Willow (1988) — One of the best ’80s fantasy epics

“Her name is not Sticks! She’s Elora Danan, the future empress of Tir Asleen and the last thing she’s gonna want is a hairy chest!”

Justin’s rating: One of the better Spielberg imitators

Justin’s review: With megahits in scifi (Star Wars) and action-adventure (Indiana Jones) propelling George Lucas and LucasFilms into the stratosphere in the ’80s, we were all incredibly excited to see what this visionary might give us next. Howard the Duck was a terrible bomb, so comic book adaptations were not a way to go. So why not fantasy instead?

In 1988, Lucas wrote and executive produced Willow (with the director’s chair going to Ron Howard), the studio’s swing for the fantasy fences with the help of Industrial Light & Magic. Facing stiff competition, it “only” did decently rather than spectacularly, and Lucas more or less moved on from it (save for a trio of depressing fantasy novels around the turn of the century that functioned as a pseudo-sequel). Now that we’re getting a Willow sequel series on Disney+, I thought it was a good opportunity to go revisit this flick to see how it’s held up, especially among the shaky field of ’80s fantasy movies.

Willow was basically a Lord of the Rings substitute, right down to the lead character being an unassuming little person (Hobbit/Nelwyn) who stumbles upon a special, villain-destroying item (ring/baby) and goes on a journey with the help of taller folk, including a roguish fighter (Aragorn/Madmartigan) while being chased by dark forces (Nazgul/wargs). Admittedly, it’s not a 1:1 analogue, but this was perhaps as close as we came to a live-action Middle-earth flick until Peter Jackson’s trilogy.

Our Darth Vader for the next two hours is Queen Bavmorda, a grumpy tyrant who is paranoid against a special baby who is prophesied to overthrow her. Said baby escapes her dungeons (not on its own; the baby is kind of a hot potato that gets passed between several people in this movie) and ends up in the clutches of a community of peaceful little folk. With wargs hunting down the baby, the village decides to send her away under the protection of farmer/aspiring magician Willow (Warwick Davis, Return of the Jedi’s Wicket) with the hopes that the babe will be returned to her people.

This turns out to be incredibly difficult, because other than the queen’s armies (who want to kill the kid), nobody seems to want to accept the responsibility of a child. A mutual lowering of standards ends with the empress-to-be being dumped into the arms of Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a master swordsman but a terrible babysitter. This impromptu party grows with the addition of a pair of bumbling Brownies (very tiny fae folk), a transfigured wizard, a spare army, and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), the queen’s warrior daughter.

If you can get on board with the tone of Willow — which can be both slapsticky and old fashioned adventure — you’re going to be in for a really great time. I hadn’t seen this in a long time, so it was terrific to discover that it’s got a little bit of everything that I tend to like in fantasy flicks. It’s funny, it’s got a lot of memorable characters, there are plenty of stunt sequences (including one with runaway carts), a dash of romance, some fun fights (such as a thrilling castle invasion), and a mixture of practical and top-notch special effects from ILM.

But what I liked the most was Warwick Davis. Little people tend to be side characters in movies, if they appear at all, but Davis gets the center stage as Willow — and he acquits himself quite well as the determined sorcerer-to-be. He obviously exists in a world where everyone discriminates against size, but he doesn’t let that stop him from protecting the baby that he’s fallen in love with. I like that he’s also a husband and a father, which definitely informs his protective nature.

Willow also sports a great turn by Kilmer, who obviously relishes being a scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold. He gets tons of terrific lines, and watching him find a match — in more than one way — with Sorsha is another delight.

The ’80s had a great string of fantasy flicks — Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Ladyhawk, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and more besides — but Willow might be the most complete and polished entry on the list. And if you’re sick of too much grimdark fantasy these days, it’s as opposite as you could want. Three out of three acorns for this one!

Didja notice?

  • That main theme packs a punch!
  • That little baby has a real head of hair on her for just being born
  • The Noah subtext of this movie isn’t subtle
  • The kids geeking out over the baby is quite adorable
  • Willow has some funny rants
  • Yay a magic show!
  • “Let us consult the BONES!”
  • It’s so impressive how many little people they cast in these opening scenes, including Billy Bartleby as the village elder
  • Putting down your daughter in front of your subordinates… increases her loyalty? That’s one way to think about it.
  • “I trust him completely.” “He tried to strangle me!”
  • Threatening people with acorns is largely ineffective
  • I swear I thought that owl was bragging about stealing babies
  • There are creatures smaller than Pecks, er, Nelwyn
  • Hey, it’s Tinkerbell!
  • The Brownie falling in love with the cat
  • Val Kilmer has an impressive bosom
  • “I stole a baby from you while you were making a pee-pee!” is a line we should use more often in life
  • “Gentlemen… meet Llug.”
  • Wilhelm scream!
  • “That’s magic? That smells terrible!”
  • “You ARE great!” And then Madmartigan falls down.
  • Whee! Sledding! Whee!
  • “I dwell in darkness without you, and it WENT AWAY?”
  • All of Giselle’s animal forms
  • The giant two-headed beast is a good rancor substitute
  • Turning a guy into a pig, that’s harsh
  • Willow only uses two out of his three acorns
  • “In my village, we have a lot of gophers.” “Willow, this is war, not agriculture.”
  • Horses are totally cool lying down and being covered with deflated tents
  • Spike walls don’t seem like a safe home decoration
  • The cool stop-motion skeleton table


  1. The neat thing with the acorns is that the third does get used in a cut scene. I think there’s storyboards but it was never filmed. I remember it from special features on one of the dvd releases. I forgot if they gave a reason why it got cut, but they kept it in the novelization.

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