Courage, heroism and greatness comes in all shapes and sizes and from some of the most unexpected places in Ron Howard's 'Willow.' From the oft-visionary mind of George Lucas and the CG wizardry of Industrial Light & Magic, the family film delivers entertaining popcorn escapism while introducing a host of memorable characters. Brimming with spectacle, enchantment, and a great deal of imagination, the sword-and-sorcery fantasy tale plays out in traditional form as an epic adventure to protect a child destined to defeat an evil witch queen. Keeping strictly to formula leaves little room for surprises. The story is also interrupted by some pacing issues early on, but the journey thankfully ends in satisfying fashion, with plenty of hearty laughs and customary happy reunions.
The story follows Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a lowly farmer with a lovely, caring family, but with aspirations of someday becoming a great and powerful wizard. Unfortunately, our soon-to-be unwitting hero lacks the confidence and mettle to even take a stand against who seems like the tallest person of the village, Burglekutt (Mark Northover). Also, if we go by the looks of the current village wizard (Billy Barty), Willow would need the requisite long white beard, a decorated staff, pointy hat, and probably live a somewhat hermit-like existence. Where does a family fit into all this? What to do when the kids tell dad they're embarrassed he still dresses like a hippie and that he reads from animal bones he's scattered all over the floor? Luckily, he has a supportive wife (Julie Peters) who encourages his dreams but is none too happy that he must now venture off into the world.
Willow's quest to go beyond the borders of his village begins soon after his children discover a human baby in a nearby river. On his journey to find another human adult with whom to leave the baby, Elora, Willow bumps into Val Kilmer, playing a fast-talking, smarmy, and grossly arrogant prisoner who boasts of being a great warrior named Madmartigan. The character is not much of a stretch for someone of Kilmer's caliber — he's at his best as a likeable cocky, self-important schmuck — but it's a terrifically memorable performance, arguably on par with the actor's Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday roles. He manages a great balance of slapstick comedy, as romantic interest to Joanne Whalley's warrior Sorsha and as standard inspiring-hero type. More importantly, Kilmer has a delightful camaraderie with Davis that feels genuine and comical, playing off each other with excellent timing which sees neither of the actors as sidekick to the other.
Their friendship grows — or rather, is brought together — by both a concern for the baby's safety and their slow realization of a common enemy, played with animated caricature by Jean Marsh. As the villainous evil witch queen Bavmorda, Marsh chews up the scenery with an oddly charming exaggeration that almost borders on parody. It's just too over-the-top and amplified to be taken seriously by any measure, particularly when the character looks as if she raided the closets of Maleficent and the Queen from Disney's 'Snow White.' Bavmorda's leading henchman General Kael (Pat Roach), with his terrifyingly cool skull helmet, is a bit more developed as a formidable and determined foe, but even he's mostly the obligatory and familiar bad guy who eventually meets his match once the arrogant Madmartigan learns humility and loyalty to a cause.
What makes 'Willow' feel largely conventional and routine, which can be viewed both as the film's drawback and strength, is Lucas borrowing heavily and taking inspiration from some very familiar sources. Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings is the most recognizable in a story about a Hobbit-like person leaving his quiet, pastoral home for a life-altering adventure. But we also have hints of Disney's influence, sprinkles of the Moses parable — a small craft of bulrushes and all — and inklings of John Peterson's The Littles as well as Mary Norton's The Borrowers. At times, the story even seems like a reworking of Lucas' own 'Star Wars' mythology, down to the Brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton) as the bumbling comic relief C-3PO and R2-D2.
Nevertheless, director Ron Howard, who was enjoying early success as a filmmaker at the time with 'Splash' and 'Cocoon,' does what he can to never let the fantasy-adventure film spiral too far into pastiche. He accomplishes an enjoyable piece of entertainment with plenty of laughter and action for the whole family.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Willow' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack commemorating the movie's 25th anniversary. The Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortable opposite a DVD-9. Both are housed inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase with a glossy cardboard slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
"Digitally restored and remastered" — you know, the usual marketing phrasing — 'Willow' morphs unto Blu-ray with an excellent video presentation, given the film's age and style. The original photography of Adrian Biddle doesn't really lend itself in spectacular fashion to the high-def format, but the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is admirable nonetheless and faithful to the source. The majority of the movie falls on the softer side of things with the special-effects sequences looking the worst, but overall resolution and definition offers a first-class upgrade over previous home video editions. Fine object details are fairly sharp and strong while textures in clothing and facial complexions offer plenty of rich, distinct clarity.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, it is clear some minor enhancements have been made to polish some of the visual effects. But thankfully, it's nothing too intrusive, just an effort to make certain scenes appear cleaner without completely removing their obvious remnants of early, outdated CGI work. The transfer comes with a consistent, very-fine layer of grain throughout, giving the image an appreciable cinematic feel. Colors are bold and cleanly-rendered. It's not a very dramatic palette, favoring the softer pastel hues and earth tones, but primaries are energetic and attractive. Contrast is well-balanced and brilliant with crisp, clean whites, which is particularly noticeable during the sled escape down a snowy mountain. Black levels are deep and true with excellent shadow detailing, making this high-def presentation an easy one to love.
The real surprise of this Blu-ray is definitely the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which is simply spectacular. Some digital tweaking and tinkering has taken place, which amazingly improves upon the overall quality of the design for the better. Most apparent is the endless amount of activity in the rears, delivering plenty of discrete and convincing atmospherics. From the constant noise of the surrounding wildlife to arrows landing behind the listener and fire swooshing across the room, the lossless mix is splendidly immersive and highly engaging. James Horner's musical score also spreads into the back with very little effort, further enhancing and expanding the soundfield.
In the front, dynamic range is remarkably broad and extensive with stunning separation between the mids and highs. You can clearly make out each note and instrument in the orchestration, and the continuous clarity in the sword fighting while a two-headed monster shoots fire at terrified soldiers is astounding for a movie of this age — there's never the slightest hint of distortion or noise in the upper ranges. The low-end is incredibly responsive and accurate with a robust punchiness that adds depth to the music and serious weight to action sequences. Dialogue is precise and intelligible at all times. With a detailed and well-balanced soundstage that keeps viewers entertained, 'Willow' performs its magic on Blu-ray with this excellent and enveloping high-rez track.
Despite some negligible drawbacks, 'Willow' remains a delightful and entertaining fantasy adventure for the whole family, with memorable performances from Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis. Celebrating its 25th Anniversary, director Ron Howard's film succeeds by not spiraling into pastiche and manages to keep the story afloat with a satisfying yet predictable conclusion. The Blu-ray arrives with great picture quality and a highly-impressive audio presentation. Supplements are ported over from previous versions, but this high-def edition also offers a couple new surprises, making the package one fans will surely want to pick up.