An Unexceptional Journey – Willow (1988)

Back in the days when a proper live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings still seemed impossible, George Lucas (riding high off the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises) got together with Ron Howard (who’d done very well with Splash and Cocoon) to mount their own high-fantasy adventure copycatting the J.R.R. Tolkien formula as closely as possible without explicitly violating the copyright. The result, Willow, was both a critical and box office disappointment in 1988, yet the film was remembered fondly enough to inspire Disney to spend a small fortune rebooting it 34 years later. It shouldn’t be. This movie is still a dog.

I honestly don’t understand how anyone could have nostalgia for Willow. Like most people of my generation, I first encountered it on cable TV in the late ’80s or early ’90s, where it had a regular rotation on several of the prominent movie channels. I didn’t like it much even then. Nevertheless, the new reboot series inspired me to give the original another shot, hoping that perhaps my memories were unfairly biased by the crappy pan & scan airings I watched on a small TV. No such luck. Even upgraded to the latest in widescreen 4K quality on a large home theater screen, Willow is just as tedious and awful as I remembered, if not more so.

Willow (1988) - Val Kilmer as Madmartigan
Year of Release: 1988
Director: Ron Howard
Watched On: Disney+
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

To give Lucas and Howard some credit, they had quite a lot of audacity and faith in the audience to build an expensive movie ($35 million was a lot at the time) around Warwick Davis, the little person actor who’d worn a teddy bear costume to play Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi – doubly so since Davis was only 18-years-old at the time of release (closer to 16 when production started). That’s a lot of pressure riding on the shoulders of a teenager who’d never shown his real face on camera without a mask or makeup appliances covering it. To everyone’s relief, Davis makes a very likeable and charismatic screen presence. The failings of Willow have nothing to do with the actor.

Of course, for marketability, the producers cast hunky Val Kilmer (from Real Genius and Top Gun) and his future wife Joanne Whalley in supporting roles and gave them primary credits in the ads and on-screen, reducing Davis, who plays the title character and has far more screen time than either, to third-billed status. Such is life in the entertainment industry.

The story is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom in which the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), fearing a prophecy about a child who will bring her downfall, rounds up all the pregnant women to steal their babies. After a midwife escapes with the infant in question, the child winds up in a village of HobbitsNelwyn and into the hands of kind-hearted aspiring sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Davis), who resolves to return it back to the Daikini (tall folk) so that it may be raised among its own people. The quest proves more difficult than he expected when the queen’s beautiful daughter, Sorsha (Whalley), leads an army to capture the baby and deliver it to her mother. Fortunately, Willow finds assistance from roguish scoundrel Madmartigan (Kilmer), a good sorceress trapped in the form of a possum (Patricia Hayes) and, for comic relief, a pair of goofball miniature Brownies (basically pixies) played by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton.

Swords will clash, arrows will fly, magical spells will be cast, and trolls (strangely, depicted as men in cheesy gorilla costumes) will be slain. I’m sure you’ve seen or read The Lord of the Rings and can figure out how this goes. Willow holds no surprises for anyone with even the vaguest familiarity with the fantasy genre.

First, and most importantly, the movie’s biggest problem is that it’s boring as hell. The film has only the thinnest sketch of a plot, dragged out to 126 minutes with brutally dull pacing. Aside from Willow himself, the rest of the characters are either assholes like Madmartigan or annoying stereotypes. The evil queen cackles with evilness and does evil stuff because that’s what evil queens are supposed to do. Her daughter is a fair maiden who, despite repeatedly rejecting Madmartigan’s alleged charms, promptly swoons and does a heel-turn when he forces himself onto her. The goofy Brownies are annoying little shits who do nothing and serve no purpose in the story other than to crack jokes and have dumb pratfalls. Even the special infant is that lamest of movie clichés, the baby who never once cries, even when violently thrown around and terrorized by actual monsters.

Former child actor Ron Howard reinvented himself as a very successful filmmaker who’d already scored a few hits by 1988 and would eventually go on to nab an Oscar, but I’ve rarely cared for his movies. Most of them (even some of the most acclaimed) are dumb and poorly directed, in my estimation. Willow is one of his worst. The movie has a dreary visual design, with ugly photography and actors wearing Ren-Faire castoff wardrobe. The action scenes are poorly staged and confusingly shot to prevent audiences from following them. Even lavished with some of the most cutting-edge special effects that 1988 technology could accomplish, this expensive film looks very cheap.

Almost as if bracing for the rotten reviews they knew they’d get, Lucas and Howard named a villain character General Kael (after New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael) and called a two-headed dragon monster the Eborsisk (as in Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel). How dismally petty of them.

That Eborsisk, a “go motion” creation by effects whiz Phil Tippet, is one of the few highlights in the movie. But even that has a weirdly ugly and misshapen design (a far cry from the elegant Vermithrax Perjorative in 1981’s Dragonslayer) and is never photographed from a decent angle to see the whole thing.

In brief, Willow sucks. It always sucked. I have no idea how the movie has endured in anyone’s memories.

Willow (1988) - The Eborsisk

Video Streaming

20th Century Fox released Willow on Blu-ray back in 2013, but the rights (along with that entire studio) now fall under Disney ownership. Because Disney has little interest in physical media these days, the best current option to watch Willow, from a technical standpoint, is on Disney+, which streams it in 4K HDR.

Don’t get your hopes up with those specs, unfortunately. Willow has always been a blandly photographed movie shot primarily in a palette of muddy browns and grays, further hampered by far too many optical composites. Despite the 4K encoding, the 2.40:1 picture has somewhere less than 1K worth of detail. This is a very soft, drab, and grainy image with dull colors and no notable highlights at all. The only scene that even possibly could make use of the HDR grading – the appearance of a glowing fairy – falls well within SDR range.

I have no idea whether Disney (or the predecessors at Fox) went back to the camera negative for this transfer, or even whether that might have helped at all. With tons of bluescreen work, early CGI, and a pair of miniature pixies among the main characters, almost every scene in the movie is inundated with opticals that greatly limit the image resolution and frequently cause color fringing around objects and actors. The only way to fix this movie would be to go back to every individual camera element, assuming they still exist, and recomposite them digitally. That would be a tremendous effort and expense for a movie that doesn’t especially have a huge fan base, and doing so would impart a stench of revisionism.

I wish I could say that at least the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds good, but even that has murky dialogue, bland fidelity, and negligible dynamics. The great Ben Burtt was Sound Designer on the film and received an Oscar nomination for his work, so I’m inclined to believe it didn’t always sound this poor, but I never saw Willow theatrically. It’s possible that the damage was done during the remixing for 5.1 and/or the compression for streaming. Whatever the case, the version available now is fatiguing to listen to.


One thought on “An Unexceptional Journey – Willow (1988)

  1. Haha, lovely harsh review. Have never seen ‘Willow’ but now I want to, haha. Naming the monster after R&B reminds me of Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’. Which backfired, because Ebert flatly said: ‘Why doesn’t Godzilla eat us?’


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