Ten Things I'd Forgotten about "Willow"
I hadn't seen it in at least twenty years, and remembered only that Val Kilmer could barely handle his hair, the baby had great faces, and the credits rolled under the Renn Faire flute jig to end 'em all.
Wow, did I forget a LOT about Willow.
1. George Lucas has a knack for cooking up trope soup in ten minutes and leveraging it into a franchise and licensing orgy until no one wants it any more and then sending it to Disneyland. If given a quest fantasy, it's to be expected he'd do the same thing; there are plenty of fantasy tropes to pick from. It gets a little weirder when he gathered all the ingredients for his trope soup directly from Tolkein's garden and the script was originally full of eraser holes where he replaced "ring" with "infant," and then, grudgingly, crossed out "throw it into the fires" and replaced it with "give it to a nice family," because he really wanted ILM to work on fire and hadn't really thought much about what they were actually gonna throw into the flames, because George Lucas.
(Example of his thematic rigor: I wanted to give the movie full marks for casting little people, until I read on the Wikipedia page that Lucas had said he "thought it would be great to use a little person in a lead role. A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea.")
2. Said infants did the best acting of anyone in the cast. (How do you even get faces like that from a baby? I'm asking academically, no one hand me a baby, I don't like them.) Largely this success was because she was not required to say any of the lines.
3.That doesn't mean all the acting was bad! Warwick Davis, who had to say a huge number of lines like, "She needs to be changed," and "Look out!", did a better job than the movie deserved. David J. Steinberg, as his friend Meegosh, was set up to be a great companion until everyone realized he was way too Sam Gamgee and literally sent the guy home. Val Kilmer nailed the Ye Olde Indiana Solo bit as Madmartigan; Gavan O'Herlihy was appropriately handsome in the role of Madmartigan's ex-boyfirend. Jean Marsh was...inexplicably present. Joanne Whalley was convincing as the head of the guard, and Patricia Hayes turned in a performance she probably couldn’t believe would ever be asked of her.
4. ...because "Can you give us what you think you would sound like if you were a possum, then a crow, then a goat?" is not a thing you should generally ask of people who need to be powerful sorcerers later, because Industrial Light and Magic's live-action tech abilities to use animal-morph technology did not filter down into their ability to create one animated mouth flap on that possum, which sent an entire theatre into hysterics for reasons no one understood. A straw poll reveals no one who'd seen it on the small screen had ever given it a second thought, but a ten-foot-tall possum with a squeaky voice and an animated mouth flap is TOO MUCH TO TAKE.
5. It's to the credit of Patricia Hayes that when she finally does become human again, she is in fact pretty badass. In fact, she's one of three canonically badass and powerful women in this movie over the age of 50, including also the evil Queen Bavmorda, and the nameless laundress who smuggles the baby out of the palace in the film's opening moments and spirits it to safety. Of the women under the age of 50, one is Kaiya, Willow's wife, who runs the house and farm in a way not portrayed as a nagging shrew, and one is Sorsha, an evil-soon-to-be-good captain of the guard who never has to prove how spunky she is because her authority is assumed and absolute. There's a Powerful Floaty Plot Device Cameo Lady, if we must, and of course, the whole reason Elora Danan is in trouble in the first place is because she's going to grow up to become an awesome queen. (We still spend most of the movie with Willow and Madmartigan, but it was genuinely interesting to see so many women, especially in a movie about a baby where many of them did not care about nurturing that baby except for ritual-death purposes, and where the primary caretaker is a dude.)
This is this baby's ugliest face, no joke. Everything else is cuter than this.
6. It is to no one's credit that the Brownies exist at all; if you want to know what forced comedy looks like, that's your ready example. There's a lot of comedy in this movie! That's fine! (The scene where Billy Barty blows the lid off "The Bones have spoken"? Nice!) This part is not fine! Does NO ONE in that entire enormous ranch-slash-sprawling-underground-city have the power to rest their hand on Lucas's pen and say, softly but firmly, "That's enough, George"?
7. Speaking of amazing humor, you're never too old for a vomit or bird-poop-in-the-mouth joke, if you are Ron Howard or George Lucas! (You're also never too old for a troll that boils away into a brain and instantly becomes an enormous two-headed monster full of gooey special effects that you name "Eborsisk" after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, I guess.)
8.Only vaguely related: Val Kilmer is genuine funny. Obviously it's no secret, see also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Top Secret!, but in his hit-or-miss career it's easy to lose the thread of his grumpily affable humor, and he really saved a lot of his screen time with it here. The scene where, drugged, he pitches starry woo to the armed Sorsha is great screwball. The scene where he's sobered up and has to hash it out after he takes her prisoner is almost as good. His still-druggy defense to Willow of "I don't love her, she kicked me in the face!" might top them all.
9. Totally unrelated: did you know there are fans of this movie whose favorite character is Burglekutt and who will say all his lines in time with the movie? I sure didn't! If you're one of those people, don't tell me!
10. There is a lot of divided opinion on this movie. Part of me finds that surprising, since by no movie rubric (the Camp Scale or the Artistic Accomplishment Ladder) would this be considered anything better than Eh, but one of the people in our camp considers this one of their favorite movies in a totally unironic way; it happens. I will say, rarely have I seen a studio adventure that so much wanted to be either a comfortable B-movie with moments of delight, or a blockbuster epic with moments of humor, and spent the entire movie unable to decide. It had dogs in shaggy sweaters as the demon hounds and it also flew everybody to New Zealand! They went to all the trouble of CGIing the Brownies without ever apparently realizing how grating and unfunny the Brownies actually were! It staged a battle in an empty castle but filmed a ten-minute chase scene that was mostly two paper-mache wig heads stapled onto a sled and sent down a hill! Oh, movie; like your hero, you try so hard, and come back to what you started with, except knowing you can rub your pig trick in everyone's faces forever.