Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard will soon be treading into the fantasy landscapes of “The Dark Tower” for a wildly ambitious film and television adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus, and when he does there’s no doubt that his mind will turn back to “Willow,” the 1988 sword-and-sorcery film that tested Howard more than any other project.
“For me that was sort of like going to grad school,” Howard said of the collaboration with producer George Lucas, who had come up with the concept more than 15 years earlier. “There was a new level of understanding that I needed to come to terms with the greater canvas, the greater cinematic canvas. Of course, George Lucas is sort of a natural master in that regard and [the project] was his idea. So while I was given global latitude — and it was even the first time I was given final cut, George did that — but it was his story and I was very much under his wing and really reveling in that and growing from it.”
Howard, who grew up in the living room of America on “The Andy Griffith Show” and then “Happy Days,” had already directed five feature films, including “Splash” and “Cocoon,” but the old Jedi master warned him that this was something different. “I remember George asking me to do the movie and he said, ‘Well, when you get through this movie, you’re never going to be a kid again.'”
The tale of “Willow” was clearly informed by readings of Tolkien, the Brothers Grimm and the story of Moses. The title role belongs to Warwick Davis , who portrays Willow Ufgood of the diminutive Nelwyn citizenry. He is sent on a mission by his people — he must take an infant girl who has been plucked from a ragged river raft and deliver her to a crossroads, where she might be returned to her rightful people. The story also presents a two-headed dragon, a disgraced knight (Val Kilmer), an evil queen (Jean Marsh) with a warrior daughter (Joanne Whalley) and plenty of magical-world folk, be they wizards or the bickering Brownies, who are less than 10 inches tall.
“Willow” topped out at $57 million in domestic box office, and it seems that most critics admired the film’s aspirations more than its accomplishments. “A fearsomely ambitious movie, but it is not fearsome, and it is not wondrous, and it is about a journey too far down a road too well-traveled by other movies,” is how Roger Ebert summed it up, while Luke Y. Thompson was among the reviewers who saw the goblet as half-full. “It isn’t without significant flaws,” Thompson wrote, “but overall an effective and memorable fantasy spectacle.”
Memorable, certainly, for Howard who says “Willow” was more demanding than any of his later films, even the zero-gravity “Apollo 13” and the Seussian-surreal “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“For me it was a huge physical challenge, the most complicated challenge I’ve had,” the 57-year-old filmmaker said. “It was my first time dealing with multiple production units. The logistics of it were intense. I don’t know that I’ve ever been involved in anything as complicated or as arduous since, to be honest. And yet everything about it was driven by this kind of spirit of imagination and visual discovery, and it was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities of this fantasy. I was trying to always trying to center the emotions in relatable, human ways. It was a big turning point for me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot technically and also just about the logistics of making movies on a large scale, and it gave me a kind of confidence moving forward. It was 140, 150 shooting days by the time we finished all the green-screen, and there were the multiple units and everything.”
The moviegoing public never fell under the spell of “Willow,” but if “The Dark Tower” delivers memorable magic it will be because the 1988 film emboldened a filmmaker to take on epic quests. “‘Willow’ was quite the journey,” Howard said wistfully. “When it was over, what was really great was I felt like I never had to be scared tackling anything ever again.”
— Geoff Boucher
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