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Featured Blu-ray: Willow

March 30th, 2013

Willow - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Willow came out 25 years ago. It was a fantasy epic that cost $50 million to make and was written by George Lucas, who was coming off of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It was directed by Ron Howard, who hadn't yet had any monster hits, but both Splash and Cocoon were very profitable and well received. This film had high expectations. It didn't live up to them. Its reviews were merely mixed and it came nowhere near becoming the $100 million hit like a lot of people thought it would. Now that 25 years have passed and the expectations are not there, does it work? Or would it have failed to find an audience even with lowered expectations?

The Movie

The movie takes place in a kingdom ruled by an evil queen, Queen Bavmorda. Queen Bavmorda lives under the threat of a prophecy that states a girl will be born with a mark on her arm and that this girl will end her rule. In order to protect herself, she captures all of the pregnant women in her kingdom and holds them till they give birth, checking each female child for the mark. At the beginning of the movie, they find a child with the right mark. While her daughter, Sorsha, goes to tell Queen Bavmorda, the new mother begs the midwife to take the child from the castle and run away with it. The midwife agrees, but it isn't long before Queen Bavmorda's forces, a pair of Nockmaar hounds, find the midwife. She isn't able to get away, but she is able to create a makeshift raft and send the child down the river before she is torn apart by the hounds. All of this happens before the opening credits are finished.

After the opening credits, a pair of Nelwyn children, Ranon and Mims, find the child at the riverbank. They know it is not a Nelwyn (think Halfling or Hobbit) so they tell their father, Willow Ufgood. He recognizes it as a Daikini, which is the Nelwyn term for human, or Giants as Willow describes us. At first, he wants nothing to do with the child. He simply wants to push the raft back into the river and pretend they never saw it. However, soon his wife, Kiaya, learns of the baby and she immediately wants to take care of it. She gets her way, but this is partially because the baby seems to like Willow.

Unfortunately, this is a bad time for Willow. Not only does he have to get the planting done, but the next day the village's wizard, High Aldwin, will be choosing a new apprentice and Willow hopes to be the one. He is not. In fact, like so many years in a row, no one is chosen. This disappointment doesn't really have a chance to set in when the village is attacked by a Nockmaar hound. Fortunately, there's only one and the village warriors, led by Vohnkar (Phil Fondacaro) are able to defeat it with ease. The village leader, Burglekutt (Mark Northover), is convinced if there's one hound, others will follow. They have to find out why they are coming and punish whomever is responsible. Willow realizes they've come for the child and High Aldwin decides they have to take the child to the Daikini, any Daikini. Willow is to take the child, but he can't go alone. Meegosh, his best friend, volunteers to go with him, as does Vohnkar. They need a leader, and High Aldwin tells Burglekutt that he must go. Just before they leave, High Aldwin gives Willow some advice. He tells him the only reason he wasn't chosen as the apprentice was because he lacks faith in himself. If he learned to believe in himself, he could be a great sorcerer.

Meanwhile at Nockmaar castle, Sorsha is trying to explain to Queen Bavmorda why she hasn't found the baby yet, but Queen Bavmorda has already called in General Kael. He will lead the new push, much to the dismay of Sorsha, who thinks she doesn't need the help.

After a short run in with some of Queen Bavmorda's forces, Willow and the others wisely hide in the bushes, they finally come across a Daikini. Unfortunately, it's Madmartigan, who's locked in a crow's cage. At least that's the term used in the movie. I don't think that's the right term, but when I tried to look it up, I got a Blue Screen of Death and lost my entire review. ... So crow's cage it is. At first, Madmartigan tries to choke Willow. Even so, Burglekutt wants to give the child to him. He is a Daikini, after all. Willow refuses, so Burglekutt and Vohnkar return home, leaving Willow and Meegosh with Madmartigan. The next morning, Madmartigan tries being nice to Willow and Meegosh, in the hope of getting out, then he pleads for pity. It almost works when an army arrives. Willow tries to get them to take the baby, but Airk Thaughbaer explains they are going into battle, which is no place for a baby. At this point, Madmartigan tries to get Airk to let him out. They were friends and Madmartigan offers to fight along side Airk, but Airk rides off leaving him in the cage. At this point, Madmartigan sincerely offers to take care of the baby and Willow and Meegosh believe him and begin the journey home.

They don't make it because they see the baby being carried by a bird, which is being ridden by a Brownie. Willow and Meegosh chase the bird, but are quickly ambushed by more Brownies and quickly captured. The Brownies are ruled by a Fairy Queen, Cherlindrea (Maria Holvöe), who tells Willow the baby, named Elora Danan, has chosen him to be her protector. She instructs Willow to take her wand and find Fin Raziel, an exiled sorceress, who will be able to help them defeat Queen Bavmorda. She also instructs two of her Brownies, Rool and Franjean, to accompany them on his journey. (He tells Meegosh to go home at this point. He can't risk his friend's life.)

It will be a dangerous journey, but fortunately he runs into an old friend. Unfortunately, it's Madmartigan.

At the moment, Willow has 48% positive reviews. That's pretty much a perfect description of the movie. It's nearly perfectly divided between things that work and things that don't. It is a classic telling of the hero's journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, but it doesn't do a lot new with the basic structure. Some special effects that were groundbreaking at the time and some still look great today. However, not all of them have aged well (this includes a lot of the Blue Screen work). Willow is also a good character and not the usual tall, muscular hero we've seen a hundred times. There are also some great action scenes, especially the climax, as well as the battle with the two-headed dragon. On the other hand, the film has pacing problems. It takes way too long to get to that climax. We see a close-up of the baby way too many times. The comic relief characters don't serve any purpose to the plot, other than to be comic relief, and they are not funny.

Overall, Willow is worth checking out, but I don't think it has much replay value, unless nostalgia is a big factor for you. Admittedly, it will be a big factor for a lot of people.

The Extras

There are a couple of making of featurettes, the first a general overview and the second focusing on early CGI effects. Both of these are old extras, but they have new intros. Warwick Davis sits down for an interview about making the movie with a lots of behind-the-scenes footage. There are a few deleted scenes, with an intro by Ron Howard. Finally, there's a short look at some of the matte paintings. There is also an Easter Egg to hunt down.

While Willow wasn't a hit in theaters, it became a hit on the home market, so much so that the studio decided it warranted a full restoration, overseen by George Lucas. They did an outstanding job. Outside of a couple minor issues (it's a little soft at times and the special effects look a little weaker in high definition) it is an excellent transfer. There are no signs of print damage, compression issues, digital manipulation, etc. The details are good, the colors are vibrant, the blacks are deep, etc. The audio is just as strong with clear dialogue, good separation, lots of activity in the surround sound speakers. There's directional effects and solid bass and the score envelops you.

Finally, the Blu-ray costs $17, which is a good price for a releases such as this. There are new extras and a vastly improved technical presentation.

The Verdict

For a lot of people who grew up on Willow, the Blu-ray is easily worth buying. If you have never seen it, it works, mostly, and there are some early impressive CGI effects that are worth checking out. If you are a fan of the genre, it is worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, Willow, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Billy Barty, Warwick Davis, Patricia Hayes, Ron Howard, Val Kilmer, George Lucas, Jean Marsh, Gavan O'Herlihy, Rick Overton, Kevin Pollak, Pat Roach, David Steinberg, Joanne Whalley