It was a little bit Star Wars, a little bit J.R.R. Tolkien, and a whole lot of little people. Willow was what fantasy lovers fantasize about: magic, swords, dragons, and a cast of cheerable heroes, hissable villains, and loveable rogues.
The Star Wars connection was no coincidence. George Lucas wrote Willow’s story and was its executive producer. Ron Howard, who had already brought fantastical creatures to the screen in Splash and Cocoon, came in to direct, and the cast included Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis (the future Leprechaun star).
The film, like many fantasies, opens with an evil sorceress and a solemn prophecy. The sorceress, Bavmorda, rules the land with her black magic, but legends tell of the birth of a special child, designated by a birthmark, who will one day bring about her doom. Bavmorda imprisons all expectant mothers, but when the girl is born, a brave midwife steals her away and sends her off on a raft to meet her destiny. The child, Elora Danan, comes to a rest near a village of little people, the Nelwyns. Farmer/magician-in-training Willow Ufgood takes in little Elora, and the village elders send him on a quest to return the girl to her people, the Daikini.
The quest is ever perilous, but Willow meets several helpful new friends along the way. Chief among them is Madmartigan, a Daikini warrior with a surly attitude. Big man and little man have their share of spats (mostly over Willow’s not wanting to be called “peck”), but they need each other’s help to face the foes in front of them: a two-headed dragon, Bavmorda’s forces (led by skull-helmeted Kael and Bavmorda’s spirited daughter Sorsha), and the evil queen herself, tucked away in the imposing castle Nockmaar. Willow and Madmartigan get extra help from the good sorceress Fin Raziel, a host of Daikini warriors, and a pair of tiny comic relief Brownies, but in the end, the fate of the world rests on the small shoulders of Willow Ulfgood and a baby girl.
Willow had enough special effects razzle-dazzle to earn two Academy Awards nominations (for Sounds Effects and Visual Effects), but it wasn’t the box-office hit MGM had hoped for. Fantasy films traditionally have had a rough time in theaters, and Willow was unable to break the curse. The movie was by no means a flop, however, and many a fan still considers it the best fantasy film to date. Magic may or may not be the bloodstream of the universe, but for some, it’s what going to the movies is all about.