Friday, 15 March 2013

Willow (Film Review)

When I first started writing for this site I did plan upon going into a lot more films which have either curiously been forgotten or have fallen by the wayside over time. Cult classics which have built up a fandom but were not that successful upon their release or those from the 1970s which never had much of a budget to begin with and were eclipsed by the rise of the blockbuster. Well  with one film which fits very much into the former category celebrating its 25th anniversary today, now seems like the best time to start again.

One of the last big fantasy blockbusters of the 80s, Willow is one which if you were to watch today you'd see a lot of George Lucas' fingerprints on it. The George Lucas who made A New Hope, not The Phantom Menace to be specific.

Set in the fantasy world with no name, Willow follows the struggle between good and evil with efforts to overthrow a domineering evil empire conquering all in its path. With a child prophesied to end the existence of its ruler, Queen Bravmorda, having been convinced and sent into hiding the empire's forces go on the rampage hunting down any who might know of her location. Coming into the possession of diminutive Willow Ufgood, what follows is a borderline DnD tale of ragtag heroes on a journey to overthrow the evil overlord.

Let's just make one thing clear, it's a generic plot and it fits in extremely well with a lot of archetypes. Not quite to the point of cliche, but to the point where you're saying "I swear i've seen this before somewhere..." This is in part because the film has a lot of similarities with Star Wars and characters which, while not feeling quite like stand ins, have similar roles and backgrounds to Luke and co.

You have Willow, an aspiring sorcerer from a backwater village with potentially great power (effectively Luke),
a rogueish mercenary known as Madmartigan who allies himself with the heroes but concentrates upon looking out for number one (Han anyone?),
a pair of comedic relief characters called  Franjean and Rool who are extremely far removed from the rest of the characters but still prove to have their uses (R2-D2 and C-3P0),
and a princess who comes to help them oppose the empire and falls for the rogue (Lei- i'm sure you can guess). There's also a Ben Kenobi character introduced part way through.

Even the background for the story is established in text prior to beginning and tell me the guy on the right doesn't strike you as medieval Darth Vader. While this isn't quite as overt as you might think, quite a few things are far enough removed for you not to notice when first watching, but you might keep having niggling thoughts directly in the back of your mind distracting you at times. 

Do these mean that the film is unoriginal to the point of just being bad? Far from it. If anything sticking to elements of a well established script prevented this film going in the direction of Krull or Dragonslayer, we'll get to that one sooner or later, and was at worst unremarkable. Not a plot-hole riddled mess or cynically dull, just something you'd forget about sooner rather than later. Something which definitely buoys it up at the story end is two things. the first being that the script itself was reworked from Lucas' original draft to something a bit different by Bob Doleman. Something which was a definite improvement, especially in terms of the film's dialogue and character interactions. Something further helped by solid acting throughout, despite the most recognisable name being Val Kilmer fresh off of Top Gun. All of who help to give some additional life to the tale even when it's at its cheesiest.

Going away from the story into the effects and visual aspects of the film, much of what is seen are both beautiful and groundbreaking. While Terminator 2 might have been credited with perfecting digital morphing technology, a few scenes especially in this display gigantic leaps forwards in their development. Not to mention physical effects which range from things which look like they should belong in John Carpenter's The Thing, especially in one bit which i'm sure gave many a child nightmares, and stop motion animation which is easily among the best examples ever put onto film. Something helped immensely by Ron Howard's direction and the fact it managed to get its actors to interact with them on a very close level. Then again what do you expect when you have Industrial Light & Magic involved in a film.

That being said, many of the set-pieces do frequently come across as extremely generic and lack that fascinating madness which made Krull worth watching throughout. No environment really has a distinctive element which helps them stand out and often you can easily end up thinking to yourself "seen one enchanced forest, seen 'em all".

Is Willow flawed? Undeniably at its core, but there's still enough fun to bad had watching it and if you're looking for later examples of stop-motion-animation with a big budget from the 80s and early 90s this is definitely a go-too film for it. Rent it, watch it, laugh at the jokes, but don't expect to love it enough to come back to it later on unless you're a big fan of fantasy films. 

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