Recommendation — Willow

Original blog post here.

You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about the other Other George Lucas franchise?

[No offense to American Graffiti, THX 1138, or Red Tails]

First things first, take a gander/listen at the video for well-selling Canadian Synth-Pop band Men Without Hats‘ 1982 hit ‘The Safety Dance’ — which as per Wikipedia “was also a massive success in South Africa, reaching No. 1 on the Springbok charts.”

Despite being otherwise unrelated to Willow (and predating by six whole years), it captures the style and overall feel of my next recommendation shockingly well.

Basically, The Safety Dance is weird, Willow is weird, and the visuals of the two align rather well…

Directed by Ron Howard

Yeah, that’s the guy.

The Simpsons: Gracie Films and Disney.

— and produced and based on a story concept by George Lucas, Willow (much like the video for ‘Safety Dance’) is a weird movie.

It’s not necessarily a good movie, but watching it for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel it was a very endearing one. To be fair, it’s not even a bad movie, either. Mostly, it’s a very outlandish Fantasy movie that doesn’t quite manage to live up to its own ambitions.

It’s definitely worth watching once, at least.

Willow could be ungenerously described as a poor man’s The Hobbit, especially because both centre on a diminutive rustic going on an epic adventure. Though, to be fair, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

In Willow‘s further defence, plenty of Fantasy stories can be considered a poor man’s Tolkien, given that Tolkien looms so large over the genre and there’s a lot of trashy, derivative, downright bad Fantasy stories out there — I’m looking at you, Most Dungeons & Dragons Books.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo is basically just along for the ride. In Willow, despite Willow’s overall Hobbit-ness, he is not a very Bilbo-esque hero. For one thing, he’s very much the main hero of the film and has a lot more direct influence on the plot and overall consequence than Bilbo ever does in The Hobbit.

And, if anything, Willow is less a Generic Fantasy, Dungeons & Dragonsstyle Hobbit (well, technically, “Halfling“; TSR got IP-lawyer’d back in the day) and given his propensity for magic, he’s really more of a Gnome, if we’re trying to describe him in D&D terms.

Which is, admittedly, neither here or there.

A hand pointing to the right.
But if might be off somewhere
in that general direction…

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

If Willow absolutely has to be compared to another movie, it’s probably Star Wars — and not just because they’re both the brainchildren of George Lucas. Star Wars is pretty much a Fairy Tale in space, and Willow is just straight-up a Fairy Tale. Both stories rely on the same archetypal and traditional character styles and plot devices. Not surprising, given that George Lucas is a big fan of Joseph Campbell‘s theory of myth and storytelling.

Basically, Willow is Star Wars if you replaced “space” with “Fantasy world” and “Death Star plans” with “magic baby”. The overarching story’s not very original, but it’s at least entirely adequate and a lot of the particulars of the world-building, set design, and art direction are all pretty unique and well-done.

Or just plain weird enough to be memorable.

A scene from "Willow", Willow with the plot-significant magic baby.
These aren’t the Droids Magic Baby you’re looking for.

Willow: Disney and Imagine Entertainment.

The movie stars Warwick Davis as Willow (he’s a person, not a tree, in case that requires clarification).

A willow tree in a park.
Not pictured: our hero.

Photo by Daria Sannikova on

Even if you think you don’t know who Warwick Davis is, you’ve probably watched at least one movie with him in it.

He was the main Ewok in Return of the Jedi and has had cameos in most of the subsequent Star Wars movies; he was in cult classic Labyrinth; he was in some of the Harry Potters, apparently (according to Wikipedia, he was something called a “Professor Flitwick” — yeah, I don’t know, either); he was in one of the Narnia movies.

Val Kilmer’s there, too, and is absolutely delightful as a character that’s pretty much a manic, hyperactive, unwashed barbarian version of Aragorn.

A battle scene from "Willow", featuring Val Kilmer's character in bright gold armour.
He cleans up as good as he beats up bad guys.

Willow: Disney and Imagine Entertainment.

