Ten Reasons WILLOW is Still One of the Best Fantasy Movies of All Time

January 23, 2016

Tech Support and I watched Willow again the other night, and just like when I watched it (over and over) as a kid, it made me deliriously happy. It’s the story of an unlikely hero who has to save a baby from the evil queen that wants to kill her, and if you’ve never seen it, here are ten reasons you should.

The Special Effects

Yes, OK. By today’s standards, the effects are simplistic, in some places even comical (especially on the Blu-Ray). But for 1988? That stuff was AWESOME.

The Setting

Long before Peter Jackson turned New Zealand into Middle Earth, Ron Howard filmed Willow there. The scenery is breathtaking. It’s easy to believe the story is taking place somewhere beyond our own world.

The World Building

World building in fantasy is a tricky art. Too little detail and the audience is hopelessly confused. Too much, and they are bored into a stupor. Willow strikes the perfect balance. We don’t know how evil Queen Bavmorda came to power, or how Madmartigan got tossed out of the kingdom of Galadorn. And the details don’t actually matter – they give us the sense of a real world with a deep and complex history without getting in the way of the action.

It Celebrates Diversity

Willow and his people are Nelwins. Nelwins are small. Several of the key characters in the film are therefore played by dwarves – not to mention an entire village of extras. I love that. I love that Willow gave some really talented actors a chance to show their stuff, because let’s face it, most Hollywood movies don’t. Warwick Davis is brilliant in this movie. Billy Barty (the High Aldwin) is totally hilarious, and I may have spotted Peter Dinklage in the background…

The Baby

I don’t know where they found the babies that plays Elora Danan, but they are quite possibly the cutest babies that have ever been filmed. The child actors that played Willow’s kids are also totally adorable.

The Brownies

Fantasy is a genre that often tends towards the dark side, which is why there are usually characters that seem to be included purely for comic relief. In Willow, they are the brownies Franjeen and Rool. They bumble and bicker and cause more problems than they actually solve, but somehow still manage to help save the day. The actors must have had a blast playing these characters, because they are pure joy to watch.

It’s Just So Greek

You know how in a Greek tragedy, the warrior or shepherd or king will do everything possible to avoid the outcome of a prophecy, thereby hastening its completion and ensuring his or her own destruction? Well, that’s Queen Bavmorda in a nutshell. Her arrogance is her own downfall.

And while we’re on the subject, Queen Bavmorda is a truly terrifying villain. This is a woman who will capture and slaughter hundreds of pregnant women to find the one who carries the child predicted to destroy her, who will sack a city or turn people into livestock on a whim, and treats her own daughter like a particularly incompetent servant. She’s powerful and ruthless and capricious, and we have no trouble believing that if Willow’s quest fails, Bavmorda will destroy the world and dance on its ashes.

Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer plays Madmartigan, an unscrupulous sell-sword who gets caught up in Willow’s quest and finds something to believe in. Personally, I think he’s better in this movie than in anything else he ever did. Not to mention cuter.


The Dust of Broken Hearts

The brownies hit Madmartigan with a fairy potion, causing him to fall in love with his worst enemy. I can’t even tell you how happy this scene makes me. It’s one of my favourite moments in film.

The Idea That the People No One Expects Anything Of are the Ones That Achieve the Most

This image is the key to the whole movie for me. A dwarf and a woman – an old woman – laying siege to an entire castle. People who, in the world of Willow, and in our own world, no one looks twice at, much less expects anything of. And it’s not just Willow and Raziel. Madmartigan the mercenary, the brownies, the unappreciated daughter, the army without a country… This movie is about people who are overlooked and undervalued, and the way those people, if they stand up for what’s right, can not only make a difference, but save the world.

For me, this idea is why Willow is just as brilliant today as when it was new.

What about you? Have you seen Willow? What’s your favourite part? What is it about fantasy books and movies that you love?


