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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I will beat you like a Cherokee drum.

Fast & Furious 8 aka The Fate of the Furious (2017)
(SPOILERS) Fun. Brio. That’s what any director needs to bring a sense of to the ever more absurd Fast & Furious franchise at minimum. Action chops are definitely up there, but paramount is an active affinity with how plain silly the series is. And it’s a quality F Gary Gray doesn’t really have, or if he does, he’s never shown it, previously or here. Even his action leaves something to be desired (his The Italian Job remake is far superior in that regard). Which isn’t to suggest there isn’t fun to be had from Fast & Furious 8/The Fate of the Furious, but it’s much more sporadic and performance-based than the previous outing, lacking the unbridled gusto James Wan brought to Furious 7.

But maybe I’m wrong about this. While I’ve seen every instalment in the franchise (only the once, mind) I haven’t followed it avidly in order (1, 4, 5, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, I think, only the first and last two at the cinema), although, it isn’t as if t…

I’m sorry to bother you, but are you telling people you’re God?

The Leftovers Season 3
(SPOILERS) I didn’t watch the final season of The Leftovers in Damon Lindelof’s preferred weekly format. Rather, I took it in over three nights (blame Sky for not knowing what to do with it), and if I’m completely honest, it wasn’t until the finale that I thought it reached the heights of Season Two. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t still (probably) the best series currently on TV (or was, at any rate), just that by the time of its third run it had evolved into something familiar, rather than disconcerting. As such, HBO was probably right to call time, as a fourth innings (Lindelof projected it might have had enough juice to go that far, left to its own devices) could have seen a shift towards mild contempt.

The big takeaway is that Lindelof has successfully rehabilitated his reputation after the litany of brickbats coming his way following the Lost finale (3.8: The Book of Nora is the anti-Lost finale) and the unfair maligning he received following Prometheus (blame …

This is our last stand. And if we lose... it will be a planet of apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
(SPOILERS) It isn’t difficult to see why War of the Planet of the Apes didn’t open as well as its predecessor and is unlikely to come close to its gross; it plays it safe. Which sounds odd to say, for such a dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim blockbuster, but the lack of differentiation between this and its dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim predecessor suggests Matt Reeve and Fox thought more of the same would tickle its audience’s anthropoid itch, when in fact it only leads to a lack of differentiation. Which is a shame, as War of the Planet of the Apes is (mostly) an accomplished movie, expertly directed by Reeves and performed with due conviction by its mo-capped (and otherwise) cast.

It does seem a tad churlish to complain about what a movie might have been when it maintains the series’ consistent high quality, but I’m now firmly in the camp of wishing some of the more tonally-varied content of the original pictures was finding…

There’s no surf in Michigan.

Don’t Breathe (2016)
(SPOILERS) I passed on Fede Alvarez’ The Evil Dead remake – it seemed a tad too close to torture porn for my tastes, and besides, why redo Evil Dead if you’re eschewing a sense of humour; it’s what made it what it is – so this home invasion thriller in reverse is my first exposure to his work (he also has a new Lisbeth Salander movie, baffling rebooting the series with the fourth instalment, and a remake of Labyrinth on his to-do list). Don’t Breathe is okay, effective within its highly exploitative bracket, rarely doing anything but serviceably pushing obvious shock buttons.


I’ve seen reviews complain about the rape subplot herein – some even seem to think the Blind Man’s defence of “I’m not a rapist” is a representation of the views of the filmmakers, and that it thus needs emphasising that he is, in fact, which rather suggest a desire to be outraged than ends up making them look a bit dim – but it seems to me to go with the generally dubious territory of this ki…

Why would you sell the cows?

American Pastoral (2016)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Philip Roth and cinema just don’t mix. I couldn’t say for sure, as I haven’t read any of his novels, but the consensus is pretty much that none have resulted in highly acclaimed adaptations (eight have been translated to film or television thus far). American Pastoral won him a Pulitzer, so I presume it must be good, although you wouldn’t know it from the stodge that ends up on screen, any more than you’d have the remotest idea what it was in the material that hastened Ewan McGregor to make his directorial debut.

He can’t take the blame for the screenplay (stand up, John Romano) so that’s something in his favour, and technically, I guess, you could call him competent, but in terms of putting a dramatically coherent film together he does, alas, seem pretty hopeless, miscasting himself in the lead (and this after a string of roles that have rather re-established his early promise) to underwhelming effect – ironic, since he had been attached as an…

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

Is that a cherry pie?

Twin Peaks 3.11: There’s fire where you are going
(SPOILERS) A damn good episode. Perhaps the lesser part of it is the still great FBI plotline, but that’s only because – despite having the most overtly weird elements – it is more linear and less inimitable than the other claims to fame: Bobby and the shooting incident, and Dougie-Dale’s encounter with the Mitchum Brothers. Yes, it’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally come around to silver fox Bobby. Or should that be Becky’s pops.

What impressed me most about this sequence was the way it develops – escalated would be the wrong word. You think the scene is about one thing but then it becomes about something else, and then it becomes about something else entirely. During the build-up to this we’ve had the ominous, Blue Velvet-esque scene in which a boy playing ball sights Miriam crawling bloodied from the woods. Followed by Shelly riding the bonnet of her car until Becky throws her off. 

There’s something very matter-of-fact procedural …

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…