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Willow - Movie - Review: Stoking the Hype

In 1988 the movie Willow hit the theaters with high expectations. It was written by George Lucas, who was still riding high on Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame. It was being directed by Ron Howard, a former child star actor who already had two major box office successes as a director with the movies Splash and Cocoon. It was to co-star Val Kilmer, the young and popular actor who already been a part of a few major hits. And it was to be headlined by Warwick Davis, a somewhat unknown actor outside of Star Wars super fans who were already acquainted with his work though possibly not his face.

The movie... did ok. It won it's first week in the box office and did well enough globally to net north of $130 million (worth about $327 million in 2022 dollars). But critics mostly saw it as a disappointment. Some saw it as too slow, others saw as a bunch of tired tropes, and some just hated the whole thing. Despite that audiences seemed to appreciate the fantasy film more than the critics. While the film itself has never seemed to reach the status of having a cult following it has been remembered fondly over the years by many. At least enough for Disney to decide to create a sequel over 30 years later.

For those of you interested in watching the movie before the sequel series is released November 30th, it is available on Disney Plus. Spoilers ahead. You've been warned.

Our story starts in a standard fantasy story fashion. In a "time of dread" it has been foreseen that a child will be born who will bring about the downfall of the evil Queen and Sorceress Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). The Queen imprisons all pregnant women in her realm determined to subvert the prophecy. However, a midwife takes pity on the newborn girl and bravely smuggles her out of the castle at the cost of her own life. For her safety, the child is cast on the river and eventually found on the bank (in a not-so-subtle biblical reference) by two Nelwyn children. Here we meet our hero, Willow (Warwick Davis), a hard-working father and husband struggling to give his family a good life and dreaming of learning to be a sorcerer. While Willow is reluctant to have anything to do with the Daikini (the big people), his wife Kayia (Julie Peters) insists on caring for the child and Willow quickly finds he has a rapport with the child as well.

