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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • THX
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 60.49)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English: Dolby Digital Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish
  Extras
  • 2 Teaser trailer
  • 1 Theatrical trailer
  • Audio commentary - Warwick Davis
  • Photo gallery
  • Animated menus
  • 8 TV spot
  • 2 Awards/Nominations

Willow: SE

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 121 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

It might seem like a preposterous idea now, but back in 1988, George Lucas seemed invulnerable. Flushed with success from his Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones films, he had survived the rather spectacular failure of Howard The Duck with his reputation as a spinner of mystical tales reasonably intact. Of course, audiences were keen to see where Lucas’s imagination would lead them next; with new Star Wars movies out of the question at the time, though, Lucas turned to a story idea he’d had some time before. By the time Willow was released, it was to most people “the new George Lucas movie”, even though Ron Howard’s name was on the credits as the director.

That Willow was something of a turning point for George Lucas isn’t really all that surprising in hindsight. Sure, the Star Wars films had been huge hits with adult audiences, but by Return Of The Jedi the temptation to appeal to youngsters was proving too irresistible. Willow took that to new heights - it’s essentially a kid’s adventure movie with a few things thrown in to appease older audiences, an attempt to do Disney on a gigantic scale. It only partly succeeded; this writer remembers seeing a first-week screening of the film in the US, with an audience comprised entirely of adults who had likely been intrigued by the deliberately vague advertising campaign. The discontented muttering after the movie finished was palpable; what we’d seen was essentially a rewrite of Star Wars with some (at the time) eye-popping visual effects and very little in the way of character resonance.

Today, Willow is rarely seen or spoken about, though it does have its legion of fans. And as popcorn entertainment it holds up surprisingly well; George Lucas’ stamp is all over the thing, of course (check out those Star Wars-style scene transitions!), and it’s kept moving at a fairly cracking pace despite the two-hour length. But as fantasy, this isn’t likely to excite anyone over the age of ten. The story involves a “little person” named Willow (Warwick Davis), who lives in a village of little people and dreams of being a sorcerer, to no avail. One day, though, a full-sized human baby turns up floating down the river (hand me that bible, cheers) and Willow, as the person that found it, is given the task of finding a “big person” to hand it over to. Early in his journey he runs into disgraced warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) who ends up accompanying him on his journey, a quest which takes on new meaning when it’s revealed to Willow that the baby is, in fact, a VIP who can save the world from - yes, you guessed it - the scourge of evil. In this case the evil is named Bavmorda, and her daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley; she met future husband Val on this picture) has been assigned the task of getting the baby off Willow and definitely not falling in love with Madmartigan. Also along for the ride are a pair of miniature “brownies”, who sport ludicrous French accents and are almost certainly modelled on the castle-defending French soldiers from Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

It’s all a bit by-the-numbers, which is probably intentional; the problem with Willow, though, is that it tries to be all things to all people - simple and fun for the kids, knowing and cheeky for the adults, reverently rustic for the fantasy fans and gee-whiz spectacular for the ILM trainspotters. And as such, it offers something for everyone but can’t decide which audience it’s aiming itself at. It’s a problem Lucas is still trying to overcome (see The Phantom Menace for details!) but viewed without the hype with which it was launched, Willow is a bit of harmless fun with some rather cheesy special effects strewn throughout (they were groundbreaking at the time, but that was a lifetime ago). Val Kilmer is enormously good fun and seems to be enjoying himself, while the rest of the cast acquit themselves well, but you probably won’t be watching this for the acting. It is, though, the closest thing to the original Star Wars that you’re likely to see on DVD for the forseeable future. Just do a bit of character substitution and you’ll feel right at home...!

  Video
Contract

Not at all surprisingly, Lucasfilm has lavished an enormous amount of attention on the video transfer for Willow, and this 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 version of the film looks absolutely spectacular, showing off Adrian Biddle’s marvellous cinematography perfectly. The photographic style for this film is quite interesting - there are scenes here that are rather unusually dimly-lit, and it takes a while to get used to the idea that it’s actually supposed to look like this. But that’s the intended style; the darker scenes still have plenty of detail and a wide tonal range, and convey atmosphere wonderfully.

Detail is spot-on throughout and there’s only the barest hint of edge enhancement at times; this is a rich, pristine image taken from a very good source. Pedants will spot a handful of brief vertical scratches on the negative; we wouldn’t have even noticed them if we weren’t looking hard for flaws.

Many of the effects shots do look painfully obvious on DVD, where the changes in detail level and colour fidelity caused by the extensive optical work occasionally gives the game away all too readily. But this is how the film looked on its release; it’s amazing how spoilt we’ve become by modern digital effects, forgetting how mind-bogglingly good all this stuff used to look.

The layer change, half way through the movie, is well placed and one of the fastest-negotiated we’ve seen to date.

