Culture on My Mind
February 13, 2023
At the end of November 2022, the revival series for Willow premiered on Disney+. The original film from 1988 is a cult classic that was originally written by George Lucas, scripted by Bob Dolman (Far and Away, SCTV), directed by the legendary Ron Howard, and starred Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, and Joanne Whalley. It also showcased the incomparable Jean Marsh as the villainous Queen Bavmorda, and she left no pieces of scenery unchewed in her performance.
The story is a basic sword-and-sorcery plot that has unlikely heroes racing to protect a mythical chosen one from the elements of evil. This film came from a time period saturated with sword-and-sorcery, including the Conan the Barbarian entries, Deathstalker, The Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, Krull, and so on. In that light, Willow is a tongue-in-cheek love letter that both parodies and celebrates the genre.
The story revolves around the age-old trope of an infant Chosen One, which is addressed by the evil queen executing a toned-down Massacre of the Innocents by imprisoning all of the pregnant women in her domain. When the foretold newborn escapes, she ends up floating down the river – another biblical parallel and fantasy trope – and landing in the arms of Willow Ufgood. The halfling Nelwyn is the heart and soul of this film and ends up taking an epic journey to deliver Elora Danan to her destiny.
Since the Nelwyn are socially secluded, like the Hobbits of Tolkien’s masterworks, Willow’s initial instructions are to travel only long enough to leave the baby with the first Daikini (“tall person”) that he can find. That person is Madmartigan, a mercenary who reluctantly joins the quest in an attempt to keep doing what rogues do. Willow also answers the call of becoming a sorcerer with the help of brownies – an interpretation of the Scottish hobgoblin lore and analogue to fairies – and the fairy queen Cherlindrea.
The tropes keep coming with a cursed enchantress who Willow needs to restore to human form, plenty of fantastic creatures to slay, and a love interest for Val Kilmer (literally, since he later married the actress) in Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha, warrior daughter to evil queen.
No joke: Sorsha finds ultimate redemption by falling in love with Madmartigan. Even Willow isn’t safe from missteps like this.
The movie rockets onward with several more light-hearted fantasy and comedy tropes, including hiding from troops by wearing women’s clothing, a high-speed duel between goons on horseback and our heroes in a rickety cart, a perilous race down a snowy mountainside on a shield (ala Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and a couple of swashbuckling swordfights.
In the end, Willow defeats the evil queen by slight-of-hand and everyone’s happy once again.
All told, the film is a fun romp with a ton of heart and soul. It is effectively a light Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Rather, a corny screwball teenage fantasy where kids could see themselves in the starring roles. It was unique in this regard since most fantasy fare focused on a big shirtless musclebound hero like Schwarzenegger’s Conan, but Willow provided representation for empathic and non-athletic people like me through Willow himself. It’s easy to see why it became a cult favorite, especially considering the easily accessible (and modern for the time) humor spread throughout. Val Kilmer has a major hand in that since he ad-libbed the majority of his lines, effectively carrying his role through the power of charisma.
George Lucas originally conceived of the story in 1972 as a means to present well-known mythological situations to a younger audience, which seems to be a standard for his style. He also tailored it for Warwick Davis after being impressed with the young actor during Return of the Jedi. Davis obviously had a ball in the role, and the only reason that he doesn’t have top billing is studio politics.
The big stumbling block was visual effects technology, which he finally found to match his vision in the mid-1980s. He approached Ron Howard based on their strong relationship and, based on the story, Howard recommended Bob Dolman. Lucas admired Dolman’s style and work on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
The film itself was rejected by various film studios because fantasy was taking a downward turn according to the performances of Krull, Legend, Dragonslayer, and Labyrinth. Lucas called in a favor with Alan Ladd Jr. at MGM since the studio head was in charge at 20th Century Fox when Lucas pitched Star Wars.
Of course, Industrial Light & Magic handled the visual effects, including the first use of digital morphing technology that would later be used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The score was written by James Horner, a well-known film music composer in the 1980s (and beyond) who played with metaphors and the spiritual side of mythology and music history. His score was influenced by Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Mozart’s “Requiem”, Béla Bartók’s “The Nine Splendid Stags”, Edvard Grieg’s “Arabian Dance” for Peer Gynt, and the works of Sergei Prokofiev. Most notably, “Willow’s Theme” paraphrases part of the theme of the first movement (“Lebhaft”) of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, and “Elora Danan’s Theme” references the Bulgarian folk song “Mir Stanke Le”, also known as the “Harvest Song from Thrace”.
