Fantasy Films 101.10 1988's "Willow"
It's the one you love, but won't admit you've seen. It stars a high-flying fighter pilot, a Pink Floyd groupie, a Benny Hill girl and one of the Ewoks. And it's the product of the man who is arguably the most popular sci-fi/fantasy film director of all time. This week: 1988's Willow.
Riding high on the success of his Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones films, yet reeling from the complete failure of Howard the Duck and Captain Eo, George Lucas was in one of those strange situations when he unleashed Willow upon the public. Labyrinth had been a modest fantasy success a few years earlier, but the decade was winding down, and the market for fantasy films was waning as sci-fi began to experience a resurgence. Could he light the fire once again?
Some would say "yes," and I would be one of those someones. I vividly recall going to the theater to see Willow with my mother and younger brother, and then clamoring to see the film again and again every time I saw it listed in TV Guide. It wasn't as if it was the best film I'd ever seen, but it was a great way to blow two hours. And as I think I'll demonstrate, it's also a great way to spend two (or three, or four) hours with your gaming group.
It all starts with a birth, a baby child named Elora Danan (played by twins Ruth &anp; Kate Greenfield) who's born in fulfillment of a prophecy in Nockmaar castle; a prophecy that she will overthrow the queen in power, Queen Bavmorda. Needless to say, the Queen is not pleased, and when the baby is snuck out of the castle by a midwife, she sends her death dogs and guards [led by her daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, who also played a groupie in Pink Floyd--The Wall)] out to hunt it down. Narrowly escaping, the midwife sets the baby in a basket and floats it down the river... moments before being torn to shreds by the dogs. Yummy.
It's not long before the baby is discovered by some Nelwyns (a fancy name for halflings), who try to decide whether to ignore it or take it in. There are lots of them running around, but the only one who really matters is Wicket... I mean, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, best known for his roles as an Ewok and a disturbed Leprechaun). There's this whole sub-plot about Willow's farm being foreclosed, yada yada, but it's about as interesting as an intergalactic trade war.
Willow has other problems, though. He's desperately trying to become a wizard's apprentice to the High Aldwin (Billy Barty). Not only does he fail to impress the master wizard (sort of), but he's unwittingly unleashed hell upon the village, as a death dog rips through while hunting for Elora. Fessing up, Willow presents the human (daikini) baby before the High Council... and is ordered to return it to the daikini crossroads, beyond the boundaries of the village.
Once he arrives at the crossroads, he's supposed to just leave the baby with the first human he sees. Unfortunately, the first human he sees happens to be Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a criminal who's currently locked up in a cage hung above the crossroads; other soldiers pass by, but they're too busy to bother stopping for a little "peck" like Willow. And so, reluctantly, Willow passes the baby off to Madmartigan... who promptly loses her when some brownies steal her away. He pursues them, winds up meeting Cherlindrea, the Queen of the Fairies, and is told exactly why Elora Danan is so important--she is basically the future queen and ruler of all kingdoms on earth.
And it's up to Willow to protect her and take her to Tir Asleen, finding his way by consulting a druid named Fin Raziel first. Stopping for directions in a roadside tavern, he runs into Madmartigan again, and after some squabbling and a narrow escape they agree to work together, at least for the moment. Oh, and Madmartigan falls in love with the red-headed Sorsha. The group (Willow, Madmartigan, Elora, and a couple of annoying brownies) eventually reach the shores of a magical lake, on which lives Ms. Raziel (looking not at all like she did back in 1969 as a performer on The Benny Hill Show, since she's not in animal form).
They do, indeed, find the druid, but they are also captured by Sorsha. During the journey back to the castle, Raziel teaches Willow about magic while Sorsha and Madmartigan gradually fall deeper in love (it's not as sappy as it sounds). This provides the film with two running gags--Madmartigan's insatiable lust for Sorsha (including a mixup with a pouchful of Dust of Broken Hearts) and Willow's continual inability to transform the polymorphed Raziel into her human form.
After another getaway (using a shield as a toboggan), Madmartigan and Willow and Elora wind up in the company of the "good guys." Pursued by Sorsha and her men, Madmartigan manages to pull a reverse abduction, riding off with Sorsha as his prisoner (so they can finish falling in love, natch). Sorsha escapes, returns in time for a nifty little battle involving a two-headed hydra and a handful of trolls, and agrees to help Madmartigan and Willow get back Elora, who is kidnapped yet again in the midst of the fracas.
Joined by the "good guy" soldiers again, the group camps outside Bavmorda's castle, where most of them are turned into pigs. Luckily, by this time Willow has mastered the arts of magic, and he and Raziel manage to retransform everyone in time for the final battle. Then it's just a matter of storming the castle, a showdown of magic at the top of the tower, and a happy ending for all concerned, as Elora is saved, Bavmorda is defeated, and Willow returns triumphantly to his village.
It might sound a little thin in plot, but it makes up for it by being a delightful little story that's got everything you need for a great adventure.
- A young hero. Willow Ufgood, halfling and wanna-be sorcerer.
- A damsel in distress. Elora Danan, who also happens to be prophesied to become the queen of the land.
- A motley band of companions. There's Madmartigan the warrior, a bunch of brownies and forest folk, Fin Raziel the druid, some mercenaries who drift in and out of the story, and a turncoat redhead.
- An ancient magic. The magic here, it turns out, is inside everyone and everything. This story just oozes magic. Willow learns to master it, Raziel casts spells, the brownies have magic dust, Willow has magic acorns...
- Wicked evil bad guys. There's the baby-killing Bavmorda, the ugly little devil dogs, and oodles of black-armored minions to slay.
- Unbeatable odds. The guy responsible for saving the world is a halfling apprentice? You've gotta be kidding me. But if he can master his own powers, he can do great things. Including the impossible.
The film focuses a lot on subplots which don't always play well in role-playing settings: Willow's foreclosure problem, for instance, and Madmartigan's love interest in Sorsha. It's pretty easy to put those aside and just focus on the key factors, however:
- A baby is born who is prophesied to overthrow or otherwise upset the established power. If found, she will be sacrificed or otherwise killed. It's going to be up to the players to keep her safe, and to deliver her to a safe location where she will be cared for.
- War. Part of the reason the powers-that-be are concerned is that they're stretched pretty thin as it is, waging war against a neighboring kingdom. Maybe that prophecy is about a baby who will turn the tide. Or maybe there's some demonic pact going on, and whoever sacrifices the child with the special birthmark will win the war.
- Help is found in unlikely places. The criminal becomes a hero. The enemy soldier turns against her mother. The brownies first steal the baby, then help protect it. And the soldiers who ignore you at one end of the road are your greatest allies at the other end. It's all about agendas, and learning that everyone's ends are served by helping out in the same task--protecting the child and defeating the wicked evil bad guys.
Willow spans several days or weeks (depending on how you tell time in the film), and it can certainly be the anchor of a campaign if you're starved for ideas. But it's just as easy to pull this off as a one-nighter if you simply drop the baby in the laps of the players and make them run for it. The "safe haven" could be as close as the wizard's tower at the other end of the deadly forest, or it could be clear across the Desert of Death. The story's so traditional and simple that it's easy to mold it to whatever you have in mind, and that's why it ranks up there among the best of all time in my book.
We're closing in on the end here, and next week we smack head on into 1989, the last year I'll be covering in totem. There are two great options to choose from, so I'll need your votes on which one to close this out with -- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or Erik the Viking?