Val Kilmer’s best role has him donned in a pink dress and lipstick. Sure, Iceman in Top Gun was great, but Kilmer in a dress and vegetable boobs? Golden.
Willow is terrific fantasy, a film that has gained its prominence as the years passed it by. George Lucas chose to continue the adventure not on film, but in books, which is a shame. Box office receipts from the theatrical run shied the producer away from this effects-driven fantasy world.
As such, in the realm of film, we have Willow (Warwick Davis), clutching a baby destined for greatness, when in fact fate has decided he is the source who can defeat the dreaded Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). The child washes ashore the island of the Nelwyn race, dwarfs nervous about the newcomer. The quest is thus simple: Get the kid out of there lest it bring danger to their farming village, and plop it in the hands of the first human they find.
On paper, Willow is tired. Fairies, trolls, witches, monsters, and a quest to drop something off that can bring evil. For all of his smarts in bringing the future to pulpy fiction in Star Wars, Lucas is hardly coy about pinging Lord of the Rings in his 1988 fantasy.
But, cue director Ron Howard, infusing the film with an enjoyable heart, comedic brevity, and characters you have to fall for. Tonal differences give Willow a pass, often snarky and certainly high on drama. Willow’s growth from a nervous Nelwyn to sorcerer is paced perfectly, with the ups and downs any movie hero needs to reflect back at an audience. With a counterpart in Kilmer, a hot-headed swordsman and thief, the pairing is primed for cinematic joy.
Then there are those lesser pieces. Brownies, obnoxious miniature people with a penchant for stabbing and misdirection, act as guides while determined to hang in the war against Bavmorda’s forces. Not only are they crafted from ILM’s sharp hands, they are able to come across as comedic relief, bumping the fun factor of a film overloaded with energy.
Most will not cite Willow’s special effects as a landmark, quick to jump into the arms of Star Wars and leave it be. Yet, here’s a film exploding with matte paintings, early digital, multi-pass, miniatures, rubber suits, old age make-up, stop motion, puppetry, and more. There is almost too much to take in, and for whatever failures it may offer (the trolls), it can counteract with something grandiose (the monster that eats said trolls).
A pure product of the ’80s, the film is given a blissful PG rating, because damn it, kids of the ’80s were awesome. Bloody brains, ripped apart trolls, stabbings, crushed witches, burned bodies; Willow had it all and never skews itself to play safe. This is a frequently dark film and it is better for it, winding and weaving through violence, not around. Willow takes things head on just like the title character.
Fox debuts Willow on Blu-ray for its 25th anniversary, also coinciding with the release of The Hobbit. Historical convenience? You bet. What has Fox done with Willow? Remastered the piece for sure. Instantly recognizable is a new master, clearly sourced from a high resolution scan. The breadth and scope of the visuals has never felt so bold. Mountain ranges and castles look stupendous, while the forests are rich in defined tall grass plus leaves.
Cue up fine detail on costumes too. Texture is strong, with thick cotton sharply resolved, and in close, facial detail escapes from the frame. Sharpness is natural, with no trickery applied to artificially make it so. Softer shots, whether created by focus or upcoming swipes for edits, remain so. This keeps the appearance of the film stock intact. Depth is established by superior black levels, although they are not often on an equal level, a minor gripe. Clean-up has rendered all damage obsolete too, preserving the images without source imperfections.
That does not mean Fox has left well enough alone. Willow has many stand-out elements, but the grain is not one of them. The AVC encode works its magic to keep it in check but the reality is the grain feels artificially created. All too often the images appears to smear with the grain left behind, a remnant of the mastering process that brings into question whether the grain is from the film stock at all, or layered digitally. Clearly, the methods used are not a grand impediment; there is far too much detail to cry noise reduction and no shots appear filtered. It would appear, however, the grain was removed then re-added as can be common practice.
The final concern? Digital color grading. Willow has been significantly warmed up. Flesh tones are heavier, clouds carry warmth, greens hint at orange hues, and flames are brighter in their saturation. For comparison’s sake, Raiders of the Lost Ark underwent a similar coating of modern revisionism. Pure white is rare, instead settling for a denser push into the warmer side of color temperature. Few, if any, will find it abhorrent, but it is still disappointing.
Without the same sense of digital tweaking, the DTS-HD 5.1 mix for Willow is a wonder. Pure in fidelity with the mild fade of age, James Horner’s score is full, especially surprising on the low-end as drums add significant weight to the themes. Bass is tight and rich.
The infectious festival theme early is greeted by something else: envelopment. The party atmosphere feels massive, the Nelwyn lively in their celebration. All of that separation carries over into the action with horses passing through the soundfield, voices slipping into the stereos, wind surrounding environments, animals chirping, and swords clashing. The creature attack inside the castle walls at 1:30:00 is a gem, with plentiful LFE from the flames, and snarling heard in positionals as the camera follows other characters. Audio cues keep the creature in its place.
With the finale, it becomes a mixture of everything. Thunder and lightning carry both ends of the audio spectrum, while the massive rumble in the courtyards sells the scale, even what is going on off camera. Impressively, this all sounds natural, almost certainly plucked from the 6-track 70mm prints.
Willow is the recipient of decent treatment for this anniversary, Ron Howard opening up prior to some deleted scenes that run for 12-minutes. Making of an Adventure has Howard reminiscing before a feature from 1988 plays, filled with plenty of footage from the set.
From Morf to Morphology (from 2001) details one of the key sequences as Willow transforms a witch into various animals, while discussing how critical it was to the advancement of effects. An Unlikely Hero brings in Warwick Davis to discuss his role, followed by all of the matte paintings featured in their raw and completed forms.
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