We've Got to Save the Baby!
Recently Disney made the curious decision to green-light a Willow TV series. I say it's curious because, frankly, who even remembers there was a movie named Willow, let alone actually cared enough about it to want to see a sequel. Oh, sure, it's an IP and Disney owns it (because it was a Lucasfilm IP and Disney owns that studio), but there had to be other properties Disney could pursue before delving into another Willow. What's next, a live action The Three Caballeros?
I joke a bit, but seriously, the most I've seen of Willow over the years is the Capcom-developed video game loosely based on the movie, which isn't really any good but has developed its own following over the years. The movie, though? It was a moderate success that quickly faded from most memories. A tiny, vocal contingent might have been crying out (for decades) for more Willow, but the rest of us? Hell, most of us didn't even bother watching the film (myself included).
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for more Warwick Davis. The man should be in everything. I'd cast him as DraculaHe's the great undead fiend, the Prince of Darkness, the monster based on a real historical figure. He... is Dracula! just to see him kill it in the role (and you gotta admit it would be a different Dracula than you're used to). But from the trailer for the film back in the day, and it's relatively minor cult following that developed once it quickly left theaters, I'd never felt the need to subject myself to the movie. With the Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars. series having just wrapped it's first (and maybe only) season, though, now was the time to see what all the (minimal) fuss was about. The verdict: I wish I hadn't.
Willow follows Willow Ufgood (Davis), a Nelwyn (think fantasy Dwarf) farmer and wanna be magician who aspires to nothing more than to not be harassed by those strong than him in his own village. His chance at greatness comes when a baby arrives at his farm, floating down the river on a basket of reeds and lilly pads. Although hesitant to take the baby at first, Willow is cajoled into protecting her by his wife, Kaiya (Julie Peters). Soon, though, warriors of the evil Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) come looking for the babe. Willow simply can't let this happen.
Gathering a small group of men from his village (who soon after flee in terror at the first sign of real danger), Willow strikes out to find someone that can actually help him protect the baby. Along the way he meets Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a warrior for hire who, after some convincing, decides to aid Willow. Together the venture off, meaning pixies and fairies, fighting dragons and demons, all to keep the baby safe. And why does the baby need saving from Bavmorda? Because the baby is prophesized to lead to the end of Bavmorda and her plans for world domination. It's the baby or the evil queen for the fate of all the world.
So there are some upsides to this film that I don't want to ignore. Most of that comes in the casting, specifically with the two leads. Warwick Davis is great here, solid at playing a guy that wants to be a hero even if he's not quite sure how to go about being one. His journey to find himself, and his inner power, is the main thread of this film, and Davis absolutely kills it. Whatever else you can say about this film around Warrick Davis, his part in the film is great.
I can also say the same for Val Kilmer. Madmartigan is an underwritten character, part comic relief and part wannabe hero. So other actor probably would have over-played or under-played the role, but Kilmer is probably one of the best actors of his generation. Madmartigan is corny and dumb, but there's a certain kinetic charisma that Kilmer lends to the role, making the character watchable. He's not well written, and his plot thread through the film (figuring out how he wants to be a hero) falls pretty flat, but damn is the character watchable in Kilmer's hands.
And I will note is that the scenes in the Nelwyn village were at least halfway watchable. They aren't great, mind you, but all the performers in these scenes were committed to what they were doing. It's an upside-down side issue here, though, as while the actors do their best, the film asks some embarrassing things of them. They are dwarves (like actual people with dwarfism) and while I can appreciate that the film populate the entire village with performers of their stature (as so few movies let these performers be normal characters in a normal movie), the stunts required by their characters don't go so well. The stunts were written, I would guess, with what a normal height person can perform, and watching these performers attempt to fight, and brawl, and have elaborate combat, just feels bad. The film needed a stunt coordinator that understand these actors, but what's on screen doesn't really reflect that level of care and coordination.
Worse is that everything around the leads is pretty crap, and we can start that with the actual plot of the film. It's basically a mad libs of fantasy tropes all stitch together without much (or any) nuance. A baby is fated to save the world, so she's whisked away and ends up in the hands of a reluctant hero. Then the hero has to pull together a team of misfits, all of whom have to find their own power, all before taking on the generically evil queen (dressed all in black) who wants to kill the baby. There's so little of substance to the plot that the film doesn't even try to fill it in. "This queen is bad. Baby good. Go."
Beyond that, much of the film is populated by people that can't act with anywhere near the nuance and heart given by Davis and Kilmer. Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton play a couple of brownies, and they play them so broad that they go well past annoying and into some new realm of unwatchability. Maria Holvoe plays a fairy queen so unmemorable I forgot she was in the film until I looked at a cast list. Patricia Hayes gets the thankless job of having to voice animal characters and still, somehow, doesn't find anything good to do with the role. Like, none of this is good.
And, to put i mildly, this is one ugly film. There are barely any real set, and those the film provides look like cheap back lot designs from the 1950s. What special effects are in the film are cheap and ugly, with some of the worst compositing I think I've ever seen. All of this is fascinating, in a morbid kind of way, considering the film was produced by Lucasfilm and had ILM's designers working on it. How one of the best effects firms of the era could turn out a film this trashy looking is beyond me.
So, on basically all fronts outside the lead actors, this film fails. I can appreciate some of the swings it took, and I love that it made Warwick Davis into a fantasy hero. But, frankly, this was a tiresome and tedious movie made only passably interesting by Davis and Kilmer. If they hadn't been in the film, it would have been B-movie schlock, little better than what's regularly lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.. The thing I'm happiest about is that I never have to watch this film again.