Ten Word or Less Review: The Wars of the Oz Rings
Besides Krull, I’m not sure there’s an 80’s fantasy film more derivative of its ancestors and influences than Willow. While George Lucas may claim this movie as an original idea, that would be kind of like me writing a word for word duplicate screenplay of The Shining, renaming it Motel Hell and then passing it off as my own creation and calling myself a genius because of the effort. Willow is Lucas’s transparent, pent up desire to make Lord of the Rings and combine it with the archetype story structure of Star Wars, as well as a few other choice myths and movies. And the really weird thing is that while the movie doesn’t have many original marbles rolling around, it’s managed to hold up against the harsh, erosive barbs of time. At the spry young age of 25, Willow is still an enjoyable, if sometimes senseless and goofy, adventure romp that’s easy to appreciate for its old fashioned vibes.
There’s not much need to say that the story of Willow sounds a shade familiar to these ears. Willow introduces us to the land of the Nelwyns, little people who like to farm, live in little houses underground, smoke while having festivals and flirt with breaking copyright laws. Unsuccessful Nelwyn farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) dreams of leaving behind his provincial way of life and becoming a powerful wizard. Detecting a few shades of that annoying teenager who had to go to Toshi Station to pick up power converters? One morning Willow’s young children wonder off by the river and find a Daikini baby in a basket. A Daikini is a normal sized person wish isn’t trademarked in any way shape or form. This little red headed tyke is the scourge of the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Yes, the Evil is capitalized as that’s her real first name. She’s a tyrannical ruler who wants the baby destroyed before it grows up and starts wanting its own credit card. We’ve seen Bavmorda in movies past, usually wielding a broomstick and controlling an army of flying monkeys. This baby though is a prophesized baby, in fantasy there is no other kind, who will grow up to destroy Bavmorda and free the land from her iron grip and insane interest rates.
After a pack of Bavmorda’s dogs tear apart Willow’s village looking for the baby, he admits to finding the child, as well as swindling cash from the village pension fund. No one hears the second confession so his head remains attached to his torso. To make everyone safe, Willow and a group of fellow villagers, a fellowship one might call it, take off for the land of Daikinies in the hopes of finding a willing soul to take the baby off their unqualified hands. Their first and only choice? Val Kilmer’s Han Martigan. I mean Mad Solo. I mean Madmartigan. Madmartigan, besides missing a space to separate his first and last name, is a devil may care warrior who looks like he smokes meth. He’s also locked in a cage for reasons that we can only guess relate to the missing space in his name and IRS tax returns. Despite the fact he looks like a white trash cannibal, Willow hands off his cuddly and easily marketable little princess to the mad warrior and hopes for the best. It’s at this point we should realize Willow is a two-bit selfish idiot and stop watching, but we don’t. It doesn’t take long for the story to correct course. Before he knows it, Willow has been bestowed with the baby again and given two small sidekicks, C-3PO and R2-D2 turned into Lilliputians, to help lead him through the forest to the wise wizard who knows how to fix everything. Instead of finding Alec Guinness in a cloak he finds a talking rat. This is taking way too long. Basically it’s just like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz and a bunch of other movies all got thrown together and switched up enough so that the Tolkien estate, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to file a lawsuit.
So Willow is silly and cloned from too many other sources to count but it’s still fun. The primary reason Willow remains watchable is the frisky performance of the one and only Wicket himself, Warwick Davis. Hate on old man Lucas all you want but he almost single-handedly kept little people actors employed throughout the 1980’s. He’s not like that schmuck Peter Jackson who had to go and use tricks and special effects to make easily employed regular actors take the place of prime little people career opportunities. But I digress. Davis is a plucky and lively actor who shows more interest, depth and range than most actors tasked with headlining special effects films of the now. He’d has easily made a better Green Lantern than Ryan Reynolds. And he’s equally backed up by a spirited and wound up Val Kilmer, who had not quite reached the heights of Mt. Asshole that he would one day scale. This was when Kilmer was being primed to become an outright leading man, something he would achieve for a stint, then piss away because starring in films with 50 Cent is so much better than being in movies people actually see.
The rest of the cast is pretty perfunctory. The future Ex Mrs. Kilmer, Joanna Whaley, had most of the logic of her part cut out. She’s the daughter of the evil witch and within the film she becomes good because Kilmer’s character spouts some romantic hogwash at her while he’s tripping balls. It was an opportunity to turn the damsel in distress part on its head but the effort got lost in the writing and editing. Apparently Lucas and his lackeys didn’t want anyone getting the idea a girl could be in a movie like this and escape marriage or perhaps think for herself some. Jean March’s evil witch is evil because, well, she’s evil. She wears an iron cross on her head and she wants to kill a baby, so she’s like Mel Gibson on the weekend. Fantasy movies aren’t great places to look for motivation so let’s move on. The guy who got thrown into the airplane propellers in Raiders is here playing a sort of Darth Vader except his mask is a skull. The Predator would have loved to face off with this asshole. He dies in the end so he’s no ones father as far as we’re concerned here and the crossover opportunity is squandered.
Ron Howard was recruited to direct Willow and it still stands as one of the best movies he’s ever made. I’d watch this a dozen times before I sleep through Frost/Nixon again. Ron and George make a nice working partnership as neither one worries too much about what makes sense or if something comes across as dopey. This was the 80’s so dopey was par for the course when it came to fantasy movies and if things move fast enough no one besides assholes like me really notice anyway. Lucas though never let dopey go. See the Star Wars prequels. Need a two-headed dragon? Have Willow strike a troll with his wand and shout a senseless spell. How does that make a dragon? What does the evil queen turn an invading army into for defying her? Pigs. That part’s just weird in that left field sense that movies like this specialize in. It’s not Krull’s flying, fire horses but it’s close. And how do the people in the castle not notice the pig army being turned back into people? And then digging holes big enough to hide horses in? Why didn’t they just go make bacon out of them? Howard keeps things light and breezy and just kind of glosses over these more asinine elements in his screenplay. He’s got nice, old school special effects backing him and some actors with actual zip to make it work. And having one of the most badass adventure film scores ever composed, thank you Mr. Horner, certainly makes it all go down smooth. This music played over movie previews for a decade. But Howard’s real ace in the hole is that red coiffed baby.
Ladies, you may not realize it but Willow may be the best date movie you can ever watch with a man. Why? Howard drops in so many perfectly timed cute baby reaction shots that are poised to steal your heart and make you smile that you’d have to be one jaded, soulless, baby hating mother fucker not to find them at least a little adorable. Just watch this and see what he does when that baby flashes its mug. Does he smile or cringe? When the movie is over ask him, “What did you think of that cute baby?” “I hated that damn baby!” No second date for that loser. He’s a baby hater! How many films can help you determine if your guy is a well rounded dude with father potential or an intolerant baby hater? Not many is the answer. So you’re welcome ladies. Don’t ever complain about fantasy movies again.
So yes, Willow is kind of dumb and sort of senseless and Lord of the Rings eventually got made and kind of kicked Willow to the curb, but if Willow has one real advantage over Rings it’s that it’s not 12 hours long. Not being 12 hours long is a real plus when it’s Saturday night and you’re tired and you want to watch something in the fantasy genre and not feel like a complete dope for doing so. And once again, you’re welcome ladies. Now go forth, watch some 80’s fantasy and then make some babies.