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.