Friday Morning Film Reflection: Willow

I saw Willow in the theater when it was released in 1988, and I thought the world of it.  On the car ride home, I hummed the musical themes I could remember and tried desperately to recall the James Horner tunes I’d not quite mentally captured.  I had no idea that the movie was an exemplar of contrived fantasy.  Madmartigan was cool, Willow was likeable, Kael and Bavmorda were creepy, and the brownies were funny.  It would be years before I read any Tolkien or connected the film’s plot to the story of Moses.  I was only ten at the time.

My son is some years younger, but I figured he could handle most of the movie, so we sat down to watch it together.  I coughed loudly at a few lines of dialogue, and instructed the boy to look away at some of the more frightful scenes, but he got to see most of the film, and he enjoyed it when he wasn’t demanding I tell him what was about to happen.

I enjoyed it as well, maybe just as much as I did when I was a kid.  For a formulaic fantasy, it’s remarkably well crafted.  The characters are all trite, but they develop as the story progresses.  And boy does it progress!  The pacing never lingers for long exposition or careful observation.  It’s boom, boom, boom from start to finish.  The story doesn’t feel rushed, however.  George Lucas, Bob Dolman, and Ron Howard give us just enough detail via dialogue to make some sense of each scene.  In some cases, the narrative doesn’t always make complete sense.  It’s not clear why Sorsha betrays her mother, for example.  Overall, though, the peppering of exposition works to the film’s advantage.  For a product heavy on special effects, it leaves much to the imagination.  We never learn how Madmartigan ended up in a crow’s cage or what led to his forsaking the knights of Galladoorn.  To good effect, the story lets the audience wonder about these and other details.  Willow shows the potency of George Lucas’s vision when constructed by a director with more talent.

The film has at least one element that’s not always typical for your garden-variety fantasy: a strong presence of strong female characters, who move the plot forward as much as if not more than the men.  Willow’s wife Kiaya could have functioned merely as a contrast to Willow’s grumpiness; instead she has a mind and will of her own.  She supports her husband without being a mere supportive plot device.  The chief villain is the evil queen Bavmorda, played with flare and fun by Jean Marsh.  The good sorceress Fin Raziel plays the role of magical aid–the Gandalf or Merlin role–and Bavmorda’s equal.  There’s Sorsha, of course.  And we can’t forget Elora Danan, the wonderfully expressive baby princess destined to bring Bavmorda to her downfall.  If you’re wondering, Willow more than passes the Bechdel test.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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12 Responses

  1. Plinko says:

    I only saw Willow once and I hardly remember it, this makes me want to re-watch.

    I do remember spending a lot of time playing the NES game that I loved far more than it’s reputation would indicate. You might consider it as part of your son’s 8-bit video game introduction, it was pretty Zelda-like, but not so difficult.

  2. North says:

    I adored Willow though I was too young to see it in theaters so my first experience was on VHS. It may be one of my favorites ever really. So much to like:
    -Humor: There was so much of it, the brownies and that bloody love dust. Marddigan and Sorscia’s interplay “I don’t love her, she kicked me in the face! I hate her! Don’t I?” And of course the Teacher interaction between Willow and Fin Raziel in her endless forms (bahhing “Willow, you i-i-idiot!” still will reduce my mother to laughter thirty years later. )
    -Unabashed fantasy: Perhaps they were just showing off their effects and critics thought it indulgent but I loved the unabashed unrealistic elements. The two headed mutated troll critter, the endless transformations, the epic evil ritual, the battle between the arch-sorcerers (why don’t they throw down like that more often anymore?)
    I’m gonna stop, I’m sounding fanboyish all alone.

  3. Patrick Cahalan says:

    “You are drunk. And when you are drunk, you *forget* that *I* am in charge. And I say we go THAT WAY”

  4. James says:

    I recall reading the book some years ago, and greatly enjoying it. It contains many of the unanswered questions about many of the characters, from Madmartigan’s life to Shorsha’s childhood to the glories of Gallerdorn. It also, if I remember correctly, goes on a tangent for a while about the story of the one warrior of Willow’s village. (What were they called? Nothing as mundane as ‘dwarfs’ or as famous as ‘hobbits’…) I don’t remember any details, but I recall a rich history and exemplary portreyals of characters.

    Val Kilmer did an excellent preformance of an already excellent character, as did many other members of the cast.

    And there aren’t many lines that make me laugh like “It went away?!? ‘I dwell in darkness without you’ and it went away!?!”

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You know, I think I read the book as well. I don’t remember the additional details, though.

      • MNP says:

        Chris Claremont wrote a trilogy that finished the story, which had some interesting ideas mixed in with stock elements. It was okay.

        But you know what really bothered me about the books? They didn’t keep their details right. There was a new spin on things each book making previously established character traits or places different. I guess that comes from the whole “comic book mentality” but it really really bothered me. If you’re going to do something professionally at least bother to keep your characters consistent.

  5. Jan says:

    Sorsha’s betrayal of her mother may be less of a mystery to us women. Her mother was abusive to her, expected perfection, and expressed great disappointment in her daughter. Then there was her (reluctant) attraction to Madmartigan. Even tough warrior-women can be swept off their feet.

    And never underestimate the power of the beauty of an infant to conquer evil.