Saturday, December 3, 2022

No Weeping for the Return of “Willow”

 Disney+ is kicking off the holiday season with Willow, a new series, based on an old movie. Back in 1988 (which I’m tempted to refer to as “olden times”), George Lucas persuaded a new young director named Ron Howard to  make a fantasy film with a little person at its core. Lucas had, while directing Return of the Jedi, been impressed by tiny WarwickDavis, a three-foot-four-inch bundle of energy who played Wicket the Ewok, among other roles. It was Lucas’s idea to star someone like Davis in a period adventure saga.

 But since Lucas was a shy man who lacked an easy rapport with actors, he  had gradually moved into the producer’s role. Howard at that time was still fairly new to movie-making on a grand scale: his Splash(1984) and Cocoon (195) had been mainstream hits, but Willow’s $50 million budget and sizable special effects demands gave him pause. Still, he was eager to work with the tech wizards at Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Moreover, he reasoned that his five-year-old daughter Bryce and his toddler twins (not to mention the little boy on the way) would soon be the perfect age to appreciate big-screen fantasy.

 Despite Lucas’s enthusiasm, Warwick Davis was not a shoo-in for the leading role of Willow Ufgood, who is forced by circumstance to journey far from his home among the Nelwyns, a race of little people under four feet tall. A farmer who dreams of becoming a magician, Willow suddenly finds himself entrusted with a full-sized (or “Dakini”) baby. This baby is none other than Elora Danan, whose survival spells doom for the evil Dakini queen, Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). In the course of his travels to return the infant princess to her rightful home, Willow encounters all manner of unlikely creatures: vicious deathdogs, frightening trolls, beautiful fairies, a sorceress trapped in the body of a rodent, and pugnacious brownies nine inches high who make the three-foot four-inch Willow seem like a giant. There are battles and breathless escapes aplenty before Willow uses his budding magic skills, along with his native wit, to defeat Bavmorda and restore the forces of good.

 When I spoke to Warwick Davis for my Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, he told me he was somewhat daunted by the demands of the title role. Despite all his experience on Star Wars films, here he would be without a mask and a creature suit, and the range of his emotions within the film would be huge. Howard too was worried about Davis’s suitability, because he was a mere seventeen years old. Not only did the part of Willow call for him to interact with a baby, but his character was supposed to be a loving husband and the father of two young children. Once he won the role, Davis, who had never before lifted a baby, was put through an informal training course on how to care for an infant, diaper-changing and all. Howard also arranged lessons in diction, horsemanship., and sleight-of-hand.

 Happily, Disney’s new series returns Davis to the title role. Now a 52-year-old with a long filmography to his credit, he occupies a world in which baby Elora Danan has become a grown woman and a queen, but still relies on Willow’s talents to help her fight off evil.. Long ago I wrote that the original film “is an uneasy blend of life-or-death adventure, heartfelt sentiment, golly-gee wizardry, and comic riffs.” Still, it found many young fans on video, and the well-regarded new series should bring in more.



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