It was nice that after making Warwick Davis suffer the indignity of performing in an Ewok costume, George Lucas came up with the lighthearted fairy-tale fantasy of Willow to give a starring role with some real face time. Mr. Davis is quite talented, but unlike little people Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Find Me Guilty, Death at a Funeral) and Jordan Prentice (In Bruges) he has been saddled with make-up, sort of like Ron Perlman. Such is often the lot of the little actor. Warwick played the diminuitive Irish imp in all the Leprechaun movies, Marvin the Robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Filius in the Harry Potter movies; it’s rare that he see his face unlatexed, but most recently he and Peter Dinklage both had parts in the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian.
But Willow is where he shines; it’s a big role with lots of character, and he fills it perfectly. The whole movie has a lighthearted tone plucked from The Princess Bride and a story taken from the Brothers Grimm, and while hardly original it still entertains. The story is a bit dark at times, just enough to get kids scared and really interested. In the late 80’s I rarely saw my young cousins not planted in front of a TV with Willow on. The story is simple- a child is born with a birthmark, fulfilling a prophecy portending the doom of Evil Queen Bavmorda’s reign. Ol’ EQB (Jean Marsh, looking like a killer nun) has people looking out for crumb-snatchers being born with goofy marks, and the child is to be put to death. Luckily the midwife takes the kid on the lam, pursued by shaggy wolfdogs and soldiers, feeding the brat on Enfamil infant formula for all we know.
When she knows her fate is sealed, she pulls a Moses and sticks the bambino basket in a floating mat of bulrushes, sending it downstream, and into the life of Willow Ufgood, who is a
hobbit Nelwynn– a group of short-statured folk who live far from the lands of men. Willow’s kids find the baby and want to keep it, but times are tough- a grumpy fat farmer lent Willow money that he is yet to repay, and wants to send him to debtor’s prison. Willow is a magician, and performs at a local fair, and mucks up his disappearing piglet act in front of everybody. And just then, the soldiers arrive with their mutant dogs, and Willow knows that he can’t keep the baby. It’s too dangerous.
After listening to wizard Aldwin (played perfectly by the justly ubiqutious Billy Barty), Willow and a few other
hobbits Nelwynns decide to go on a quest to bring the baby back to the land of men. Shortly thereafter (no pun intended) they find a skeevy scoundrel hanging in a cage at an abandoned post. This is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who claims to be a great swordsman, and is sort of like a less charming, more Real Genius kind of Han Solo dude. He eventually cajoles them into releasing him, but not before a parade of soldiers off to war pass by- one of whom conveniently knows him, and mentions that he’s untrustworthy. Willow doesn’t have much choice, as his fellow hobbits Nelwynns flat-leave him out in the wilderness, satisfied that dumping the baby with some soldiers is quest enough.
Madmartigan plays the lovable rogue with loyalties flicking about like a compass in an iron mine. They resume The Quest, only to be set upon by brownies- even smaller folk than the
hobbits Nelwynns- who look like tribesman action figures come to life, capable of hijacking barn owls for aerial assaults, and shooting you with sleeping darts to perform Lilliputian indignities upon your dormant body. They have appropriately high-pitched voices and somehow manage to not get stepped on, despite all my wishes. When your Ewoks doff their costumes, you need something even cuter and smaller to fill their place, apparently. Thankfully they are not that bad.
Madmartigan and Willow eventually find the good witch Fin Raziel, who has been turned into a possum by Bavmorda and is thus unable to help much. She gives Willow her wand and tries to teach him magic, so he can turn her back. Where there’s a willow, there’s a way (a line wisely not used in the film) and he manages to turn her into all sorts of other animals as the film goes on. As Bavmorda’s troops approach- led by the treacherous General Kael (named after film critic Pauline Kael, har har) and the queen’s hot daughter Sorsha (sorceress + Porsche, I guess) we remember Lucas’s penchant for fucking stupid names. Madmartigan likes Sorsha’s boobs, and this being a fairy tale, they of course betray their sides out of instant love for one another. Kilmer’s performance saves it, keeping everything on a ridiculous level. Madmartigan may not have Han’s charm, but he definitely has the early Kilmer manic energy.
Though it made no sense, I liked when a critter turned into a huge two-headed dragon called an Ebersisk, of course named after Siskel & Ebert. You know a movie isn’t going to be great when it insults critics as some sort of joke, like Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s shitfest Godzilla. Lucas and Howard should know better. But who cares, it’s a fire-breathing dragon! That looks more like a two-headed turd. The desgn is different, for sure, but not scary or interesting. The effects looked good for ’88, though. The rest of the adventure to save the baby from Bavmorda plays out predictably, and that’s the movie’s real weakness; it feels like something Lucas hashed out on cocktail napkins, and the memorable characters- Willow and Madmartigan- ride solely on the charisma of the actors alone. Even the score by James Horner leans heavily on Mozart’s Requiem, and everything else feels just as derivative.
It’s a fine film for kids of the right age- some scares and blood, but nothing gory or too terrifying. And plenty of fun. They’ll be calling each other “peck” (the slur for
hobbits Nelwynns) all day. Warwick Davis shows his chops, and hopefully will get to show them again next year, when he’ll be starring in a heist movie about 5 little people robbing diamonds. Named ShortFellas, it promises to be entertaining. It’s a damn shame that Peter Jackson didn’t use him (or many little people, if any) in the Lord of the Rings movies. Sure we needed big names for Dildo and Frito, but the smaller parts could have gone to folks sans CG enhancement.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Certainly
Quotability Rating: minor
Cheese Factor: Mad-havarti-gan
High Points: Funny Kilmer, Warwick as always
Low Point: Brownies
Gratuitous Boobies: just Val’s