The funny thing is, I never actually saw Willow until I learned that Disney owns it now and went looking for it on Disney Plus. My first exposure to it was actually when my Mom read me the novelisation when I was a kid.

Full disclosure, I don’t actually remember much about it, though I do remember that I really liked it.

To the point where, as I recall, I started writing my own book that was literally just Willow with some of the details and names changed. I, uh, did that a lot as I kid.

Hey, everyone gets their start somewhere.

I’d suggest you also check out the novelisation after (or even before) you watch the movie.

I’m as close to absolute certainty as is humanly possible that it’s out of print, but I was able to find some used copies of it online with minimal effort.

Again, I don’t remember much of the details, but as I recall, it does flesh out the characters, their backstories, and their motives in addition to containing scenes that didn’t make it into the final version of the film.

So, yeah, watch Willow, read Willow and keep your eyes open for J.B. Norman’s 12000% original novel Will O.

In light of the fact that the new Willow sequel series premiered on Disney Plus, I thought it would be a good move to expand a little on this recommendation by giving some thoughts on the series.

In brief, I wish the dialogue and the writing were better, because the worldbuilding and art direction are phenomenal. The world of the original Willow was just straight-up weird — and further evidence that George Lucas is a genius Ideas Guy — and what we’ve seen so far of the series makes it clear they’re going to honour that.

Which is good.

On the other hand, it feels like they’re running down the Big List of Fantasy Genre Conventions (they almost made me use the word “trope”, something for which I would never have forgiven them) and literally checking things off the list as they go.

Tomboy Princess? Check. Wants to go her own way? Check. Forbidden love? Check. Scary, vaugely-defined evil threat to the world? Check. Chosen One’s our only hope? Check.

I get it. There’s only so many ways to tell a story. But there are at least other ways to tell a story than “Exactly the Same Way Everyone Else Has Ever Told That Exact Story.”

Mostly, though, my biggest complaint is that the characters talk and act like people from 2022 North America, rather than people from an unrepentantly Fantasy-y… Fantasy world. It was glaring and distracting enough that I almost tapped out during the first third of the first episode, but I stuck it out and I feel like it did improve by the end of the second episode.

This is exactly the problem I’ve had with Dragon Age recently.

And, yeah, yeah, Realmgard does that, too, but Willow is infinitely more unironic Fantasy than Realmgard is. Now, Realmgard, isn’t necessarily a parody or a satire, but it is based on the premise of not taking itself or the genre too seriously.

Though, honestly, even if we transposed all the characters onto a modern setting, I do kinda feel that the dialogue still wouldn’t exactly shine. Even at best, it’s good not really good.

Also, I hate the end credits music they’ve been using so far. It’s incongruously modern and they start playing it way too early in the last scenes before the credits actually start.

But, honestly, if that’s my biggest ongoing problem, I think the show’s in a good place over all. The story’s alright. The visuals are great. And the characters may not be growing on me, but I think I’m at least accepting of those things which I cannot change.

On the other hand, Warwick Davis is actually a really good actor, and I think this is the first opportunity I’ve ever had to see that, because I’ve only ever seen him as an Ewok — albeit the Ewok — in bit parts, or in the original Willow, where he was 17 years old and didn’t really have much to work with…

Overall, I’m probably less down on the whole thing that the above manifesto may indicate. There have been at least a few moments of genuine entertainment and hilarity.

For what it’s worth, as of this writing, it’s at 5.3 on IMDB, and that strikes me too harsh. I’d probably put it at a high 6-point-something up to a mid 7-point-something.

Notably, I don’t remember ever seeing an announcement about the series being cancelled, though it was announced in May 2023 that the series would ultimately be removed from Disney Plus, so that seem to indicate that the series is done and dusted.

Though this recommendation will be updated when and if the status of the series changes.

But, hey, why worry about streaming executives or people with axes to grind on internet reviews, when we could just all do the Safety Dance again?

Copyright 2022-2023 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from a post originally written 2021.

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