The movie was pretty much a melting pot of cultural and technological ideas.
The film was released on May 20, 1988, and premiered at number one, but it fell well short of blockbuster expectations against Crocodile Dundee II, Big, and Rambo III. Critics were also mixed, faulting the pacing and generic story while praising The Princess Bride for doing a similar movie better. They did, however, note that kids may be hooked by it.
Willow was nominated for several awards, including Oscar nominations for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects and Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Screenplay and Worst Supporting Actor. It won a Saturn Award for Best Costume Design. It has been a staple of home entertainment since it was first released to VHS, Betamax, Video 8, and LaserDisc on November 22, 1988.
There have been a few spinoff properties over the years, including a board game, three video games, and a trilogy of sequel novels that Lucas outlined and Chris Claremont wrote. Those novels, the Chronicles of the Shadow War trilogy, have since gone out of print and are allegedly disavowed by George Lucas. In 2005, George Lucas and Warwick Davis started discussing a television series sequel, which finally came to fruition in November 2022 after two years of development with Disney+.
I watched the original film for the first time in a long while before moving directly into the sequel series after the first season was completed. I can safely say that the only difference between the movie and the series is about 35 years.
We’ve gotten older. The story has evolved to meet its target audience. The heart is still the same.
Typical of fantasy tropes, evil avoids being defeated by traveling through generations, leaving a new band of heroes to take up the quest and save the world. Elora Danon is back but has no idea who she truly is. Sorcha has become a queen and had two children, each of which must contend with their lineage. The innocence and gentleness of Willow Ufgood has been transferred to Prince Graydon while Willow himself takes on the mentorship role from Fin Raziel and the High Aldwin. Princess Kit combines her father’s swashbuckling swagger with her mother’s weight-of-the-world worry. The role of jester once inhabited by the Brownies is taken up by a rogue named Thraxus Boorman.
The representation I mentioned before? It takes a new turn with a same-sex relationship, marking the first Disney+ franchise to actually focus on a queer storyline.
Typical to fantasy: Same story, different telling. This story returns to basic sword-and-sorcery stuff, but evolved through three or four decades of high fantasy and urban fantasy fare. There are elements of The Mummy franchise, Merlin, Xena: Warrior Princess, Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more in the mix. The tongue-in-cheek approach that made Willow a cult classic among fans still exists in the series.
The big difference that I see in the comments is that the fans who fell in love in 1988 don’t see their movie in this series. Comments like “this show resembles the Willow movie in name only”, “the tone, atmosphere and characters are completely different in style”, and “it doesn’t contribute anything unique to the genre” are telling. Neither generation of Willow hides that love is the core of their story. In fact, the sequel wears this value on its sleeve: “Love is the most powerful force in the universe.”
The original Willow fans have grown up, but remember the common thread surrounding that original film? Willow itself is geared by design to the youth of the era.
We’ve talked time and again about how representation matters. The original had its representation with women warriors and atypical heroes, and the sequel emphasizes love between consenting adults in the face of intolerance. Both of them offer representation of chosen family – a staple of Lucas’s works for generations – and the sequel takes it even further for a generation that places significant emphasis on the concept.
Fans of my generation have their Willow, and now new fans 35 years later have their Willow, too.
Modern dialogue is easy to access. Modern plot devices are easy to access. Even the use of modern music – an element of the new series that I don’t like, especially since I can’t find a relevant theme consistent with the song and its respective episode – is something right out of the fantasy properties for this generation. I’m not a fan of today’s vampire and werewolf shows, which are contemporary fantasy vehicles, but I catch enough of their elements when they’re playing in my house. The use of modern music instead of a soaring closing theme is the way of things today in that genre.
The argument that the series doesn’t contribute anything unique to the genre is a non-starter for me. The original Willow was a mash-up of fantasy tropes. It was not original, but it was unique because of its heart. The new series is no different.
The sequel series and the original film are fun pieces of fluff with a ton of heart and representation for days. Neither of them is high art nor my favorite thing in the world, but they are beacons of joy for two distinct generations in the hue and cry of our daily drudgery. If that’s not for you, that’s fine, but don’t stand in the way of that happiness for someone else.
It is for that simple joy and what it brings to people that I appreciate both versions of Willow.
Both Willow (1988) and Willow: Season One are available to stream on Disney+. Willow (1988) is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray wherever fine physical media is sold.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.