From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Willow

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, The Company of Wolves, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. We know we promised we’d do Time Bandits in the comments of our review last month, but due to circumstances, we somehow we ended up watching Willow instead. So September will (seriously this time) feature Time Bandits, but for now, we take a journey to a far-off land featuring Rottweilers in rat costumes. . .

Film: Willow (1988)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Little Opie Cunnigham himself, Ron Howard, from a story by George Lucas. That sentence bringing a nervous sweat to your brow is the cinematic equivalent of your knee popping up after being bashed with one of those little rubber mallets at the doctor’s office. Screenplay by Bob Dolman, he of the tasteful aging groupie masterpiece The Banger Sisters. Starring Warwick Davis, in a rare sans make-up performance, as the titular Ufgood hero, with Joanne Whaley (formerly Whalley-Kilmer—yup) as General Sorsha, and incredibly restrained performances from the likes of Val Kilmer as Madmartigan, Jean Marsh as Queen Bavmorda, Patricia Hayes as Fin Raziel (you likely know her as Urgl from The NeverEnding Story, the female half of the gnomish couple who hang out near the Oracle), Pat Roach as General “Spooky Helm” Kael, and Rick Overtan and Kevin Pollack as a pair of brownies which people on the internet have actually described on record as “hilarious.”

Quote: “I don’t love her! She kicked me in the face! I hate her!”

Alternate quote: “Burglekutt, you troll dung!”

First viewing by Molly: Last week. I know, RIGHT?

First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre.

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: I watched a few minutes of it in college and decided it was within my rights to die without watching the whole thing, long before “Films of High Adventure” stripped me of those rights.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Decent. I remember being very happy about all the monsters, which was pretty much my criteria for a movie being good when I was a kid. Rat-dogs, fur-trolls, dragon-kinda-thing, and Val Kilmer-kinda-thing all buttered the monster biscuit for six year old Jesse, and though I’ve blocked out most of the memories from that first viewing, I probably thought the brownies were pretty funny, too. Other than the monsters, the movie didn’t rank too high in terms of daydream fodder, probably because I innately realized that, as far as quests go, protecting a baby in a quasi-medieval setting would be teh suck.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Sheer terror. Jesse’s wife Raechel really wanted me to see Willow, and though her cinematic opinion lost some credibility with me after she insisted I watch Con Air (“it’s really good!”), she’d also recommended The Terminator, so that might have reassured me somewhat if my husband John hadn’t also been seriously excited to watch Willow with us, too. This prejudiced me instantly. John’s taste runs to films featuring heroes who somehow charm the female lead with wisecracks and antics, and I hate hate HATE wisecracking, antics-attracting heroes. Here’s a brief list of films and TV shows my husband describes as “formative” when he’s drunk and thinks people are listening to him: Johnny Dangerously, Captain Ron, Brisco County, Jr., Big Trouble in Little China. Admittedly, Big Trouble in Little China is pretty awesome (but for a host of reasons other than Kurt Russell’s performance), so I experienced true fear when I realized that the source of John’s enthusiasm was that (1) Val Kilmer was in Willow, and (2), his character’s name was Madmartigan, and (3) he was, apparently, “the greatest swordsman who ever lived.” I knew I was in for some deep hurting.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Concern. We’ve done enough of these columns by now for me to be very wary of the bigger budget fantasy offerings of the 80s, and my recollection that this one featured comic relief in the form of characters with silly accents and a baby’s facial expressions did little to instill me with confidence. I was fairly certain that Val Kilmer’s performance would horrify Molly, so at least I had that to look forward to.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I loved it! Who would’ve thought? Seriously—what an unexpected reversal! I mean, seriously—this movie is awesome. It has everything! Amusing Stock Fantasy Creatures that don’t at all trigger my Xanth-induced PTSD! A Wisecracking Roguish Badass! Comedic reaction shots from an infant! A female lead who falls in love with the Wisecracking Roguish Badass because he was nice to her that one time that he was (hilariously) under a spell! Multiple instances of humor pertaining to bodily functions! Consonant-heavy “fantasy names” like Burglekutt, Bavmorda, and, of all things, “Airk Thaughbaer,” which, despite not having an “onius” or an “anous” attached to the end, sounds plausibly like a name generated by Jemaine Clement’s character from Gentlemen Broncos!

