Nostalgia #3: Willow (1988)

Piotr: I have to admit I had some doubts about the series, whether we’d be able to continue it for long, but here we are, post no. three, and I love it! And revisiting this one has been a delight!

Ola: Indeed, we may not be overly timely with our regular posts, but Nostalgia posts appear every month as planned πŸ™‚ And it looks like we’ll be continuing it in the foreseeable future, as there are many other topics to cover. There are some trips down the memory lane that we’d like to forget, like Robin of Sherwood, but there are others, fantastical and wondrous, and confirming our fondest reminiscences – like Batman: TAS, and Willow.

Willow2

Piotrek: Willow is a fantasy movie from 1988 that many considered to be Lord of the Rings light, made with the technology of the day. I’ve seen it ages ago, when the world was young and Peter Jackson was making shitty/cult horror movies, and it shaped my views on fantasy movies, more than any other 80-ties classic.Then LotR came and the new era of modern fantasy and I forgot about Willow.

Ola suggested we include it in our Nostalgia series, and I re-watched it recently with great pleasure. Obviously influenced by Tolkien, although not nearly as ambitious, it is a pretty good movie in its own right. Funny, imaginative, not too complicated, but at the same time quite skilful with its handling of the basic tropes. It’s a brainchild of George Lucas and he was good back then, when he did not try to make things too complicated.

Ola: Willow had been my first foray into fantasy movies, around the same time as my reading of Lord of the Rings – and it was a great experience. I enjoyed the child’s perspective of the camera, the fact that the titular hero’s strength did not lie in his sword skills or magical power, but rather in the very human ability of doing the right thing whatever it takes, and making friends:)

Piotrek: The story itself is quite simple. In a world almost wholly conquered by the evil queen Bavmorda there is a prophecy about a female child that will bring her down. She orders the childed hunted down and brought to her keep. This task is undertaken by queen’s daughter, Sorsha, and her general, Kael.

Ola: The name of evil queen made me laugh even back then, as in Polish it sounds like “Fun mug”… She does look like evil queen from Disney animations, and definitely gives the impression of having fun while giving the stereotypical lengthy villainous monologues.

Piotrek: On the side of the baby, we have Willow Ufgood, dwarf/hobbit wannabe wizard, the warrior Madmartigan – mercenary and womanizer, Han Solo kind of scoundrel, pixies (here called Brownies) and an enchanted sorceress, Ranziel. The main protagonist – Willow – is small and inexperienced, and in a world he doesn’t know he has to find allies to protect the child and, ultimately, fulfill the prophecy.

Willow Madmartigan

Ola: Madmartigan was my favorite character of the movie, and Kilmer seemed to have a lot of fun playing him. It seems like Lucas found a working recipe for his protagonists and decided not to change it a bit. And just as Madmartigan reminds me strongly of Han Solo, Willow has a lot in common with Luke Skywalker: the general naivety and lack of worldliness are coupled with a youth’s capacity to be constantly surprised – and, of course, a real talent for finding good companions.

Piotrek: Another unusual thing – the love story already had happened, before the movie even started. Willow is married, has a daughter he dotes on, his family is his happy anchor and his goal is to get back to his loved ones. They also support his decision to go on this risky journey to help and protect the defenseless baby!

Ola: Well, to be clear, there are two love stories, and it’s the other one – between Madmartigan and Sorsha – that actually propels the action forward πŸ˜‰ The forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet type of romance feels quite organic here, and is needed as the other bonds between the characters, much as they are commendable, don’t have this kind of watchability (well, Madmartigan and Willow’s relation was for the younger me a source of entertainment – especially that the Polish translation was surprisingly good πŸ˜‰

Willow Madmartigan and Sorsha

Piotrek: Similarities to Tolkien are obvious and plentiful. Wizards, dwarves/hobbits (I’d argue the Nelwyn are more hobbits than dwarves), quest that ultimately takes the team of protagonists into the stronghold of the Big Bad… it’s easy to find detailed lists online. It’s been also said George Lucas denied that and claimed it’sΒ a number of well-known mythological situations for a young audience. And so it is, and there are so many books and movie that copied Tolkien without the light-heartedness ofΒ Willow. Now, we do have LotR filmed, and we can judge this piece of art on its own merits.

Ola: It is by no means a deeply original movie. It is in fact not much more than a mashup of many old tropes, the most noticeable being the same as Star Wars: a hero’s journey – but a mashup done well, inherently watchable and fun, which is more than can be said about many newer flicks. And I do appreciate the slight twist to the Chosen One trope – as the Chosen One in question is a baby, she plays the role of an object of power to a much higher degree than she actually shapes the action as a conscious actor.

Willow and Elora

Piotrek: I judge it to be funny and interesting, but not great. Could have been a bit more original, plot more complex, characters deeper. It is limited in its ambitions, a good thing perhaps, and a little clumsy.

Ola: Yeah, it is a bit! It’s an affliction of many of the movies of that period – the special effects have aged no matter what, and the intent and idea are seemingly more important than their execution, but it still looks like a good piece of fun done by amateurs in the original meaning of the word: people who love what they do. Plus, the main villains are women, and the future Chosen One is female too – and it all happened without the fuss of today’s radical feminism πŸ™‚

Piotrek: The movie still looks good. Sure, it’s not the latest computer-generated visual feast, but nothing to be embarrassed about. Was there a chance of creating the Star Wars of fantasy? It’s what Lucas probably wanted, but with very modest financial success, and mediocre popularity among the critics (it has a Metascore of 43%) made it impossible. Probably rightly so, I don’t think there was a need to go further with the story. Still, in our sequel-crazy times there is some talk of Willow II.

