Willow on Blu-ray

Epic Fantasy a la Lucas/Howard (note: some of this review appeared in our original DVD review)

Before there was The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there was Willow.

Well, theatrically, anyway. LOTR and The Hobbit existed as books long before George Lucas and Ron Howard teamed up for this epic fantasy film - and you can see some of that influence in the Howard/Lucas film - but the movie Willow could perhaps be credited in part with helping pave the way for Peter Jackson's series of movies.

After all, what does a fantasy fan think of when a race of small people who aren't taken seriously by the "normal" humans, who think the "halflings" (okay, that word isn't used here) are somehow less important, less "valid" than "full sized" individuals?

Anyway, regardless of where the story's inspiration came from, George Lucas and Ron Howard movies are always worth watching, so when the two team up it should be an event.

It happened first with American Graffiti, which Lucas directed and in which Howard starred (as "Ronny"), then Howard went on to carve out a respectable career behind the camera for himself as a director of such films as Apollo 13, EdTV, Backdraft, Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas and others, while for many years after his original Star Wars trilogy Lucas turned the directing reins over to others while he contented himself with the Big Picture job of producing.

So bringing the two of them together as producer (Lucas) and Director (Howard) should be, if nothing else, highly interesting.

And it is. As mentioned, Willow is an epic fairy tale in the tradition of Lord of the Rings, a family-suitable fantasy adventure full of magic, monsters, evil, and the triumph of good over such. And of course it has Lucas' ILM on hand to bring the magic to life.

The story sees young Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, who earlier played the main Ewok in Lucas' Return of the Jedi and appears in a very brief cameo in The Phantom Menace) is a Nelwyn farmer with a yoiung family. Nelwyns are a race of little people led by the local sorcerer (played to perfection by Billy Barty). Willow, an aspiring sorcerer himself, discovers (thanks to his kids - who are just too darn cute to be allowed to live) a baby floating Moses-like in the river and ends up tasked by his community with delivering what turns out later to be an infant princess to safety from the evil queen Bavmorda (the scenery-chewing Jean Marsh) who wants to destroy the child before she can grow up to defeat her.

On the journey to return the child to the Daikini (the race of "normal people"), Willow and his entourage come upon the adventurous but unlucky Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a Han Solo-like rogue and scoundrel who eventually finds his calling serving Willow and the forces of good. The two (aided by a pair of Brownies who serve as this film's R2D2 and C3PO, in that they provide most of the comedy relief) pair up to take the baby to safety, which amounts to finding and saving a good sorceress who labors under a spell of Bavmorda.

There's action galore, plenty of special effects (which actually hold up very well so many years later), gorgeous locations and terrific production values. There are also some wonderful opportunities for a terrific surround sound experience, especially via some great thunder effects.

In other words, this is Lucasfilm production at its best, in Lucas' grand tradition, though it probably isn't as good as the original Star Wars movies. But the cast delivers marvelous performances and it's amazing the producers could find so many little people who can hold their own acting in a major Hollywood production.

The Century Fox Blu-ray has been given a very nice treatment and features a beautiful widescreen, high definition video transfer at 2.39:1 and it looks gorgeous. Colors are rich, detail is exquisite and the black levels are simply fine, offering some nice depth in places. It may not be quite reference quality, but for an older, catalog title, it looks marvelous.

And it sounds just as good. The lossless 5.1 channel DTS HD Master Audio is and enveloping, with terrific channel separation and a wonderful low frequency effect channel that really does justice to stuff such as the abovementioned thunder, as well as instances when the forces of darkness are unleashed.

As you'd undoubtedly hope, there is a decent selection of extras to whet your appetite. Unlike with the special edition DVD of several years ago, there's no running commentary this time, but you do get the current Ron Howard popping up quite a bit to talk about the film and what it meant to his career.

For example, "Willow: Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard" has the director showing a few deleted sequences and explaining why they were cut in the first place. And as it turns out, they made the right decisions.

"The Making of an Adventure" is a vintage TV special, introduced by today's Howard, that includes interviews with his younger self and George Lucas younger self, and is in fact a pretty standard albeit interesting look at behind-the-scenes of the production and its special effects. "From Morf to Morphing with Dennis Muren" (a long time ILM guy), is a newer (2001) feature about how the production used the then very new digital effects technology to pull off the film.

You also get "Willow: An Unlikely Hero" (sound Bilbo of Frodo-ish enough for you?) is a personal video diary of the young Warwick Davis, who reminisces about his experiences. There's also a very short feature showing a few of the film's matte paintings and how they ended up looking in the final film. It's pretty interesting stuff, though not really groundbreaking.

Those are gravy, of course, to what is a fine film, one that's well worth owning by fantasty films and audio/videophiles alike.

Willow, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
126 min. 1080p/24 widescreen (2.39:1) DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Starring Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh, Billy Barty
Produced by Nigel Wooll
Written by Bob Dolman, Directed by Ron Howard.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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