12 Comments on ‘Ten Reasons WILLOW is Still One of the Best Fantasy Movies of All Time’

  1. Well done Linds! You made me remember all the times we watched it together!!

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  2. OMG, my brother just commented on my blog for the first time. WIN.

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  3. Willow is one of my all time favourites. I still cry when he returns to the village after the quest and his wife runs to him. And yes a million times over for the Val Kilmer reason. Have you seen ‘Ever After’ with Drew Barrymore? Gives me the same feels.

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    1. YES on the hugging of the wife at the end. That moment is full of feels.

      And I LOVE Ever After. It’s so sweet and delightful and clever. A movie I turn to when I need cheering up.

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  4. Just found this blog post. I love Willow. It was the first movie my family ever owned, and my brothers and I watched it so often, I can still quote along with every line. Whenever I watch it, I get a warm fuzzy feeling. I was probably 8 when I first watched this, and had a huge crush on Madmartigan… Still do, 18 years later…

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! Isn’t it great when something you loved as a child totally holds up for you as an adult? This movie will always be timeless and delightful for me.

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      1. Totally! I feel bad for the people who watch Willow as an adult and find it silly, without experiencing the magic I felt when watching it as a child.

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  5. First of all, thank you for posting this. It was nice to come across! I recently watched it again with the goal of testing the nostalgia of my youth and was very happy with the result. Holds up phenomenally. To this day I am still greatly disappointed at how dismissive people are of this classic and do not know how they place movies like Legend above it. I enjoy this movie more than all three Hobbit movies combined. It was like all the lessons that were learned from this in the making of Lord of the Rings were tossed out with the prequels.


    You don’t have to fight or wrestle with who is who due to the popularization of anti-heroes, and convoluted twists. This being said each respective character is very strong, not only in power but personality. You love to hate the Queen and can’t help but root for everyone else. Isn’t it a drag when you go into a movie and the bad guy or lady is just a total wet rag/weasel? It completely deflates the tension and removes the main thing which our hero needs to overcome.


    Val Kilmer: I totally agree with you on his performance here. The suave rogue on the road to redemption was fantastic. Do you think Tombstone would be on par though or at least a close second? This guy should have reached superstardom in my opinion.


    So many movies these days lack the capacity to interweave action into the film in a manner that makes sense. Not only in how it is balanced but using it specifically to move the plot forward. Furthermore, the number of wide-angle shots which allow for you to actually see what is happening in a fight scene is something we should aspire to return to. This movie has a wonderful journey in which the action is always implemented in a tasteful manner, not to mention maintaining your suspense of disbelief for the majority of the film save one moment, (giant snowball Kilmer rolling down the hill) It is probably the only place in the film where I have to use nostalgia to say it’s okay.

    Practical Effects-

    Now as you mentioned above some of these things are hokey by today’s standards, but there is truly something amazing about an actor saying, ” I’d say two or three hundred horses, five or six wagons… and about a thousand fools,” and you are actually looking at what they are describing. Some directors are just now recognizing the importance of pairing practical effects with CGI having practical be the centerpiece.


    The score is one of James Horner’s best pieces and still has his signature trills. Many say Williams is better, but I think he may have gotten some better breaks with trilogies and award winners which got him more notoriety and exposure which allowed for his proliferation. Horner has Titanic, The Pagemaster, Willow, Aliens, and after Avatar I was hoping for a big comeback, but it was cut short, unfortunately, and many do not even know some of those were his. Again, maybe Williams is better technically but Horner does such a brilliant job of drawing you in emotionally.


    The magic is subdued and difficult to utilize which of course is an old school movie magic trick as well because they simply couldn’t do as much then, but I think the fact that this inability really forced them to be creative when and how they did use it that it seeps into the performance of the character as well because it makes us fear for them. It saves the film from becoming a bunch of things flying around doing crazy moves every second which in turn ties to crazy film techniques we like to use today that are just dizzying and bloated and really hide what is going on instead of showcasing it. Which one would hope is the goal of a film as a medium… telling a story by showing it. Haha.

