directed by Ron Howard
(MGM, 1988)

Willow is a children's fantasy movie with adult appeal.

The story is full of fantasy stereotypes -- short but stalwart heroes, evil sorceress/queens, transformed enchantresses, ne'er-do-well rogues with secret hearts of gold, cute infants who are the Last Hope of the downtrodden people, magical allies, misguided villains transformed by love, and so on. The pieces are assembled in a plot that's clever but scarcely original, and the special effects and costumes are surely less impressive than many other fantasy films on the market.

And yet Willow endures as a perennial favorite among children and adults alike.

Co-written by executive producer George Lucas (with Bob Dolman), the movie lifts heavily from various sources, from Tolkein's Bilbo and Frodo to Lucas's own Star Wars mythos to legends of King Arthur and Odysseus (and even a bit of Moses). And it's predictable in many ways; it's easy to guess who will kill whom, who will kiss whom, who will switch sides by the end, who will die heroically (albeit not before the appropriately poignant "dying words" scene), who will appear to die but really won't, and so on.

But, despite all its failings, the charm of Willow is undeniable. Perhaps it's the movie's very simplicity -- no pretentions, just plain ol' fantasy swords and sorcery -- that makes it so endearing.

Perhaps it's the curmudgeonly stick-to-itiveness of the diminutive Willow (Warwick Davis). He's good-hearted, fiercely loyal and protective, and just a bit curmudgeonly. (OK, he's a little overbearing and I wish he complained a bit less, but what can you do?)

Or perhaps it's the roguish charm of Madmartigan (Val Kilmer). Kilmer is tons of fun, even when he manages to live up to his early bragging by really being the world's greatest swordsman and when he magically falls in love. (Although I could have done without the giant rolling snowball scene.)

The rest of the cast is a mixed success.

Jean Marsh as the evil sorceress-queen Bavmorda is fine in a scenery-chewing kind of way, but she strives too hard to be a cross between Helen Mirren's Morgana from the fantasy classic, Excalibur, and the evil sorceress-queen from Disney's animated Snow White. Pat Roach is little more than scenery as the looming villain Kael, trying but not succeeding to be fantasy's answer to Darth Vader.

Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (the future Mrs. Kilmer and, later still, ex-Mrs. Kilmer) is endearing as Bavmorda's daughter Sorsha,, although she's never really believable as a force of evil.

I doubt if the movie owes much success to the appeal of the tiny brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton as Rool and Franjean), whose phony French accents and constant bickerings are amusing for a few moments but grow annoying fast. But I suppose some people might like that sort of thing.

Billy Barty makes a delightful cameo as High Aldwin, Willow's magical mentor. And Patricia Hayes is a fierce Raziel, the good witch, although the animal transformation schtick gets old after Willow's first few miscasts. Infant twins Ruth and Kate Greenfield are just plain cute as Elora Danan, the future princess who's the root of all the movie's mayhem.

Costumes, make-up and effects are only adequate. The movie provides the ugliest two-headed dragon I've ever seen, and the trolls look like children in cheap monkey suits.

Still, Willow is an excellent fantasy film treasure -- perfect for children, but fun for the "big" kids, too.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.