Skip to main content

That's magic? It smells terrible.

Willow
(1988)

(SPOILERS) There’s a reason most ‘80s fantasy films, Willow included, were failures at the box office; they weren’t very good. Sure, a nostalgic hue envelops many a Krull, or Labyrinth, or Dark Crystal, and they have their redeeming aspects, sporadically, but they fall far short of the storytelling drive, ambition or filmmaking flourish of the movie that inspired the trend they were a part of.


That picture, Star Wars, was, of course, formulated by George Lucas over the course of a period when he had considered various options before pinning down the ideas for his family sci-fi/fantasy effort, among them reviving Flash Gordon; it is also said that he wanted to adapted The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, although the veracity of this is disputed (Wikipedia references his desire to make the horrifically-titled Munchkins, and there’s a 1987 interview in which he comments “I’ve had the idea for 15 years”; curiously there’s no mention of this knocking around his head in the exhaustive The Making of Star Wars).


Whatever the precise details of its conception, 11 years after he changed the face of cinema, and by this point firmly entrenched in a producing capacity, he pretty much borrows Tolkien’s protagonists for an attempt to do for fantasy what Star Wars did for science fiction. But Lucas was a very different guy by that point; his passion and drive had gone, replaced with the status of a mogul, and consequently Willow is an entirely lacklustre romp, with all those Campbellian signatures and weaved disparate influences that worked so well in A New Hope coming to nothing. While Star Wars was fresh and invigorating, Willow is tired and limp, a flaccid imitation of Star Wars that almost studiously lacks everything that made that picture so defining.


Indeed, one finds it difficult to conclude other than that Willow was hastily cobbled together, even if it wasn’t. It arrived five years after Return of the Jedi, at a time when Lucas was dabbling in TV (the Ewoks and Droids cartoon series) and lending his executive producer credentials to a number of projects that met with limited commercial reward (Labyrinth, Howard the Duck, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Land Before Time – the legacy of the latter running to 13 sequels, rather belying its modest box office performance). He hadn’t come up with anything fresh that actually worked since Indiana Jones, and might well have been feeling the need to assert himself, not in terms of finances, since things were more than rosy in that department, but creatively. It’s notable that, aside from the long-gestating Radioland Murders, he returned almost exclusively to Star Wars and Indy during the next 25 years; one might infer that the failure of Willow stung.


Apparently George approached Warwick Davis during the making of Return of the Jedi about playing Willow (one of the aspects of the picture I can’t shake off, and it may point to an essential weakness in the title, or me, is that I never think of Davis character as being Willow; it should either be the baby, or Joanne Whalley, or Alyson Hannigan). There’s no prescriptive element to suggest you can’t have a successful movie with a little person as a lead (Lucasfilm is generally credited as being honourable and then some in that regard), but it’s probably wise to hedge your bets by casting someone who’s a really good actor if you do. Gilliam hit the jackpot seven years earlier with David Rappaport in Time Bandits, and Willow’s failure, while no means down to Davis’ adequate performance, would surely have been mitigated with a more seasoned performer (to be fair to him, he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, only 17 years old during filming, and asked to play a father, complete with hero mullet).


Besides Davis, Lucas picked Little Ronny Howard to be his wingman, or director at any rate, and it’s this crucial choice, more even that the waterlogged screenplay, that sinks the picture. He knew Howard from American Graffiti, of course, but was doubtless persuaded the budding director was the producer-stand-in for the job thanks to his flirtations with genre in Splash and Cocoon. Unfortunately, as proficiently made as those are (and fair-dos to Howard, he showed a lightness of touch for comedy that he’s now largely abandoned in favour of stodge), they suggested no particular aptitude for action, spectacle, an epic sensibility, and certainly not mythic trappings. Howard’s most comfortable ground, having been an actor, is working closely with actors. The further he veers from that into blockbuster territory (the execrable Robert Langdon films being the most obvious example), the more unflattering the results tend to be.


Willow desperately needed someone who could imbue atmosphere and a sureness of tone, with a flair for world building, but it has none of those things. While there are some very pretty establishing shots (and grand locations), it carries the flatness of a TV movie, which can’t really be blamed on cinematographer Adrian Biddle, as many of Howard’s movies are like that. 


