Thursday, January 3, 2013

Movie Review: "Willow" by David Pretty

There are so many parallels between Willow and Star Wars that I'm really surprised that George Lucas didn't sue himself.  After all, if you take away all of the lasers and spaceships, Star Wars is pretty much straight-up fantasy.  It's got magic swords, duels, guys in armor, farmboys, wizards, impish sages, princesses and pirates.

Which is why Willow suffers in comparison.  Lucas employs the exact same character archetypes and even some of the same story beats.  But whereas Star Wars was a sincere and unpretentious creation, Willow often feels like a cynical, contrived and deliberately manufactured construct.

Keep your cliche checklist handy as you watch the following trailer...

Warwick Davis plays Willow Ufgood, a Nelwyn, which is essentially a Hobbit with the serial numbers filed off.  He lives in an idyllic village with his wife Kaiya (Julie Peters) and their two "bobbins" (read: ludicrously cute snots) Ranon (Mark Vande Brake) and Mims (Dawn Downing).  Although Willow tries his best to keep his family afloat as a farmer, his one true wish is for The High Aldwin (Billy Barty) to pick him as an apprentice and thus become a great and powerful sorcerer.      

Fate, as you might imagine, is want to intervene.  Willow's kids pluck a Daikini (I.E. human) baby out of the nearby river, Moses-style.  As it turns out, the child has been prophesied to bring about an end to the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).  Before little Elora Danon (Kate and Ruth Greenfield) can be executed, a rogue handmaiden carries her off through one credit sequence and three distinct seasons.  Just as Bavmorda's Death Hounds catch up to her, the handmaiden manages to send the kid downriver in a convenient naturally-occurring floating manger.

With blowhard rival Burglekutt (Mark Northover), pal Meegosh (David J. Steinberg) and stout warrior Vohnkar (Phil Fondacaro) in tow, Willow is tasked to bring the now-orphaned child to the Daikini crossroads and give it to the first human they see.  Unfortunately this turns out to be prisoner, rogue, and Han solo wannabe Madmartigan (Val Kilmer).

Even after the scoundrel is released, the duo run afoul of Bavmorda's gofer / daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) and her attack dog General Kael (Pat Roach).  Throw in a few Random Encounters with  Cherlindrea the Fairy Queen (Maria Holvöe), a couple of annoying Brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton) and a possum-cloaked sorceress named Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) and Willow is soon swept up in the battle against Bavmorda.

Let's inventory the good stuff first, shall we?  Willow represents one of the last CGI-lite, big-budgeted fantasy films.  Except for Fin Raziel's still-impressive-looking talking animal/transmogrification shtick, most of the special effects here are gloriously practical.  A lot of the sets are also fantastic.  I'm still impressed by Bavmorda's inner sanctum, the cursed castle of Tir Asleen and the Nelwyn village, which resembles a height-deprived Men Without Hats video.

With glorious exteriors shot in New Zealand and Wales there's also a host of incredible scenery on display.  The stark ruin of the abandoned lakeside village and the gibbet-adorned crossroads are nicely contrasted with some spectacular waterfalls, a mountaintop encampment and the Nelwyn valley.  I wonder how cold and antiseptic-looking the movie would have been if Lucas had waited to make the film at the same comfort level as the Star Wars prequels: sitting on a chair behind a wall of monitors with a Starbuck's coffee cup in his hand?

Mercifully, Willow was lensed w-a-a-a-a-a-a-y back in 1987, when film-makers were still forced to make movies outdoors in the real world.  Assigned the unpleasant task of shooting on location and dealing with flesh and blood actors was l'il Opie Cunningham, I.E. Ron Howard.  Even though the wrong-headed influence of THE FLANNELED ONE still hovers over Willow like a saccharine cloud, Howard manages to wring a fair amount of good stuff out of the hackneyed script.

First off, he gets an excellent performance out of Warwick Davis as Willow, who is, for all intents and purposes, the movie's Luke Skywalker.  Davis is earnest, passionate and incredibly resolute and his chemistry with on-screen wife Julie Peters is clearly evident.  Whenever Willow separates and re-unites with his family I threaten to degenerate into a weepy little bitch.  James Horner's incredibly evocative score certainly doesn't help stave off the encroaching waterworks.

In one particularly heart-rending scene, a host of Nockmaar soldiers twice Willow's size try to take Elora away from him.  Even though our diminutive hero fights bravely, he's eventually overwhelmed and the child is captured.  When he stumbles out of the tower with an angry-looking head wound and mutters "there were too many of them" before collapsing in a heap, it gets me every time.

Anther amazing performance comes from Jean Marsh as Bavmorda.  Even though the evil queen is clearly a Palpatine understudy, Marsh manages to invest this one-dimensionally villainous role with a tremendous sense of degenerate menace.  Props to the costume department for dressing her up in mummy-like bandages since it really helps to convey a sense of decrepit evil.  I just wish that Lucas's script gave Bavmorda a more interesting reason to be evil other then boring ol' self-preservation.

Howard's reasonably tight direction extends to many of the action sequences.  The chaotic humor apparent in the Tir Asleen battle serves to warm the audience up for a much darker final confrontation at Castle Nockmaar.  I'm also pretty impressed that the fight coordinators gave enough of a shit to come up with a unique "bait n' switch" two-weapon fighting style for Madmartigan.

