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MOVIE REVIEW : The Airy Atmosphere of George Lucas’ ‘Willow’

Times Film Critic

“Willow” (citywide) is a perfectly agreeable tale of magic, little people, heroic warriors, babies among the bulrushes and a wicked queen who must be overthrown lest the world be engulfed in evil. If it evaporates from memory with the airiness of a bubble bath, at least it leaves a friendly glow and a sense of a magical world lovingly evoked.

“Willow” suffers by being known as the long-planned project of George Lucas, its executive producer, who chose Ron Howard to direct and newcomer Bob Dolman to write from Lucas’ own story. Any movie in the fantasy vein with the Lucas stamp on it comes with a heavy load of expectation.

If you’re taking a little hand-holder to this concoction, you may be relieved to find that it’s not a ponderous dead weight, like “Krull,” of thudding memory. But for all its charm and considerable invention, “Willow” is never going to insinuate itself into the world’s unconscious like “Star Wars.”

The Lucas fervor is here, that amazing ability to create worlds of imagination and sustain them with a combination of guile and glee. But the unique “Star Wars” edge--sophistication enough for adults, wonder enough for kids, effects enough for both--is softened and sweetened here, whether by the presence of another director or not is hard to say.

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The adventures befall Willow Ufgood, a staunch little Nelwyn, one of a race of farmers and miners. He’s played by a dauntless 3-foot-4 18-year-old, Warwick Davis, who a few years ago was busy acting inside a furry Ewok suit in “Return of the Jedi.”

Despite his years, Davis somehow manages to be convincing as a husband and father and, best of all, as a living example to young children that not all derring-do has to wait until you’re big. (Davis may also have the most beautiful hands of any screen actor since John Barrymore.)

Feelings vary, but over in this corner, when the final battle is in full swing and the treacherous Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) is zapping lightning bolts around like some accident in Thomas Edison’s lab, the tendency to yawn becomes almost overwhelming. On the other hand, every minute spent in the world of the Nelwyns, who have the charm of all Seven Dwarfs at once and the Munchkins, too, seems to rush by. Adventure-hungry kids may find it just the other way around.

It’s Willow’s tiny children who start things. They bring home a basket they’ve rescued from the river, containing Elora Danan, which is not some new variety of yogurt, but a red-haired baby girl who, by prophecy, will bring down the empire of Queen Bavmorda. Although he’d much rather stay safely at home, Willow dutifully sets out to take this baby back to the land of the Daikini, the big people.

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And so the adventure is off and loping. Next on the scene is a sort of low-rent warrior, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who fits right into the Han Solo/Harrison Ford tradition of scruffy heroes-in-spite-of-themselves. Kilmer’s physicality and his humor are nicely balanced, making Madmartigan a fine, lusty performance. He’s joined by a pair of 9-inch special-effects Brownies, Rool and Franjean (Kevin Pollak, Rick Overton), who seem to speak pure Billy Crystal.

The Darth Vader this time is General Kael (Pat Roach) in a toothy skull mask, while the Queen’s daughter is herself a warrior, the red-haired Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), whose feats soon catch Madmartigan’s eye.

If adventure movies have progressed at all since the days when men and boys did it all, it’s in characters like Sorsha and the benevolent magician Raziel (Patricia Hayes). This sorceress has to change into a half-dozen animal forms before she can shake a particularly nasty spell of Bavmorda’s, but her final, proper incarnation is as a woman in her 70s, old enough to know everything . It’s a refreshing switch on that relentless ingenue, Glinda the Good.

As always, the look of the picture is impeccable--the Nelwyns’ houses, igloo-shaped huts with a faintly Mediterranean look to their plaster walls, are set in a wonderfully inventive Renaissance Pleasure Faire village (Marin County ways die hard). There are a few fearsome inventions, like those hounds from hell, the Devil Dogs, and the costumes, the makeup and the hairdressings seem especially fine. (This is probably the first time Billy Barty went entirely unrecognized, and Val Kilmer’s wild, braided hair may start yet another trend.)

But we’re grasping at straws here. By the end, “Willow” (MPAA-rated PG) is all roaring monsters being flung about castle walls and duels to the death in Bavmorda’s chambers . . . time for the adults to grab their hats and beat a quiet retreat.

It’s too bad, since Lucas so clearly wants his films to do good and to carry positive messages. Willow and Madmartigan very nearly bring it off, but in the end they’re engulfed as effects overwhelm character and this slim story.

‘WILLOW’

A Lucasfilm Ltd. film presented by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Executive producer George Lucas. Producer Nigel Wooll. Director Ron Howard. Story, Lucas. Screenplay Bob Dolman. Music James Horner. Camera Adrian Biddle. Production design Allan Cameron. Associate producer Joe Johnston. Visual effects Industrial Light & Magic, Dennis Muren, Michael McAlister, Phil Tippett. Special effects supervisor John Richardson. Costumes Barbara Lane. Editors Daniel Hanley, Michael Hill. Chief makeup artist Alan Boyle. Second-unit director Micky Moore. With Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Jean Marsh, Patricia Hayes, Billy Barty, Pat Roach, Kevin Pollak, Rock Overton, David Steinberg, Gavan O’Herlihy.

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Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested)


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