, the Ron Howard and George Lucas fantasy epic is 31 years old. Yes, the adventures of Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) is now over a quarter of a century old. I remember seeing it in the theater back in 1988. The main reason I wanted to see it was because it was from the creator of Star Wars. The words “Star Wars” carried a lot of weight with me, despite it having been five years since any Star Wars adventure had graced the screen. What I remember most about the film was the music. It was a classic grand adventure score that was worthy of a far better film. Perhaps it was those words “from the creator of Star Wars” that weighed so heavily with me. I didn’t care for the film, as much as I wanted too. Plus, the Star Wars comparison was a little too obvious, even for me.
Here it is 31 years later and a lot of time has passed. We have been given eight (soon to be nine) new Star Wars films, three animated series, and two new live-action TV series are on their way. Take that however you need to. Ron Howard has, in every sense of the word, become a great director in his own right (even directing one of those Star Wars films). Now, “It is a time of dread...” as movies who first featured computer-generated images are now getting the Blu-ray treatment. Some films do not hold up well in 1080p. More often than not they look far worse than they do in our memories. Willow fought Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) and won. Can he survive 31 years of advancement in special effects, six Lord of the Rings movies, and high definition TVs? The answer is yes. Well, almost.
Willow Ufgood and his children find a baby in the river near their village. This baby, Elora Danan, is special and prophesied to end the mad reign of Queen Bavmorda. Willow is just a simple farmer and budding magician who decides that his family is not safe as long as they have the baby. Willow and his people (known as the Nelwyns) decide to give Elora to the first Daikini (human) they encounter. As this story goes, that human happens to be a man imprisoned along the side of the road, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer). He is a man who claims to be the greatest swordsman who has ever lived. An uneasy alliance is made where Willow and Madmartigan have to work together to save both Elora and the kingdom.
In 1988 Willow was an epic tale with a whole kingdom at risk. The cast of characters seemed as vast as their wants and needs. After six Lord of the Rings films, Willow seems like a much smaller story. Willow, Madmartigan, the Brownies, Sorsha, (Joanne Whalley) and Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) are not the Fellowship of the Ring, nor does it take nearly ten hours to tell their story. It is a simpler story, too. The heroes, save one, are clearly defined. The villains are the villains, plain and simple. What is also refreshing is how many women play major roles in the film. Unlike the Lord of the Rings where there were just two women who were more or less side characters, the three women in Willow take center stage and shape the outcome of the story. Sorsha’s fate is clearly her own. Fin Raziel is the real key to truly saving the kingdom. Then, finally, we have our villain, Queen Bavmorda, who is just pure evil in every sense of the word.
The Blu-ray Experience:
Another refreshing side to Willow is the Blu-ray transfer. After three Star Wars films that relied heavily on green screens and CGI characters, Willow is a joy. The simple fact is that you actually believe that these characters are in their environments and that the creatures are, in fact, living and breathing the same air as our cast of characters. There is a special feature highlighting the use of Matte Paintings that reveal conception to the composite onscreen. I’ll take this old Hollywood tool over a bunch of ones and zeros that come out of a computer.
There is a huge battle in the castle of Tir Asleen. It is here that I thought the Blu-ray transfer would really get put to the test. Willow turns one of the Trolls into an Eborsisk, a two-headed monster that had those dreaded black SFX outlines surrounding it. This is no fault to the SFX wizards of the day. It was simply the best they could do. In 1080p the Eborsisk looks a lot better. The lines are gone and, though not as clear cut as his younger sister, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, he looks good; far better than he did in 1988 and on the special DVD in 2003.
What fails in the Blu-ray transfer are the Brownies. Rool (Kevin Pollak) and Franjean (Rick Overton) supply plenty of comic relief as the bungling dynamic duo. Their appearance in 1080p, however, is a constant distraction. They still look as if they are not there or ever were. One could argue that Weta has accomplished this feat with the Lord of the Rings and its Hobbits, yet there are still scenes on the Blu-ray that aren’t believable. This type of character or special effect may still be out of our reach.
The best part of the Blu-ray is the deleted scenes. Finally, we have answers about the third acorn, what happened to Sorsha’s father, and we get to see the Fish Boy scene.
“Sorsha’s Father” was a subplot to the overall story and one Ron Howard cut to streamline the film. There are numerous references that would have made it into a longer cut of the film. Her father is a good King and resides at Tir Asleen. He does, in fact, make two appearances, yet no references are made in the final cut we have all known.
“The Bridge Troll Magic” scene is almost a dark foreshadowing of things to come. Not so much for Willow, but for other George Lucas projects. Ron Howard discusses how the scene was supposed to lay out between Willow and one of the Trolls. It was a gag that just didn’t go anywhere or deliver the laughs they wanted. So it got cut.
The scene with “Fish Boy” takes place as Willow traverses the lake to find Fin Raziel. Fish Boy appears human but transforms into a giant fish. Howard discusses the grueling process of shooting the scene and how technology was not going to let the scene come off as believable. He likened it to similar problems that Steven Spielberg had with Jaws. It’s a shame, really, as it does establish Willow’s progression a resourceful and stand-alone character.
The Complete Special Features:
WILLOW is presented in widescreen with 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio (Lossless).
Willow: Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard
Willow: An Unlikely Hero – Personal Video Diary of Warwick Davis
The Making of an Adventure with an all new introduction from Ron Howard
From Morf to Morphing with an all new introduction from Dennis Muren