Never mind. I tried hard, guys. I wanted to like it, because despite all appearances, I don’t enjoy my role as Hater of Things Other People Have Loved Since They Were Kids. But let me just say this: I angrily turned off The Brothers Grimm when that one bird pooped on that guy’s face (and, despite having Heath Ledger in lieu of Val Kilmer, it seems to have been a worse movie than Willow—at least if what I saw of it was any indicator). Willow has that same trope, and while it’s at the end, it pretty much could serve as a synecdoche for the film. . . as well as a colorful description of how I felt the entire time I was watching. I know, I know—God, the internet, and everybody else in the world saw Willow when they were kids and thus it’s awesome forever, viz. The Goonies, Ladyhawke, and all the other films out there that childhood’s glamour makes everybody think I’m the biggest killjoy in the world for hating. I’m certain that was the problem here—really! And seriously, Willow was truly better than Red Sonja, and it was far better than Conan the Destroyer (it made some degree of sense), and it was certainly, completely, entirely better than Ladyhawke. So huzzah! Let it never be said that I was uncharitable, OK?

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Well okay, Ron Howard, okay. This is what you did. You made a movie where, as Molly pointed out, a bird poops on a guy’s face. This is as sure a sign as any that you did not compromise the vision that you later honed to perfection with the live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Kudos, sir, kudos.

In all seriousness, this one wasn’t the worst we’ve sat through. It’s a long, long, long—like, the distance between the Shire and Mordor kinda long—way from being anywhere near the best, but hey, let’s try to stay positive. Warwick Davis does good, which makes it all the more depressing to realize that following this starring role in a theatrical release he would be buried under prosthetics in such titles as Leprechaun, Leprechaun 4: In Space, and Leprechaun in the Hood (Molly asks: this is really a movie? [Jesse says: Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair]). Then again, Leprechaun in the Hood also featured Coolio and Ice-T, and two rappers-turned-actors have to equal one Kilmer, so maybe it’s not such a step down.

But we were trying to stay positive. So, what works about this Tolkien wannabe that substitutes a Magic Baby for a One Ring and an Ice Man for a Cool Viggo? The effects. . . well, okay, maybe not the effects themselves, which are spotty at best, but the intention behind the effects. That dragon thing is pretty alright in concept, and is apparently based on Ron Howard’s B-list brother Clint, which probably caused a drunken brawl—or round of back-slapping followed by a belching contest—at 1988’s Howard Family Thanksgiving Hootenanny. And those gross little troll things maybe influenced Kentaro Miura’s troll design for his manga series Berserk. . . except Miura’s trolls are actually horrifying monsters instead of dudes with Halloween masks and ape suits, but you know, maybe he got an idea from Willow. It could happen.

I should probably say something about the brownies, who are wretched and stupid and painful to watch, and then there’s Burglekutt, a side character who has gained a cult following and his own holiday—from the thirty seconds I watched of that clip it seems that said cult following consists of maybe four inebriated people who celebrate Burgle Day by making uncomfortable youtube videos, but compared to the dearth of holidays for other minor film sort-of villains who get shat on by birds, such as Peter Stormare/Karl Hungus in The Brothers Grimm, Burglekutt has done alright for himself.

I realize I’ve just blathered at length about random elements of a two hour long movie with no real coherence to my musings, but this is in keeping with the film itself, which feels like random fantasy stereotypes cobbled together with spirit gum and the worst cuts this side of a Star Wars film. We’ve got the prophecy, the quest relating to the prophecy, the earnest hero who learns to have faith in himself, the rogue with a heart of gold, the bad guy (bad lady here—a twist worthy of the great Shyamalan) who turns out to be good, some monsters, some magic, some armies, some fights, and some chase scenes, but it never really feels like more than a jumble, and worse still, a jumble with brownies. Still, it did lead to a Zelda knock-off for the Nintendo, and what more could we ask from a late 80s cheesefest? Perhaps a trilogy of novels written by Chris Claremont and George Lucas? No, really guys, that would be too much. . . please don’t. Please. You did. Damn.

High Points: Val Kilmer—what’s not to love about that guy? (Molly says: too busy trying not to gawp at that statement) Warwick Davis doing what he can with his starring role. The Rottweilers with rat tails. The majesty of the spectacle. . . wait, no, not that. That one fight sequence with the trolls and the dragon and the army and stuff was pretty cool, right? Yeah. The part where Britt Ekland humps Edward Woodward through a wall. . . no, damn, wrong Willow.

Low Points: There are a few of these—what are your favorites?

Final Verdict: Should still go over well with kids and drunk people. Furthermore, without this film we would not have the following, which actually made Molly angrier than the scene where the brownie screams “I stole the baby while you were taking a peepee!” at Val Kilmer. Fair warning, the video below is the sort of thing you find when you start looking up Willow on the goddamn internet, although you’ll have to jump two minutes in to get to the actual relevant segment. . . it’s worth it. Keep in mind that this somehow has nearly two hundred thousand viewings:

Next Month: Time Bandits

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her story “In Sheep’s Clothing” appears in Running with the Pack, and she has work forthcoming in Palimpsest. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.