  Audio
Contract

In 1988, Lucasfilm’s THX quality program was starting to pick up steam and innovations were happening on a regular basis in the company’s mixing studios. With Willow, the benefits of the extreme quality control Lucasfilm was applying to film soundtracks at the time are now paying off handsomely; this sound mix is not only the equal of anything being done today, it’s in many ways better.

Willow was released in some US cinemas on 70mm prints with six-track magnetic audio, and this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is almost certainly that very same six-track mix. Honed to perfection by innovators Ben Burtt, Gary Summers and Shawn Murphy, it’s a mix that’s constantly active across the three front channels, with dialogue and effects crisp and clear without annoying levels of hiss getting in the way. The stereo surrounds are used extensively throughout for ambience as well as discreet localised sound effects, and the result is a hugely involving sound mix that is still truly state of the art 14 years on.

Note that while an LFE track is encoded here, it is pretty much unused for the entire duration of the film; there are a couple of occasions where it burps slightly, and these seem more accidental than anything else. Essentially, this is a 5.0 mix.

James Horner’s music score may be immensely derivative - it shamelessly plunders Mahler’s repertoire and even pinches melodies from John Williams’ Star Wars score on one occasion!) but it’s certainly well recorded; not surprisingly, this is the work of Shawn Murphy, who is peerless when it comes to the art of mixing an orchestral score for the cinema. Fidelity is excellent throughout.

A Dolby Surround audio track is provided as well for those who need it; it’s of fine quality also.

  Extras
Contract

There are a couple of very good extra features included on this “Special Edition” of Willow, but don’t expect anything of the Phantom Menace calibre in terms of extras here. Lucasfilm has obviously headed for the archives, dug up some old U-Matic tapes and settled for freshly creating very little for this disc. The full-animated main menu, however, is extremely nicely done.

Audio Commentary: Ron Howard obviously wasn’t available, and George Lucas couldn’t make it. So who do we get doing the Willow commentary instead? Warwick Davis! What seems like a surprising decision actually turns out to be inspired, as Davis comes up with one of the best commentaries we’ve heard. Genuinely fond of and interested in the movie and loaded with anecdotes, memories and trivia (did you know John Cusack auditioned for the Madmartigan role?) and plenty of where-are-they-now info, Davis is a genial, chatty and often very funny commentator and is a pleasure to listen to. Mr Lucas, you’ve just been upstaged. This commentary, by the way, is also available in subtitle form if needed.

Willow - The Making Of An Adventure: A 1998 making-of featurette running 22 minutes, this is one of the most shamelessly arrogant and hyperbole-laden pieces of self-serving rubbish ever employed as promotion for a major feature film. Presumably included for historical purposes only, its key asset is the amusement value at seeing Ron Howard with a wild-west moustache and the voice-over from The Guy With The Voice That Used To Do Trailers that laments a “time of sequels and spin-offs, where many movies have numbers after their titles”. Not much has changed since! The full-frame video here, obviously from an old analogue archival source, is fairly average.

From Morf To Morphing - The Dawn Of Digital Filmmaking: Back in 1988, ILM wasn’t the only company in the special effects game, but they certainly were the ones expected to innovate. For Willow, their innovation was “morphing”, and this recently-produced 17-minute featurette looks back on how they achieved the effect using early digital technology. Fascinating stuff, though when Dennis Muren marvels at how today you can buy morphing software for your home computer, he seems to forget that you could do it on a Commodore Amiga not long after this film was released!

TV Spots And Trailers: Like the old Star Wars laserdiscs, this section’s loaded with low-quality analogue-sourced trailers of limited historical significance. First up are the TV spots - three 15-second quickies and five 30-second offerings, all full frame as you’d expect, with mono sound. The two theatrical teasers and single full-scale trailer are also offered in full-frame with mono audio, though, and it’s painfully obvious that nobody thought to go dig out the negatives for these to transfer them afresh. Special mention must go to “Theatrical Teaser 1”, which includes no film footage at all, no information about the plot or characters or, in fact, anything at all (“forget all you know - or think you know”!) and is scored by cheesy electronic music that is actually a seriously bad cover version of a Jean-Michel Jarre record!

Photo Gallery: A collection of reasonably good-sized location pictures, though we wish Fox would stop authoring photo galleries and other still-frame material as chaptered video streams - it makes navigation through them clumsy and slow.

THX Trailer: Annoy your neighbours. Impress your friends. Blow up your speakers.

  Overall  
Contract

Regardless of what you think of Willow (or, err, what you think you think), it’s great to see it being treated to such a terrific remastering for DVD, and it’ll undoubtedly find a new audience because of it. The extras might be a little lacklustre, but an excellent commentary makes the lack of substance elsewhere almost forgivable.


  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=1708
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      And I quote...
    "...a bit of harmless fun with some rather cheesy special effects strewn throughout"
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DB870
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Centre Speaker:
          Panasonic
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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