My Failed Quest to Love Willow

Willow has all the ingredients that should make me love it and yet, I don't feel the magic. Why?...

I should like Willow. In fact, I should love Willow. It’s fantasy from the mind of George Lucas, back from when Lucasfilm were on an incredible run, scored by the legendary James Horner, worked on by ILM legends Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, and starring Warwick Davis. It’s everything I could want in a movie. And yet, I don’t like Willow at all. The magic just isn’t there. I’ve tried to sit down and watch it several times over the years, the first time when I was just a kid, but I could barely make it an hour in. But now with the sequel series coming, with a trailer that looks fantastic, I thought I should give Willow one more shot. I want to love this film so much, I want to watch the sequel as a fan, I want to understand what people see in this movie. My quest wasn’t entirely successful.

The opening credits of this apparently lovable fun movie sees a woman get ripped apart by dogs. This is where my issues with Willow began on this most recent watch. The film never settles on a tone. Sure, there can be darkness to balance the whimsy, but I never felt that director Ron Howard had a real grasp on how the film was going to feel one scene to the next. The dogs kill a woman but they are also real animals with goofy prosthetics glued on that made me chuckle. Willow exists in this in-between realm and the viewer has to reconcile what to take seriously and what to laugh at. Unlike other fantasy movies, the film itself is not a good judge of this and lacks consistency in its choice, and so it falls to the viewer to decide how to take each moment.

Despite Warwick Davis being only 17 during the film’s production, Willow is not a young Luke Skywalker-type. He’s a family man, already having a wife and kids, living a good but simple life. His journey is less outward bound and more inward, about gaining faith and self-confidence. I do like the character, and the performance, but he’s not particularly engaging as a lead. Madmartigan then, the charming rogue, is a vital character but he enters and then exits, enters and then exits again. The film’s first hour feels too episodic in nature, refusing to truly begin the quest proper, as characters travel in each other’s orbit before coming together too late. The pacing is off. Nothing fun or exciting happens for so very long, and the magical setting isn’t there to keep me engaged. The Fellowship of the Ring may get off to a slow start but at least the Shire and Rivendell are locations in which I enjoy spending my time. Willow feels less like a fantasy world and more like Centre Parcs.

Willow draws comparisons with Star Wars and it’s true, the film does feel like a mix of Lucas’s previous space-set creation and Tolkien’s works. Yet visually Willow is much more in line with the Ewok movies than the main films, shot in some woods somewhere and in need of a cinematographer. If anything, the film shows just how important the setting is to the magic of Star Wars, that the sci-fi aspect is what makes those films special. All the same characters exist in both Willow and Star Wars. The comedy double act. The charismatic bad boy rogue who joins a cause and falls in love with a princess. The figure of pure evil and their masked black knight. The great sorcerer who is in the unassuming form of a small creature. The fantasy tropes being moved to space was a novel idea for Star Wars but recycling them in the forests of Willow, tropes are all they are. The film feels like generic off-brand fantasy without an identity of its own.

And then, just when I was happy with myself for identifying why, no, I wasn’t wrong to dismiss Willow, it’s just not a good film, I started to feel the magic. My criticisms of the first half remain but the second, the half I’d never seen before, was much improved. It’s a slog to get to but once the core characters are together, out of the boring woods, the film becomes much better paced, there are fun character interactions, and the setting expands to more interesting locales. Even the action improves, with the sequence of Willow and Madmartigan sliding down the hill on a shield being a genuinely thrilling scene. It’s fun and, dare I say it for a film previously so bland, actually spectacular.

I greatly enjoyed the Tir Asleen sequence with the dragon creature too. The siege is trying to be Helms Deep yet ends up feeling more like Army of Darkness, which is no bad thing in my book. The finale may be overlong but, again, I was engaged because it felt like all the talented people involved in the production worked on the film’s second hour, leaving the first feeling barren. Creepy body horror of people turning into pigs? Count me in. The scale and imagination I want from a fantasy project finally appears. The second half is still generic but at least it is executed well to the extent I can almost forgive it.

By the end of Willow, I was feeling the magic. Yet the film ends just as it was beginning to work and truly get to grips with how to tell its story. The second half is good fun but it doesn’t excuse the lame beginning. I’m glad I’ve now sat through the whole thing but can I really see myself watching the whole film again? Does the eventual good outweigh the preceding bad? No. No is the answer, which is a shame. I’ve come to an understanding with Willow but not a true acceptance or enjoyment. And yet I’m still looking forward to the sequel series. The trailer is great and this is a world and character and story I want to love. I just hope the magic is there from the first episode. A consistent pace and tone wouldn’t go amiss either. Maybe, 35 years later, Willow can finally craft its own identity.

Are you a fan of Willow? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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