‘WILLOW’ (1988): What Makes it Great…and Did Disney Drop the Ball?

Willow is a fantasy film directed by Ron Howard originally released on May 20, 1988. The story was conceived by George Lucas (already famous for Star Wars and the Indiana Jones films), and he also served as the film’s executive producer. The movie combines elements of fantasy, adventure, and fairy tale, and it is set in a fictional world filled with magic and mythical creatures. It’s also markedly different from Lucas’s other stuff. Sure, his more sci-fi works have obvious fantasy elements, but Willow leans more in the direction of a Dungeons & Dragons-like “fantasy adventure” or “speculative fiction.”

The film follows the journey of Willow Ufgood, a young farmer and aspiring sorcerer, played by Warwick Davis. Even before the epic quest begins, the story has some built-in potential for clashes between different people. In addition to some townsfolk scoffing at Willow’s aspirations to become a great sorcerer, the story proposes a world in which shorter people are called “Nelwyn” and they tend to live apart from tall people (who the Nelwyn call “Daikini”). In other words, the film does sporadically address themes like discrimination by others, as well as the struggle to prove oneself against naysayers.

Willow and the Quest

Willow’s life takes a dramatic turn when he finds a baby girl named Elora Danan (Kate and Ruth Greenfield and Rebecca Bearman), who is destined to bring about the downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda, awesomely played by Jean Marsh. With the help of a roguish swordsman named Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer, and a group of loyal companions (two Brownies played by Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton, and also the kick-ass Fin Raziel, an older sorceress played by Patricia Hayes), Willow embarks on a quest to protect the baby and deliver her to safety.

Throughout their journey, Willow and his companions encounter various obstacles and adversaries, including mythical beasts, powerful sorcery, and Bavmorda’s henchmen. There’s also a pretty solid “will they/won’t they” dynamic between Madmartigan and Bavmorda’s daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley). This is probably one of the better examples of that trope being done well, as it feels organic to the storyline and the performances don’t make it feel particularly hokey. There’s even the question of whether Madmartigan’s feelings for her could have been real or if they were triggered by a stupid love potion.

The film showcases a blend of practical effects and groundbreaking visual effects, created by Industrial Light & Magic, which was also founded by George Lucas. Willow only received a few positive positive reviews upon its release. Still, even those jaded a-hole critics typically praised its visual effects and Warwick Davis’ performance as the titular character, and fans surely appreciated its imaginative world-building. The film also developed a cult following over the years, and typically not in the “So bad it’s good” sense.

Willow (1988)

The Future of Willow? Is it Now Just Mickey Mouse Scat?

While not a box office blockbuster, Willow has remained a beloved film among fans of fantasy and adventure genres and is the sort of movie you can probably watch with Mom and Dad. It has gained recognition for its memorable characters, epic scope, and its influence on subsequent fantasy works. It’s not a classic for everyone, but there are surely some people out there who like it better than Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the endlessly cranked-out superhero and standard Disney flicks.

That being said, the short-lived television series based on the original film, also titled Willow, was a Disney project, and that may be partly why it lasted only one season. You see, Willow is a bit of a darker film, and Disney typically doesn’t have that sort of tone (except for tiny little kids who might fear anything). Therefore, it’s entirely plausible that the placement of Willow in Mickey’s gloves just didn’t seem right for fans. It was maybe a little too incongruous. Mickey caught it, pawed it to death, chewed it up, and brought it back o the fans, but they weren’t necessarily impressed enough to give Mickey the big cheese cash he requires.


Seriously…Can a Willow Franchise Survive Disney?

Perhaps unfortunately, perhaps not, the series’ failure has probably put a stop to an expanded Willow franchise. Disney+ is going an extra step by actually removing the series from its streaming service entirely (Willow series writer John Bickerstaff speculates the move is pathetically to “get out of paying residuals” during the 2023 writer’s strike).

While I hate to end this on a sour note like that, I should probably say it’s not me providing the sour note…at least not exactly. After all, I am not the one who’s making these decisions to acquire companies, create projects, scrap them, and then remove the ability for streaming (or Bluray/DVD purchases and rentals) to revitalize a franchise.

That’s what corporate America is doing. It’s almost impossible for fans of different franchises to not criticize some of these decisions. Once again, it seems like Mickey is letting us down, and that’s a shame. Still, go ahead and watch the original film. You might like it.

What are your thoughts on Willow? Will Mickey Mouse go after me with a blowtorch and hacksaw for questioning his mischievous corporate wisdom? Let us know in the comments!

About wadewainio

Wade is a wannabe artist and musician (operating under the moniker Grandpa Helicopter), and an occasional radio DJ for WMTU 91.9 FM Houghton. He is an occasional writer for Undead Walking, and also makes up various blogs of his own. He even has a few books in the works. Then again, doesn't everyone?

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