Ola: Oh no! Hope it won’t come to that. I love it, but not that much πŸ˜‰ I don’t think it could have been the fantastical equivalent of Star Wars, for many different reasons – the completeness of this movie, for example. But it’s real fun while it lasts, and revisiting this movie is a truly positive experience. I think the main difference with Robin of Sherwood is that Robin for my 6-years-old self was pure magic – and Willow was never more than a joyful piece of entertainment. It’s insanely difficult to keep the magic nearly three decades on – but fun is fun, no matter what πŸ˜‰ That’s why I’m more willing to compare Willow to Goonies than to Robin or E.T. – there are some experiences precious to our younger selves which are nearly impossible to repeat, and then there are some that evoke a milder type of nostalgia, with blunted edges and less emotional payload πŸ˜‰ Willow for me falls into the second category.

Piotrek: Ultimately – Willow is simple, cheerful fun, a genre classic that deserves a place in canon of good fantasy movies appropriate for the younger audience. Together with Conan, and for different reasons, Willow is my favourite fantasy movie from the 80-ties.

Verdict: Recommended πŸ™‚

39 thoughts on “Nostalgia #3: Willow (1988)

  1. They did try to write sequels for Willow in book form. I saw it at the library in the 90’s. I think it was supposed to be a trilogy and I’m not sure it ever made it past book 1. I can’t think who the co-author was at the moment though, so it would take some work to figure it out.

    I sure hope you keep these posts coming. I for one am really liking them.

    I have to admit that I’ve never been tempted to re-watch this for fear that it wouldn’t live up to my 10 year old self’s memories. I really enjoyed this back then and am encouraged that you both still enjoyed this decades later. Now, I’m still not going to re-watch it πŸ™‚

    I’m not a huge actor buff, but Kilmer is one of those I wish had made more action’y films. The Saint was decent but no where near enough action compared to today’s stuff and I’m really not sure what else he’s been in.

    I still don’t have a problem with tropes like Quests and Hero Journeys and Chosen Ones. I’m thankful for that, as it means I’m going to enjoy a lot more fantasy than someone who is looking for something original. Of course, I’m also coming at things from a slightly different moral perspective, so a lot of new stuff just won’t pass muster. So maybe it all evens out in the end and we’re all miserable πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yeah, I think Willow could not have become SW no matter what – the vision was just not that big, the worldbuilding not that extensive, the characters much less mythical and more grounded in everyday.

      We’re sure glad you like the nostalgia posts – we like them too! πŸ˜€ And there will be more πŸ˜‰

      It’s rewatchable all right – but, as I said, it really depends on how much it had impacted you the first time around. It worked for me because I remembered it fondly, but at the same time I was not overwhelmed by it.

      Kilmer in action movies? He was perfect in “Heat”, he did well in “Spartan”, and I much preferred his character to Cruise’s in “Top Gun” πŸ˜‰ I’m not fond of “Batman Forever” but besides it, I don’t remember seeing him in a bad movie (but then, maybe I just didn’t watch them ;))

      I actually like those tropes pretty well – when they are done right! But for me, they need to be imbued with something more – personality, history, a twist – and they need to be told in an engaging way. The tropes themselves won’t hold the weight of the story.

      Aand I might be poking holes in everything that doesn’t catch my fancy, but who said it makes me miserable? Quite the contrary! πŸ˜€

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Loved this back in the days, saw it multiple times. I didn’t know Lucas was involved.

    I wanted to say Heat too. Not that big a fan of Kilmer, but Heat is my all-time favorite movie, and he’s great in it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yeah, Willow is one of those generational experiences… Stays with you no matter if you loved or hated it πŸ˜‰
      I’m not an overly big fan of Kilmer, I just watched a lot of movies πŸ˜‰ But “Heat” is definitely one of my favorite crime/noir movies, it’s a masterpiece πŸ˜€

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I barely remember Willow (thirty years on I can only recall a young Warwick Davis, pre Harry Potter) but my impression is that it was charming, especially the relationship between the photogenic baby and Willow. (I wonder if the name Willow and termination is a conscious echo of Bilbo and Frodo?)

    I also wonder how much the film owes to Time Bandit (1981), a Monty Python film in all but name? Here David Rappaport plays the diminutive hero; I remember him because he was based in my hometown of Bristol, where he’d gained a psychology degree at the university. Sadly he took his own life a few years later.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, I haven’t realised Time Bandits were earlier! Both are great movies, and I believe you discovered another unobvious connection πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Apparently Warwick Davies was 17 at the time of Willow – and already had played a role in Star Wars πŸ˜‰
        The baby was indeed very photogenic, and her different facial expressions formed a nice counterpoint to whatever was happening.
        I too didn’t realize Time Bandits was an earlier movie! Thanks for the tip πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You guys keep bringing the greatness for this nostalgia series. Willow is such a fun movie and so quotable (especially the Brownies.) I always thought the chemistry between Madmartigan and Sorsha was so believable, great acting…only to find out years later they actually got married in 1988. So, we’re actually watching real chemistry between Kilmer and Whalley – so, is that acting or real life? Anyone else feel like a voyeur? πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re very welcome!
      It is a sweet movie, a bit forgotten these days, but definitely worth re-watching – even if just for the sole purpose of checking whether it’s pure nostalgia or if it still holds its charm πŸ˜€
      Do you have any nostalgia-tinged movies or series or books from your childhood you’d like revisited? πŸ˜‰ Sure, there’s the risk we will tear it to pieces, but our current score for nostalgia posts is 2/3rds in favor so not bad! πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

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