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Willow (Blu-ray Review)

willow whysoblu cover-001In 1988, director Ron Howard and writer/executive producer George Lucas teamed up to make a fantasy/adventure film called Willow.  The story revolves around a reluctant farmer, who aspires to be a wizard, teaming with the greatest sword fighter in the land in order to protect a special baby from an evil queen during a magical, medieval time period.  While only a moderate success at the time, Willow is still known for its revolutionary use of digital morphing technology, its epic score by James Horner, and the fun performances from Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis.  The film has amassed a following since its original release and it is now available and better looking than ever on Blu-ray.  Read on to learn more about this Blu-ray release.

Film: 

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Willow begins by establishing what is at stake.  The evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) has been slaying all the female children being born, in order to stop a prophecy that implies her downfall from coming true.  The child, Elora Danan is born and secretly smuggled away from the queen, sent down the river in a basket.  She is found by the most unlikely of fellows – a little person named Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis).  Willow is a farmer who aspires to be a great wizard and eventually learns that he must be the one who takes this baby to the sorceress known as Fin Raziel.  Willow has become Elora’s guardian, but as he is not the strongest of people, he may need help during his travels.  It is fortunate that he begrudgingly befriends a warrior named Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who eventually agrees to help Willow in his journey.  The group will have to face off against monsters, magic, and various battles in order to save Elora and stop the evil Queen.

For those who have not seen the film before, if the story sounds familiar, it is because this is the standard “hero’s journey” tale.  Willow also has lots of Tolkien, among other source materials, used as influences on the characters and lands that we see in the film, with a pretty standard template serving as the main arc.  Does that make it bad?  Not really, but the film does show its age, given how earnest it is, along with visual effects that are very obvious by today’s standards.  Still, the film is quite a lot of fun in both the ways that Howard and Lucas wanted it to be and for reasons extending from the general silliness of a lot of what we are seeing.

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A lot of the fun comes from our two leads.  Warwick Davis was basically given the opportunity of a lifetime, as a little person such as him is never really given the lead role of a big Hollywood film such as this.  As Willow, Davis certainly plays the role quite seriously, despite whether or not he is having fun in the given moment, but his sincerity is what makes him quite likable.  Val Kilmer, on the other hand, was within his peak leading man period and still quite handsome enough to play what is essentially the ‘Han Solo’ role in the film.  The two of them make for a great team, as they go on their adventure together.  Also good is Joanne Whalley, particularly in her interactions (the love/hate relationship) with Kilmer.  Whalley plays the daughter of the evil Queen and she gets to play both sides of character, as conflict may or may not shift her allegiances.

The visual effects work was a big deal when the film first came out and while the film is obviously dated, there is something fun to recognize about a lot of what we do see.  While there are creatures known as “Brownies” that are smaller than almost everything, which needed to be inserted into scenes and look very obvious, other aspects of this film still work well enough.  As a child, the big monster during one sequence actually did scare me and I can see why, as the design is pretty monstrous.  Additionally, the use of practical makeup effects is quite good throughout and the morphing sequences are still quite entertaining.  Willow may not have a timeless feel like The Princess Bride, for example, but it still feels like a film that had a lot of hard work put into it.

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The production values all seem like they were top notch for their time, as we get a feel for the worlds people live in, the costumes are all appropriate, with a little in the way of subtlety, and the sword fighting is plentiful.  All of this and you have James Horner’s classic score which just screams, “Adventure!”  Even as the film takes some missteps or gets bogged down in its plotting, the score by Horner, alone, is enough to keep things within the realm of what kind of film this needs to be.

While the film may only present an average story, it is clear that Howard and Lucas wanted to share the love of films they saw growing up in the form of a big-budget throwback.  Lucas has essentially prayed on nostalgia throughout his career in regards to his other huge franchises that he is mostly, if not completely responsible for (one has some guy with a whip and the other involves laser swords, I think).  With Willow, while not an immediate classic like the others, it does have the spirit of what those old sword and sorcery films were trying to accomplish.  It is a bit hokey and a bit dated, but it is fun in a lot of ways and worth checking out for a number of reasons, including Willow’s “shocked face” that we see throughout.

Video: 

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A true joy in getting to now watch Willow on Blu-ray was its stellar digital restoration.  The film looks better than ever on Blu, with Lucasfilm clearly wanting to show that they care just as much about their other produced films.  This disc features a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that does great justice to the film, possibly making it look better than it ever has.  The textures are what seem most noticeable, as the images were all clearly shot on film, but none of the cleaning done to the film removed that quality.  This does make the visual effects stand out a bit more, but that shouldn’t take away from how good the look of this Blu-ray is.  Colors, black levels, other tones, and the matte paintings featured all look great on what is a pretty fantastic transfer all around.

Audio: 

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It almost goes without saying that the audio is fantastic on this Blu-ray.  People can whine all they want about George Lucas, but we wouldn’t have THX without him and the audio track on this Blu is great because of it.  Presented with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, Willow sounds fantastic.  The James Horner score, once again, is great and hearing it so clearly on this format was one of the things I was looking forward to.  Additionally, the sound design of this film, given the magic effect sounds, action sequences, and dialogue, all come in clear and well mixed.  It is a great audio presentation.

Extras: 

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I first want to shout out the cover art for this Blu-ray, as I do quite enjoy it.  It may not be as classically styled as the original poster, but it provides an epic sort of feel for the film.  Regarding the special features, this is a nice collection of extras, bolstered by the fact that we get some never-before-seen footage.

Features Include:

Willow:  Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard – Here are a batch of deleted scenes, with introductions by Ron Howard.  Most interesting is a fish-boy sequence, which reveals something that fans have always wondered about.

The Making of An Adventure with Ron Howard – Introduced by Ron Howard, this is a making-of feature that was produced around the time when the film was originally released.  It is nostalgic and a good watch.

From Morf to Morphing with Dennis Muren – Featuring visual effects veteran Dennis Muren, this featurette goes into the effects of the film, which were revolutionary at the time.

Willow: An Unlikely Hero – Personal Video Diary by Warwick Davis – This was neat to see.  Warwick Davis explains how filming was both great and quite a chore, with some of his own footage from the set.

Matte Paintings – A montage of the films matte paintings used in the film.

DVD Copy of the Film.

Summary: 

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Willow was a very fun film to revisit, as it still has a lot of entertainment value.  Despite the fact that the effects are fairly dated and the film’s story is a bit derivative, there is enough fun to be seen in some of the action and with what Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis bring to the film.  More importantly, the technical specs on this Blu-ray are great.  The video and audio presentations are wonderful and make for the ultimate Willow viewing experience.  And you get some new bonus footage!  For fans of the film or those that would like a retro sword and sorcery film, go and check out this Blu-ray.

Order Your Copy Here:

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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