George Lucas has created two of the biggest franchises in Hollywood: Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. While the success of those films and their subsequent sequels and spin offs led to them becoming the staples of Lucasfilm as a studio, tthere was another story by Lucas that had great potential to become the another big franchise: Willow.
In 1988 George Lucas teamed up with director Ron Howard to release the fantasy adventure film. It starred, Warwick Davis (who previously appeared in Return of the Jedi). Where Star Wars and Indiana Jones were both throwbacks to old movie serials, Willow was a wholly original fairytale telling the story of an aspiring sorcerer (played by Davis) tasked with protecting a baby princess prophesied to save the world.
Also starring in the film was Val Kilmer as Madmartigan the world’s greatest swordsman. Together the two teamed up to keep the child safe and defeat the evil queen Bavmorda.
Lucas first came up with the idea of the film in 1972. He later approached Davis to play the main character during the production of Return of the Jedi. He and Howard had previously worked together when Lucas directed him in American Graffiti in 1973. Given Lucas’s track record, Howard’s newfound success as a director, and the star power of someone like Kilmer – who was jus coming off Top Gun two years earlier – many predicted that Willow would be a huge success on the same level as Star Wars. Lucas would later go on to say that he hoped the film would make as much money as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. Although the film grossed $137 million on a 35 million budget, it wasn’t technically a bomb. But it wasn’t the blockbuster people hoped it would be either. And it definitely wasn’t enough to warrant making another and creating a franchise.
The sad thing about the original not being a huge success was because it’ a very inspiring story both in the context of the film itself and real life. In the movie, Davis plays a Nelwyn (the film’s term for dwarfs). He wishes to be a great sorcerer, but is looked down upon by everyone including those in his own village. He’s the underdog who proves himself to be a real hero. While that’s a classic theme that’s been explored in many stories before, what makes it even more impactful here is Warwick’s inspired casting.
In many fantasy films directors would often cast average height actors to portray characters like dwarves or hobbits. They’d also use special effects to make them appear shorter than they actually are. Sometimes this would be done even in films that weren’t fantasy based. One of the most offensive examples of this is Gary Oldman being cast as a dwarf in the film Tiptoes (seriously look it up – it’s awful). But Lucas’ decision to cast Davis, an actor who also happens to suffer from dwarfism, in the lead role as the hero, was groundbreaking. Unlike his previous roles in the Star Wars films, it was the first role of his career where he got to show his face and he wasn’t covered in makeup or prosthetics.
Now, George Lucas always had ideas for future stories featuring the characters. A few years after the release of the films, he and comic book writer Chris Claremont teamed up to write a trilogy of books serving as sequels to the original film. But fans of the original still hoped to one day see a true sequel made. After more than thirty years, they’ve finally gotten it in the form of a television series on Disney+.
Last month, Willow premiered on the streamer. Even though Val Kilmer was unable to return due to his recovery from throat cancer – and his presence is certainly missed – the show does a good job of recapturing the feeling of the film.
People will often argue with George Lucas when he says that Star Wars is meant for children. But I don’t think many would disagree with that statement for Willow. Perhaps one of the reasons the film didn’t match the success of the studio’s previous efforts is because it didn’t quite have that gritty feel that defined both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It’s a heartfelt fairytale with with concrete characters. But it also doesn’t ever take itself too seriously. That’s part of it’s charm! It’s not Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, nor did it ever set out to be.
While Willow didn’t quite become the huge hit its creators wanted it to be, newer generations can now enjoy it for years to come.
Both the original film and series can be viewed in their entirety exclusively on Disney+ now.