Willow - Childhood Revisited

What childhood movie did you love? Which scared you? And how does it play now, watching it again as an adult? In this new feature, our writers revisit the films that affected them as kids.

Oh, Willow. Although I never saw it in theaters (I was three in 1988), Willow was my first taste of all things Tolkien-lite. A diminutive man faces a huge task, must smuggle precious cargo behind enemy lines and across snow-capped mountains, is aided by a gifted swordsman and, in the end, defeats a dark force bent on domination of the universe. But George Lucas (who conceived the story) is not exactly known for his originality and I was too young to give a damn anyway.

As usual, though, the wizened present vanquishes the idyllic past: the Nelwyn magic and trades festival is a campier iteration of Peter Jackson’s lush, exuberant and excitable imagining of Bilbo’s 111st birthday; Jean Marsh’s Queen Bavmorda registers less in maleficence and more in melodrama, like she had watched too many 1980s TV broadcasts of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty; and the climaxes are, well, subpar compared to the high drama of a Gandalf v. Balrog contest. But it isn’t to say Willow is not impressive in its own fashion. The early scenes, notably the Mosaic discovery of fabled savior-infant Elora Danan adrift on a river current, inspired awe in me as a child, just as the first appearance of the Nockmaar hounds stirred some sort of fear, or perhaps amusement at their cheesy implementation. Shot in England, Wales and New Zealand, sections of it have the same mythical verdancy that blesses the later The Lord of the Rings films, or even the Pacific Northwest as a geographic region (I moved here in hopes of becoming an honorary wood elf). In the ruins of Tir Asleen or the barren crossroads of the big Daikini folk, Willow approaches cinematic authenticity, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the clumsy execution of trope “fantasy” backdrops which director Ron Howard provided.


Besides Willow Ufgood himself (Warwick Davis, 17 years old at the time and fantastic as ever) and the blackened past of Madmartigan (a youthful, pre-porcine Val Kilmer), Willow has little in the way of character depth or development, though there are welcome glimpses of such in the stalwart mutual devotion of Willow and his wife, Kiaya (Julie Peters), and the all-too-brief hint at Gamgee-like loyalty in Willow’s BFF, Meegosh (David Steinberg). Joanne Whaley, as Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha, attempts inner moral conflict (which might have read just fine when I was a kid), but pulls off only flat, one-dimensional feminine weakness as a direct result of the deficient script (screenplay writer Bob Dolman’s seventh draft). Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton play comic relief R2-D2 and C-3PO–sorry, the pint-sized Brownies Rool and Franjean.

Since entering my vaulted twenties, I’ve cut a good turn avoiding all my childhood touchstones as they were remade. To this day, I haven’t witnessed any of the Transformers tragedies, the G.I. Joe movie, the Smurfs flick or even Alvin and the Chipmunks (which I, even in more naïve years, always thought kind of stupid), and it’s not often that I watch movies more commonly associated with my younger years. I’m not afraid to declare certain sacred portions of the former zeitgeist pertaining to my youth to be decidedly off-limits in order to preserve their purity. And while the flat characterization and unimaginative staging of Willow would not stand under contemporary scrutiny, I can still appreciate it for what is was, once, long ago to me and millions of other little Millennials. Luckily, not even the most level-headed, mature and retrospective appraisal of Willow’s shortcomings is enough to poison those cherished memories of popping in a VHS, plopping down in front of the TV set and getting swept to a mystical era of sorceresses and skull-masked generals, trolls, dwarves and – most importantly – magic, “the bloodstream of the universe.” Some small part of me believes, even today.

by Joe Clinkenbeard

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