Thirty Years Before Going “Solo,” Ron Howard Tried to Navigate George Lucas’ Worst Instincts in “Willow”

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Ron Howard, George Lucas, and the Olsen twins.

Kevin: The version of “Solo” that audiences see this weekend will likely be significantly different from the one originally envisioned by “21 Jump Street/The Lego Movie” masterminds Chris Miller and Phil Lord before they were abruptly fired during production last year. In their search for a veteran filmmaker who could quickly come in and deliver a more traditional “Star Wars” product, it’s no surprise the producers settled on Ron Howard, who may not be the most exciting director of his generation, but has at least proven himself adept at multiple genres including comedy (“Parenthood”), drama (“Apollo 13”), and fantasy (“Cocoon”). Of course it probably didn’t hurt that Howard already had experience in the world of George Lucas with 1988’s “Willow,” which came out 30 years ago this summer:

If you are of a certain age then you probably have fond memories of “Willow,” just as you probably have fond memories of “Tron,” “The Dark Crystal,” and “Krull.” Well as with those films, you should probably avoid revisiting “Willow” as I did in anticipation of Howard’s “Solo,” because it’s another movie from your childhood that is REALLY not as good as you remember. “Willow” came out during a time when the credit “Story by George Lucas” was still seen as a selling point rather than a portent of doom, and in retrospect it should have served as a warning for where the “Star Wars” prequels would be heading since he was already demonstrating some of the worst aspects of his storytelling sensibilities (i.e. embarrassingly juvenile comedy and meandering storylines).

It’s also one of those films that begins with the text “It was a time of dread …,” before explaining that a prophecy has foretold that a child will bring about the downfall of the powerful Queen Bavmorda. How exactly that will happen is always left extremely vague; it would be nice if these prophecies could provide a little more detail about the time period and manner in which this downfall will occur. I did like the scene where the Queen tells her Vader-looking henchman to find the baby that has eluded her daughter (Joanne Whalley), and he responds “The baby from the prophecy, the one that will destroy you?” No genius, a totally different baby!

(I will say that I appreciated that they have this guy immediately take off his skull mask and show that he is just some bearded dude, they didn’t try to hide his face and have him turn out to be the hero’s dad/uncle/cousin.)

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Either way, since the baby from said prophecy will have a special mark on its skin, Bavmorda has all the pregnant women of the realm rounded up and locked in a dungeon so she can kill it when it is born. Unfortunately, while the mother of this sainted baby Elora Danan is brutally killed, another woman escapes with her and puts her on a small float into the river before she is violently torn to shreds by some wolves. All of this happens in the first three minutes of a movie aimed at kids.

Then after floating downstream for a while the baby is eventually discovered by the children of would-be sorcerer Willow Ufgood, a “Nelwyn” (i.e. dwarf), played by “Star Wars” vet Warwick Davis. After realizing that the baby is “Daikini” (i.e. human), Willow’s first instinct is to push it back into the water, where it most likely will drown. No one, including the filmmakers themselves, ever bring up how easily their hero was about to engage in infanticide, but no matter since he eventually decides to bring it back to his village.

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Now if “Willow” had been made nowadays it probably would be more celebrated as a step forward for representation of little people in film (this is the kind of movie in which a cameo by Billy Barty is credited as a “Special Appearance”). While that’s a great thing in theory, it also means we spend a lot of time at the beginning of the film with people who really stink as actors. But eventually after learning about the prophecy regarding Elora, Willow and some fellow villagers embark on a journey to get her to safety, which brings them in contact with the suspiciously Han Solo-type warrior Madmartigan (played by Val Kilmer, doing what he can to bring some much-needed levity to the film).

What follows is about an hour of our heroes losing the baby, getting her back, being captured, escaping, losing the baby, getting her back, being captured, escaping, rinse, repeat. At one point Madmartigan accidentally drinks a love potion and declares his devotion to Bavmorda’s daughter, which apparently is enough for her to almost immediately turn away from evil and take down her own mother. If nothing else, the fact that Joanne Whalley soon changed her name to Joanne Whalley-Kilmer indicated the two had more chemistry off screen than on, although since she dropped the Kilmer part a few years later I guess the spell wore off.

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Actually the whole stupid love potion bit is a harbinger of the kind of humor that would infect Lucas’ work going forward. We also have some annoying Jar Jar-style hijinks involving comedians Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton as two tiny “Brownies,” Val turning into a giant snowball and later stepping in troll shit, and a rival of Willow’s who gets puked on by the baby and, in one of the last scenes of the film, also gets a face-full of bird shit:

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Even when the movie tries to be serious it comes off as laughable, especially a supposedly harrowing sequence in which Bavmorda turns our heroes into pigs. Whatever Howard and Lucas intended this sequence to be, once they say how goofy Kilmer looked mid-transformation they should have gone back to the drawing board:

We also get a climactic sequence in which Bavmorda and an elderly sorceress square off in a battle royale, which once again probably sounded cool in the development stage, but on actual film just comes off as if your grandmother’s bridge game went off the rails after a few cocktails:

So yeah, there is a reason why “Willow” did not inspire several sequels and a “Willowverse” that included cartoons, comic books, and novelizations. Again, if you have good memories of the film as a kid, in your memories is where it should probably stay. Perhaps Howard will have better luck with “Solo” this weekend, and if nothing else the music in “Willow” was considered so memorable that it was used in the trailer for “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” which provides more entertainment in two minutes than “Willow” did in two hours:

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One thought on “Thirty Years Before Going “Solo,” Ron Howard Tried to Navigate George Lucas’ Worst Instincts in “Willow”

  1. Pingback: CJ Checks Out “Solo” and Bows Before Alden Ehrenreich, Now and Forever the One True Han Solo! | Tough Guy Digest

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