    Slang/language of their world-

    This ties into the aforementioned world building so I will keep it short. You do this, and you are immediately transported into the realm and truly feel it’s the essence. There are many 80’s sci-fi/fantasy that use slang from our world or terminology that you know has no place being there which can really negatively impact suspense of disbelief.

    Costume Design-

    The costume design compared to other 80’s fantasy set itself apart by miles, truly. The Never Ending Story and Legend had kids wearing rags, Ladyhawke looked more like a filmed version of a play with hokey outfits, but Willow truly exudes the world it is portraying and largely due to the wardrobe department. Something Game of Thrones would later take to the next level.

    Lastly, for the positive aspects, the story is complete. You leave satisfied with what was given and perhaps even had a few subtle lessons that didn’t hit you on the top of the head like most movies do these days because the writers trusted the viewers enough to pick up on subtlety and doing so without saturating the story with contemporary politics or simply telling us what the meaning is.


    1) Madmartigan rolling down the hill. I know it was used comedically and also as a vehicle to bring him out of his stupor but still.

    2) The conjuring room furniture that comes to life…Biggest criticism. It was the only magic spell that truly left one a bit disappointed namely because it was not only unnecessary but underwhelming for the main heroine of the film to fight. It could have been some other pet creature the queen had or an attendant or he could have just hidden. We didn’t need it and it is the only example in the movie where magic/stop motion is used poorly and honestly does nothing for the plot moving forward.

    If this is a movie you really enjoyed here is a list of upcoming projects to keep an eye out for…

    The Name of the Wind (Book series The Kingkiller Chronicle) First contemporary high fantasy that I would teach as a class. Beautiful prose reads like a poem. I place it alongside the Illiad, Odyssey, and LOTR.

    The Wheel of Time (book series) Great book series, fantastic world-building, and highly descriptive. To some, almost to a fault. I put it up as one of the greats as well. Definitely inspired Martin whether he acknowledges or not both he and Jordan utilize the Great Game politically in their works. WOT has one of the best culmination in high fantasy endings. Jordan died before the series was complete but still wrote all the parts that he mandated had his stamp on it. Brandon Sanderson would write filler with thousands of pages of notes.

    The Witcher (Book series and Game) I have played the game briefly. Very gritty historical fantasy on a similar vein as Van Helsing and Castlevania.

    All of these will be in an episode/series format, but I have high hopes that they will replace GOT as it reaches a conclusion.

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    1. Hi Trevor! Thanks for stopping by and for this thoughtful comment! I agree with almost everything you said – the Hobbit Trilogy was bloated (it drags so much compared to LOTR) and Kilmer is brilliant in Tombstone as well. The pacing in Willow is also genius, because there is such a great balance of action with quieter scenes (and limitations on the magic, meaning it can’t be used to solve everything). I also love how the dialogue tells you who the characters are, not just what’s happening – as in that brilliant line of Madmartigan’s that you quoted.

      I’m not a fan of The Wheel of Time series though. I loved the first few books (and they were miles above The Shannara series everyone adores) but I really feel that Jordan lost control of his narrative. Getting through the second half of that series was a serious slog. But I LOVE The Kingkiller Chronicle, so I will have to keep my eye out for The Witcher – thanks for the tip!

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  6. I have seen Willow many times as a kid but it had been a long time. I just re-watched it, and experienced a delirious kind of joy and emotional satisfaction. This movie is wonderful! Then I went looking to see if others have the same reaction and found articles picking it apart, calling it ridiculous, and giving it 2.5/5 stars. WTF is wrong with movie reviewers! I love the parts where Sorsha is warming up to Madmartigan. Very farfetched, but magical. Thank you for writing this article and letting me know Willow really is that good and I’m not just crazy. I think I’ll re-watch Labyrinth next.

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    1. You are not even a little bit crazy – this movie is delightful!

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