The cart chase scene reminds me of a medieval Indiana Jones set-piece.  Man, I really wish that more of these lo-fi techniques and real-world peril had been injected into Crystal Skull.  Once again, James Horner's rousing score is there to heighten the effect.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the final wizards duel between Fin Raziel and Bavmorda.  It's a consistently fun, surprising and gloriously surreal sequence.

There are also some very noteworthy designs to point out.  Although General Kael is nothing but a thinly-veiled Vader clone, his armor and "Death's Head" mask are incredibly bad-ass.  I'm also a big fan of the pulpy and Lovecraftian dragon that Madmartigan is forced to tangle with.  Both creations are so fantastic that I'm willing to overlook the fact that Lucas petulantly named Kael after film critic Pauline Kael and the two-headed wyrm (the "Eborsisk") after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  Only hack Godzilla scribes Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have since stooped to such puerility.

These design innovations certainly don't extend to the Trolls who look like hobos dressed up in cheap monkey suits.  Also there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the armor worn by the Nockmaar troops.  A lot of what they're outfitted with looks like loose props cobbled together from other movies.  The Galladoorn soldiers fare even worse, often resembling rejects from a LARP convention.  I guess before Lord of the Rings came along, production designers really didn't give a shit about what the extras were wearing.      

The same haphazard attention to detail is brought to the film's schizophrenic mood, presaging the awful Star Wars prequels.  Burglekutt gets baby vomit and bird's shit in his eye while Madmartigan steps in troll poop, revealing Lucas's growing obsession with low-brow bodily humor.  All of this is juxtaposed with scenes of rotting corpses, guards being used as chew-toys, women getting mauled by wild dogs, slit throats, platoons of men being fricasseed by boiling oil and rampant impalings.  Seriously, is this movie supposed to be for kids or adults?  Oh, right, the marketing gods dictate that it's supposed to be  everything to everyone.  

Want more examples of how tonally fucked up this movie is?  The persistently annoying Brownies crack infantile one-liners and engage in constant pratfalls like a pair of Francophone Ewoks.  Ron Howard also gives Elora more coverage then the fucking star of the movie.  I can only assume that all of these close-ups and reactions shots of the baby are designed to get the audience to coo and giggle like trained monkeys.  But as I watched the finale, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone's had the decency to follow up with the babies that played Elora to find out if they're plagued with constant nightmares involving cold rain, daggers, hair-cutting, hooded weirdos and bizarre Black Magic incantations.

And I know that Lucas is probably tickled pink for inventing "peck", a dismissive and insulting term that the humans in the movie use to describe the Nelwyns.  Essentially, it's similar to Tolkien using the term "halflings" as a derisive reference to Hobbits.  That's all well and good, but in Willow the use of "peck" is incessant, gratuitous and strangely cruel.  It's darkly funny the first few (hundred) times we hear it but eventually it becomes kinda squirm-inducing.       

Some of the performances are equally scatterbrained.  Although Warwick Davis plays it straight, some of his fellow cast members take a really broad and hammy approach.  The main offender is Val Kilmer who mugs his way shamelessly throughout the film.  Just witness his clownish reaction to the dragon's first appearance, which would be more at home in a Three Stooges routine.  Granted, he doesn't get a lot of help from the film's utilitarian dialogue.  When he's forced to utter: "I hate that woman" in reference to Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), he might as well be holding up a flash card with the word "FORESHADOWING" written on it.

But it's the film's copious cannibalism of Star Wars that really pisses me off.  Sorcha is clearly a repeat of Hoth-era Princess Leia.  Apparently in Lucas's world, women are either benign, old and matronly or cold, emasculating bitches.  I'm willing to wager dollars to donuts that George's messy divorce at the time colored the character of Sorcha in much the same way that his bad karma bled into Temple of Doom.  Even though Joanne Whalley does a decent job playing cranky, she's barely convincing as an ass-kicker.

Evidence of Grand Theft Star Wars abounds.  Wipes are chronically employed as transitions.  Castle Nockmaar is inexplicably autonomous and self-contained like the Death Star. Yoda...ah...Fin Raziel on swampy, fog-shrouded island.  In an almost refreshing switcheroo, Kael gets dumped like the Emperor and Bavmorda get sparked up like Vader.  And when Lucas isn't thieving from himself he's stealing from other sources.  How can you not think of Glinda the Good Witch while Cherlindrea is giving her speech?

The movie also suffers from some horrendous lapses in logic and believability.  Even though Willow deserves some reprieve because it's a fantasy, the arbitrary things that happen in the script are symptomatic of pure laziness.  For example, after Bavmorda turns all of the Galladoorn soldiers into (P)Orcs, Fin Raziel manages to transform all of them back again, apparently one-by-one.  The re-constituted army then has enough time to dig a bunch of massive underground pits big enough to conceal an entire army and their mounts in without being detected and before Bavmorda's extended dance mix ritual ends.

Honestly, even after all of my bitching and complaining, I still have a soft spot for Willow.  I have a really hard time reconciling my emotional predisposition to certain scenes with how monumentally stupid the film is overall.  I guess it goes to show that I'm just as prone to cheap emotional manipulation as anyone else.  'Cuz, let me tell ya, when Willow returns to his village as a triumphant hero at the end of the film and re-unites with Kaiya and the "bobbins" it all somehow works for me.

Now, excuse me, I seem to have something in both of my eyes...

    Tilt: up.


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