The score from James Horner, who also delivered the earlier Krull, sounds like a redux of his earlier work while anticipating the Oirish overload of Titanic. Most damagingly, he’s going for a swashbuckling “jaunty” effect, rather than exciting (possibly recognising there was precious little excitement to be milked). There had been fantasy movies during that decade that offered evocative, believably-inhabited worlds, most notably Excalibur and Legend, but Willow, despite not coming cheap, frequently looks it.


It’s probably indicative that, rather than teasing out a screenplay with a writer of his choice, Lucas was steered to Bob Dolman, a TV guy who later worked with Howard on that Tom Cruise-starring stinker Far and Away. The plot’s a mess, despite going through seven drafts; the first half hour in particular is soporifically indulgent (to the extent of being near-patronising towards its village of little folk), pretty much until Val Kilmer shows up.


It’s been much noted how Lucas borrows elements from The Bible (Herod massacring the innocents, baby Moses in the bulrushes), as well as Tolkien (the Newlyns) and Swift (the brownies, who tie down “giant” Willow at one point). It’s also been much noted how the characters are easily interchangeable with Star Wars types, from Kilmer’s loveable rogue Madmartigan (Han Solo), to Willow’s wannabe sorcerer (Luke’s wannabe Jedi), to Whalley’s warrior daughter of the evil queen who finds her moral bearings (Leia/Lando), to Jean Marsh’s evil Queen Bavmorda (the Emperor) and her high commander General Kael (Darth Vader by way of Skeletor), and Patricia Hayes’ sorceress Fin Raziel (Yoda/Ben). 


There are also the comedy sidekicks Rool (Kevin Pollak) and Franjean (Rock Overton), C-3P0 and R2-D2 equivalents, although they are really much closer to Jar Jar Binks on the sub-sub-Python irritation scale (showing that Lucas favoured applying stereotype-invoking accents to dubious races/aliens long before The Phantom Menace; here, they’re dumb Frenchies).


After the consummately created environs of Star Wars, it’s most notable how little impact anything in Willow makes; the production design and costuming are forgettable, and the effects not special (the early morphing is much heralded, but it’s in the aid of some less than spectacular stop motion work, and the blue screen wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of that year’s Doctor Who).


Whalley wanders around in an outsized helmet and looks every inch not the warrior (although she has never looked prettier, so there's that). General Kael (never a good sign when you’re taking overt swipes at your critics, in this case Pauline, and the dragon Sispert – Siskel and Ebert – find Lucas taking on petulance of almost Shyamalan proportions) almost seems to be a case of Lucas opting to see what it would have been like had he let David Prowse voice Darth Vader as well as prop up his suit. Nothing good is the obvious answer, as stuntman Pat Roach plays the heavy, and shows his own face; being that the character’s only aspect of note is his Masters of the Universe helmet, that goes down like ton of cold sick. Marsh is reliable in her stock villainy, but she’d done it before with Return to Oz and would do it again the following year in Doctor Who. Like the surrounding picture, Bavmorda casts no spell.


We should be grateful for Kilmer, then, who almost single-handedly carries Willow with unwarranted zest and exuberance. He even gets to don drag. He can’t actually save the picture, but he tries his level best.


Apparently, Excalibur (for its battle scenes) and an early version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (for its epic fantasy) were among the pictures Howard and Lucas looked at in preparation for filming; there’s no evidence whatsoever of either rubbing off. Howard (according to Stephen Dark’s review in the The Virgin Film Year Book Volume 8) was nicknamed “executive producer in charge of directorial affairs” on set, but there’s scant evidence of Lucas’ firm oversight, editorial or otherwise (Howard’s regulars are credited in the editing suite). But then, we could feel the slackening of George’s ambitions as far back as the third Star Wars. Kael, who sportingly referred to the General as an “homage a moi” called the plot “a whirring mess of porridge”, but that’s almost a compliment, suggesting there’s more going on here than there is. Willow’s a mess, but an inert one. There’s no whirring involved.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.