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‘Pelle’ Conquers Cannes : Lucas Hits Critics; Applause Greets ‘Willow’ at Cannes

Times Staff Writer

George Lucas came to make the case for “Willow,” and met a sea of blank stares.

Just minutes into a much-anticipated morning news conference, there were suddenly no questions. The world’s film journalists had the great recluse on a hot seat and didn’t know what to ask him.

But that night at the film’s premiere following the Palme d’Or awards ceremony, “Willow’s” black-tie premiere audience received the film with a warm two-minute round of applause, and director Ron Howard was greeted enthusiastically by the locals when he appeared on the steps outside the the Palais des Festivals.

At the morning press conference, the festival moderator taunted the bleary-eyed crowd of about 200--only a fraction of the turnout for Robert Redford last week."Good, you are lively,” the moderator said.

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“Do you always get up so early (8:30) in the morning?” a French reporter finally queried.

The answer was “yes.” If he were still in Spain--where he had just left the set of his latest Indiana Jones adventure--he’d “already be wondering where the first shot was,” said Lucas.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. And once things warmed up a bit, the crowd peppered Lucas--on a dais with director Howard, writer Bob Dolman and actors Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis and Jean Marsh--with tough questions about his $35-million epic, which was released by MGM last week to big crowds but some harsh reviews.

Why did “Willow” seem to draw so much from other films--"The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” “Star Wars” and so on?

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“It’s very hard to avoid, especially in art. Art is by its nature derivative,” explained Lucas.

Wasn’t the movie too violent for young children?

“The violence is very carefully worked out, so there’s no on-screen gore. . . . I’m very careful not to use revenge or sadistic violence, but rather as a way of expressing your survival. Children have to learn it’s a violent world we live in. . . . Ron’s daughter loved it; my daughter was a little frightened.” (Both girls are 7 years old, said their fathers.)

Was the music too loud and the pacing too fast?

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“It’s a style I’ve developed in film. . . . A 3-year-old who can’t follow any of the dialogue can still follow the movie.”

Why doesn’t “Willow’s” central myth--about a princess-baby’s rescue by a heroic dwarf--relate to what we’re living today?

“It does, as much as any other myth does. . . . Good versus evil and how you conduct yourself in a society are very relevant.”

Whether Lucas would appear personally to introduce “Willow” had been in doubt through much of last week. Several sources involved with the film said the producer had been reluctant to appear, but was pressed to come by studio executives and other advisers.

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“Willow” is the convoluted tale of an imaginary tribe of dwarves that is landed with a baby from the normal-sized Daikini tribe. Prophesized to destroy the Daikinis’ Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), the child’s safety is entrusted to dwarf Willow Ufgood.

Shot in Wales, Northern England and New Zealand, the film incorporates the customary Lucas special effects including animal-human transformations, villains going up in flames and fantastic castles.

“Willow’s” reception at the evening gala didn’t exactly match the tumultuous standing ovation given “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” when it premiered here in May, 1982. But MGM chief Alan Ladd Jr. said he was “thrilled” with the response. “I was at a screening once here where they threw things,” Ladd said of the finicky festivalgoers.

Howard added at the dinner honoring festival winners--"Willow” was shown out of competition--that “I’ve had applause, but I’ve never had ‘bravos’ before,” looking obviously delighted that the audience had responded positively to the film. (Lucas had left for his Marin County ranch by then.)

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At any rate, the festival, in its last day, offered a fine platform for answering “Willow’s” detractors.

Lucas insisted that the movie’s masked villain, Kael, wasn’t named for critic Pauline Kael. But he took a few good licks at the reviewers anyway.

“Reviews in the U.S. are very short, very glib,” Lucas explained to the Continental press. “They tell you a little about what a movie is about, and come up with some spiffy little remark. I really don’t give them much concern.”

The producer said he remained “very happy” with “Howard the Duck,” and called it a “tragedy” that America’s movie press--apparently the central villain in his personal myth--had become preoccupied with big budgets and high grosses.

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A presumably more sophisticated European reporter nonetheless demanded to know whether Lucas himself didn’t glorify commerce above art with his legendary licensing campaigns.

Lucas said licensing and promotion were just part of “responsible” film making: “If a movie doesn’t make money, it’s very hard to stay in business.”

Veteran British actress Jean Marsh--"Willow’s” evil Queen Bavmorda--bravely chirped up that the cast wouldn’t mind if Lucas cooled the licensing a bit. “We would all pay not to be on T-shirts and things,” said Marsh.

And, yes, Virginia, there will be another “Star Wars.” But not for a while. “There are other films I want to make first,” Lucas replied.

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