Willow (1988)

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 the primary news item was very definitely Star Wars and the announcement of a new expansion on the galaxy far, far away. The Force Awakens comes this December, but talk is already turning to Indiana Jones, another Lucasfilm franchise, and the possibility of continuing that as well (because distilling Raiders into Crystal Skull wasn’t enough). What’s next? THX 1138Howard the Duck? Radioland Murders? Perhaps even an original idea? Probably none of those for a few years, while Wars and Jones get the attention they deserve. Eventually, though, they’ll probably remake Willow.

Starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, Willow is a fantasy epic set in what seems to be a mystical land of fairies, witches, warriors and little magicians. Willow Ufgood is our unlikely hero, tasked with the safe passage of a prophesied infant through the dangerous lands outside the borders of his home. He seems like a simpleton, a mere farmer, but there’s a lot more to Willow than meets the eye. Importantly, despite the evil tyranny he encounters in his quest, Willow remains one of the most endlessly optimistic characters in all of fantasy cinema. This made Ron Howard the perfect director at the time to handle Willow’s journey, as his previous Cocoon was similarly steeped in magic and optimism. Davis is instantly iconic as Willow. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer plays a drunk version of Aragorn.

Willow has defenders and champions, but the film is inescapably dated today and pales in comparison to other similarly-minded epics. When Fellowship of the Ring exploded into the film world it might have seemed short-statured heroes in sweeping epics was once again a bankable idea, but now it’s tough to imagine Willow succeeding without major changes to the storyline and character list. Aside from Mr. Ufgood himself, there aren’t many likable chaps in Willow; in an epic that size, you probably need more than one single character to identify with. Hell, even Game of Thrones has a handful of relatable people, and that’s a wasteland of fantastical antagonists if ever there was one. Granted, the landscape of Willow hews closer to “annoying gnat-sized nonentities” than “wretched hive of scum and villainy”.

But, hey: speaking of Mos Eisley, one of the most interesting things about Willow is the way it fits into the canon universe of Star Wars. Okay, it isn’t actually considered part of the Star Wars lore, but one April Fool’s Day prank on StarWars.com did posit that Willow could conceivably be a part of that galaxy far, far away — much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans who didn’t realize it was April 1st. Safe in the knowledge that it is in fact a prank, it’s pretty interesting to consider the addition of Willow to that most famous of film franchises.

Consider all the planets we never see in Star Wars, and consider that many of these (especially Outer Rim systems, don’cha know) could easily exist untainted by the shenanigans between the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion. Willow never goes so far as to specify a planet name, but the StarWars.com prank assigns a name and location. Warwick Davis conveniently appears in The Phantom Menace in the crowd at the Boonta Eve podrace, so the new databank entry described Willow Ufgood’s journey to Tattooine and his dealing with Watto. The comparisons fall easily into place after that: Willow‘s magic can also be a sort of stand-in for the Force, or at least a different understanding of that same power, described as “the bloodstream of the universe”; the big black dog things in Willow  look like the aliens from Attack the Block (“doze fings are comin’ ta get me — ya get me?”) so there’s a John Boyega/Force Awakens connection there too; oh, yeah, and Willow is also similar to Star Wars in that it made a shitzillion dollars.

In seeing how one might shove Willow into the Star Wars universe we get more than a way to make Willow interesting, although we almost do get that. It might become obvious in comparing the two that despite the sheer amount of similarities, Willow always seems to fall flat. Hold your “comparing Willow to Star Wars isn’t fair!” argument for just a moment while we consider the magic of the former and the Force of the latter, which, you will recall, we just said could easily be considered “the same”. The Force flows through everything, yes, but in a specific way: it controls your actions only partially, obeys your command; it can be used properly, for knowledge and defense, or poorly, for attack; it has weaknesses and limitations, too, despite surrounding us and penetrating us and binding the galaxy together (“Strong am I with the Force…but not that strong”). Those limitations extend to what can be done with the Force, so something like transforming one into a possum is understood to be impossible (and dumb).

The magic of Willow is a lot less specific. It can be used in different ways and probably has limitations, but these are unclear. Transforming one into a possum is now apparently possible (still dumb). In a sense — even though comparing Willow to Star Wars is a losing battle to begin with — this is why Willow never took off or captured as many imaginations as Ron Howard and George Lucas might have hoped. It feels like a classic tale, so much so that it feels like the same tale we’ve encountered before. The general nature of magic is the general nature of the film on the whole, and the few elements of uniqueness — Davis as Willow, for example — are the only elements that end up sticking with the viewer. It’s a fairly safe bet that years from now some company will purchase another company that has a merger with Disney who still owns Lucasfilm, and they’ll deem a Willow Cinematic Universe necessary. When they do, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

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