The next day at a festival the Nelwyn village is attacked by Nockmaar hounds and Willow is forced to admit his family is sheltering the baby. The village elder (Billy Barty) instantly sees the bond between Willow and the child and appoints Willow to be part of a group to return the child to the Daikini world. The elder privately advises Willow that he sees great potential in Willow, and he must trust himself. The elder also gifts Willow with several magical acorns that will turn anything to stone. Kaiya gifts Willow with a lock of her hair to give him luck and kisses him goodbye as he sets out on his journey.
Bavmorda, enraged at the failure of her daughter, Warrior Princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), orders General Kael (Pat Roach), who has a cool helmet, to capture the child no matter what so she can banish the child's spirit. Willow's party continues forward despite being hunted by the forces of Sorsha and General Kael until they reach the crossroads of the Daikini world. Here they meet Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), an imprisoned mercenary left to die. After being abandoned by most of his party Willow reluctantly agrees to give the child to Madmartigan in exchange for his freedom and so Willow can return to his family. Not long after leaving to return home Willow learns the child has been kidnapped by Brownies and gives chase only to be caught in a trap. He is brought before the Fairy Queen who informs him the child's name is Elora Danan, the future Queen of Tir Asleen destined to take down Bavmorda and she has choosen Willow to be her protector. The Fairy Queen gives Willow her wand and tells him to seek out the sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes). She warns him that if he fails Bavmorda will control all, even the Nelwyn.
Now in the company of two comic relief Brownies (one played by Kevin Pollak), Willow and Elora set off to find the exiled Raziel. On the way they encounter Madmartigan who saves them from Sorsha's forces and reluctantly agrees to escort them to Raziel's island. On the island Willow finds Raziel, transformed into a possum by one of Bavmorda's spells. Raziel asks Willow to transform her back to her true state using the Fairy Queen's wand but before an attempt can be made, they are captured by Sorsha. At Sorsha's camp Willow attempts to transform Raziel but fails and only changes her into a crow. The Brownies arrive to break them out and inadvertently dose Madmartigan with the "dust of broken hearts" making him fall madly in love with Sorsha while trying to rescue Elora.
After professing his undying love for Sorsha, Madmartigan shows off his skills with a sword and leads Willow and Elora in a daring escape to a village sheltering the remains of an army that attempted to fight against Bavmorda. There Madmartigan takes Sorsha hostage and escapes with Willow again after declaring to a fellow soldier that he's loyal to Willow. The remains of the opposing army stop Sorsha's forces and covers their escape. On the way to Tir Asleen, led by Raziel, Sorsha escapes but on fleeing she shares a look with Madmartigan. At Tir Asleen they find Bavmorda has already cursed the people of the kingdom and it's crawling with trolls. Willow attempts again to transform Raziel only to lose concentration when General Kael begins his attack. As Madmartigan prepares defenses Willow is attacked by the trolls and accidentally transforms one into a two-head beast complicating the battle. While witnessing Madmartigan's skill and bravery, Sorsha falls for the roughened mercenary and switches sides. The opposing army attacks but it's too late, General Kael escapes with Elora and takes her to Bavmorda in her keep at Nockmaar.
The opposing army with Madmartigan prepare to attack Bavmorda but she displays her impressive powers and transforms the army into pigs. Only Willow is spared by protecting himself with magic. After finally managing to transform Raziel to her true form she transforms the army back to their own forms and they plan a final desperate attack to rescue Elora and put an end to Bavmorda's evil. Willow uses trickery to get his army through the castle gates and Sorsha leads Willow and Raziel to Bavmorda as she prepares her ritual to banish Elora. Raziel engages Bavmorda in magical combat but even with the Fairy Queen's wand she is unable to defeat her.
With Willow being the only one standing between Bavmorda and Elora he uses a sleight of hand trick to make Bavmorda believe he is a truly powerful sorcerer. Distracted and shaken by Willow apparently making Elora disapear into a realm untouched by evil, Bavmorda triggers her own ritual and is banished herself. With Tir Asleen restored, Raziel gifts Willow with a spellbook and tells him he will be a great sorcerer.
Willow departs for home leaving Elora to be raised by Sorsha and Madmartigan. He returns a hero and sorcerer to his people and passionately embraces his wife and children.
I'm not going to call Willow the greatest movie of all time but I don't believe it should have been treated as badly as it was by the critics of the time. The pacing is good, they manage to nicely mix in humorous moments with action and thus not take themselves too seriously, the special effects two-headed beast battle was pretty good for 1988, and while the story does tend to follow a typical formula it is nevertheless a good story all told. Our hero Willow is a relatable little man (no, not trying to make a cheap pun there) with a dream, thrust into a situation where he must prove himself to, well himself more than anything else. Val Kilmer delivers nicely in one of his early action roles as another unlikely hero with his own redemption story, though we never get a full account of what he's trying to get redemption for... possibly being a thief. The Sorsha/Madmartigan love story is a little tacked on but it does fit in with some of the comedic leanings of the movie.

Despite being a 2-hour film, I find Willow to not be long enough simply because like many fans of the genre I find myself wanting to know more. Other than the fact that they once fought what was the past story between the dueling sorceresses, Bavmorda and Raziel? Besides Bavmorda being Bavmorda what made Sorsha so quick to betray her mother for Madmartigan's love? What was the story between Madmartigan and Arik, the commmander of the opposing army? And where did General Kael get that wicked mask idea?

Well those questions will likely go unanswered but we will see the continuation of Willow's story soon. Not a lot is known so far about the tv series Willow. Our future story will follow Princess Kit (played by Ruby Cruz), the daughter of Sorsha (and presumably Madmartigan), who gathers a merry band of heroes to recruit the powerful sorcerer Willow and save her twin brother.

We will see the return of Warwick Davis in the titular role. Joanne Whalley will return as Sorsha, Warrior Queen. Unfortunately, Val Kilmer, who has been struggling with health issues for the last several years, will not be returning as Madmartigan. Though we have been told by the producers that his character will still have an effect on the show and fellow 80s heartthrob Christian Slater will be appearing as Madmartigan's friend. And one does have to wonder if a late season cameo might happen.

As for what happened to Elora Danen, our future Empress? She doesn't seem to be the Empress or Queen she was prophisized to be and doesn't seem to be involved in the search for her younger brother. It's a mystery and quite possibly the main storyline.

So get excited fantasy fans. A story that's been waiting more than thirty years to be told is coming up soon. Disney+ is planning on dropping the first of eight episodes on Wednesday November 30th. Looking forward to it!

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