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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Willow: SE (1988)

"You lack faith in yourself. More than anyone in the village, you have the potential to be a great sorcerer."
- High Aldwin (Billy Barty)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: November 26, 2001

Stars: Val Kilmer, Warwick Davis
Other Stars: Joanne Whalley, Billy Barty, Jean Marsh, Rick Overton, Kevin Pollak, Pat Roach, Patricia Hayes, Maria Holvoe, Ruth Greenfield, Kate Greenfield
Director: Ron Howard

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: PG for (sword fight violence and intense battle sequences)
Run Time: 02h:05m:25s
Release Date: November 27, 2001
UPC: 024543026174
Genre: adventure

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+AB+ A-

DVD Review

There have been few of the so-called "sword and sorcery" films that have managed to make that smooth crossover to mainstream audiences. The Conan series was a bit too dark, and films like the Beastmaster series were just a little too silly (despite featuring Tanya Roberts, but I digress). Willow, a 1988 film by Ron Howard (a pseudo-fantasy vet by then with Cocoon and Splash), was to be the Lord Of The Rings of its time: a big, all-encompassing fantasy epic that would appeal not only to genre fans, but the rest of the movie-going world as well. Based on a story by "King" George Lucas, it is one of those films that could have been even more spectacular if it had been made just a few years later.

Much like the intricate world of Middle Earth that J.R.R. Tolkien painstakingly created, Willow does its best to immediately immerse us into a dark, dangerous time where the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) rules with an iron fist. As the story opens, Bavmorda has ordered the death of all female newborns, because an ancient prophecy has decreed that a baby girl will rise up to eventually destroy the Queen. True to the fates, a baby, identified by a special birthmark on her arm, is born in Bavmorda's realm. Before the evil one can get her hands on the baby, a mid-wife escapes into the forest and, a la Moses, sends the tiny child to safety downstream on a bed of reeds. The baby eventually washes up near the farm of short-statured Willow Ufgood, who is a Nelwyn (think Hobbit). Unaware of the baby's destiny, the village elder (the always great Billy Barty) decides that it is Willow's mission to deliver the child to a Daikini (or normal-sized human).

It wouldn't be much of a fantasy adventure if Willow's task were too easy. Ravenous Death Dogs, evil soldiers, and the questionable loyalty of an alleged Daikini swordsman by the name of Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) quickly envelop the tiny Nelwyn in a desperate race to keep the baby out the grasp of Queen Bavmorda. There are plenty of unusual characters, from the French-accented Brownies, to the spectral fairy Cherlindrea (Maria Holvoe) who names the child Elora Danan, to the hexed sorcerer Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes), as well as a few trolls thrown in for good measure. To make things even more intriguing, the Queen's incredibly gorgeous sword-wielding daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) is sent to lead the hunt to find the baby.

One of the key components of any fantasy film are locations that can give off that stark, medieval feel, full of dense forests, jagged mountains and massive castles. Shooting in a number of locales, from Wales to New Zealand (where Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy was also shot), Howard and Lucas have imbued the film with a rich sense of fantasy realism, that still looks as impressive today with this DVD release. From the Hobbitty Nelwyn village to the dark, cavernous castle of Queen Bavmorda, there are never really any moments where I felt I was anywhere but in the world of Willow and Madmartigan.

Warwick Davis, only 17 at the time of filming, does a fine job of carrying the film as an adult. His character is never a goofy Munchkin, but rather a simple farmer who is forced to take part in a wild adventure. Kilmer's Madmartigan isn't the most three-dimensional character here, but he does the cocky hero swagger pretty well, and Jean Marsh does the best evil Queen since Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. I know that getting the appropriate reaction shots from a baby can take days, but the shots of the baby Elora Danan (played by six-month-old twins Kate and Ruth Greenfield) are dead-on perfect.

The script features some funny wordplay between characters, with the possible exception of the tiny Brownies Franjean (Rick Overton) and Rool (Kevin Pollak), who only become more annoying as time goes on. I guess they were kind of like the Jar Jar Binks of their time. There are also some clever barbs poked at three influential film critics. The skull-helmeted General Kael (Pat Roach), faithful henchman of the evil Queen, is named after Pauline Kael, and the two-headed monster during the climactic battle sequence was originally named the Siskbert, after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, though that name never appears in the final print.

As expected, this film is loaded with a ton of special effects. Looking back at Willow, it might be easy for some to dismiss some of the effects shots as being not all that spectacular, by today's standards. Sure, some of the blue screen work does look a bit dated and poor, especially many of those featuring the miniature Brownies, but it is important to remember that this film represents a real groundbreaking moment for visual effects feature films. The whole concept of computer-generated visual morphing effects, where one item slowly transforms into another, without cutaways, puppets or models, was custom-developed during the production of Willow, specifically for a brief multi-transformation sequence where Fin Raziel changes rapidly from one creature to another. This is an example of visual effects technology in its infancy, and even if it's not as smooth as the modern-day morphs on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it still stands as important, historically.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in a lush 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer, this issue of Willow blows away any earlier incarnations. The source print is pristine and blemish-free, with no noticeable dirt or specks. That alone impressed the hell out of me. This is not an overly bright film to begin with, so the colorfield tends to lean toward being somewhat muted. The daylight scenes in the Nelwyn village have a nice, soft hue to them, while the dark shots within Bavmorda's castle have strong shadow depth and contrast. The only negatives are some very occasional minor edge enhancement.


Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishno
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc features a newly mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. Surround effects, especially during the scenes featuring the Death Dogs or the fairy Cherlindrea, give a nice workout to the rear speakers and add much to the spatial imaging. However, most of the action is typically confined to the front speakers, with only occasional rear channel cues here and there. This isn't a bad mix, by any means, it's just not as robust as I was expecting. I should point out that James Horner's score does sound quite good in 5.1. Also included are 2.0 surround tracks in English and Spanish.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
8 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Warwick Davis
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: A nice selection of extras here, befitting the Special Edition title.

A scene-specific commentary from actor Warwick Davis is the disc's supplemental highpoint. As unusual as it is for an actor to carry a commentary track solo, Davis does a great job recalling his work on Willow. He doesn't rely on simply describing what's onscreen, but rather often gets involved in some rather detailed production anecdotes. Even though the track seems patched together at times, Davis has pleasant delivery and seems genuinely interested.

Willow: The Making Of An Adventure (21m:28s)
A 1988 making-of EPK, this piece features interviews with Ron Howard, George Lucas, Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, as well as the Brownies, in character. Some decent behind-the-scenes footage, most notably during the pig transformation scene.

From Morf to Morphing: The Dawn of Digital Filmmaking (16m:57s)
As effects wiz Dennis Murren states here, Willow was the "end of the photo-chemical era" of filmmaking. This far too short feature highlights the development of digital morphing, created especially for Willow, and its importance in the advancement of visual effects. This segment includes comments from James Cameron, and clips from The Abyss, Young Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and Terminator 2.

The rest of bonus material includes a photo gallery of 45 behind-the-scenes stills, 8 television spots, 2 teasers, 1 theatrical trailer, English subtitles and an impressive 36 chapter stops.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

As good of a fantasy family adventure as you're likely to find. 20th Century Fox has issued this Special Edition with an exceptionally beautiful 2.35:1 transfer, a Warwick Davis commentary, and a couple of interesting featurettes.

Highly recommended.


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