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'Willow' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1988

"Willow," the much-heralded elfin epic, is directed by fantasist Ron Howard, but it's clearly the brainchild of executive producer George Lucas. Here the Light and Magic Man has shaved an Ewok to come up with a Nelwyn, the Hobbit-high hero in the title role.

If "magic is the bloodstream of the universe," as "Willow" tells us, Lucas needs gamma goblin. There's little of magic in this anemic, high-tech fantasy, no matter how well-dressed the sets or how splendidly scenic the locale. The big budget can't conceal the fact that this fiction is fallow, more rootbound than spellbound.

It's déjà voodoo. Lucas reworks not only his own but other mythologies, borrowing from Oz, "Masters of the Universe" and the Bible: The baby Moses meets the Munchkins meets the medieval Star Wars. The gnomenclature changes, but the creatures remain the same as a war rages between good and evil.

The wicked Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) has ordered all pregnant mothers jailed and any girl babies who bear "the mark" destroyed. One brave midwife saves the marked babe Elora from certain death by sailing her out of the kingdom of Daikini in a reed basket. Elora comes to shore in the land of Nelwyn, where she is rescued by the young farmer Willow.

Warwick Davis, a 3-foot-4 actor who once played an Ewok, is this earnest little fellow, a homebody with a wife and two adorable kids of his own, who is unwittingly thrust into the adventure. It will, of course, prove a growth step, if only in the emotional sense. Willow dreams of becoming a great wizard. And while he has the powers within, he lacks the confidence to try them.

After he and his wife take in Elora -- actually a Daikini princess destined to overthrow Bavmorda -- the village is invaded by the queen's armies, and a nursing mother is killed. For the safety of the peaceful Nelwyn people, the High Wizard bids Willow to travel to Daikini and give the child to the first big person he sees. That big person is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), an irresponsible swashbuckler -- hardly the sort who'd want a baby on board.

After a series of madcap mishaps, the two set off together to take sweet, cooing Elora to the good castle of Tir Asleen. They are hounded on the way by the evil Gen. Kael (Lucas' poke at New Yorker critic Pauline) and an army of Mean Dog Things that look like crosses between junkyard standard poodles and wart hogs. They are aided by a noted necromancer whom Bavmorda has trapped in the body of a marsupial. And a beautiful fairy assigns her best brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton) to guide them along their way. Now they are four men and a baby.

Elora is a bonny, burping girl who can melt hearts right through chain mail. She's a red-headed beauty, played by Ruth and Kate Greenfield, twins who are as cute as a pack of Pound Puppies. Still, Elora doesn't steal the show -- those smart-alecky brownies do. Always underfoot or falling in the ale buckets, these nine-inch-high imps prove pixilating as this adventure's R2D2 and C3PO. Without their spats and sass and the reluctant derring-do of Madmartigan, the movie speaks only in a monotone.

Lucas' story, helped by the witty dialogue of Bob Dolman's screenplay, focuses on the coming of age of its title character. And he is played by the teen-age Davis with dignity, but not charisma. Madmartigan, rather like the Spanish swordsman of "The Princess Bride," is the character we want more of, but don't get.

He looks like an Arthurian samurai, with his wild black hair in braids, his slashing swordplay and arrogant stance. He is nevertheless in chivalric shell shock, spiritually beaten by the war with Bavmorda. But Madmartigan is transformed by Willow's courage and a love potion that makes him crazy for Bavmorda's plucky daughter Sorsha, played by Joanne Whalley.

Kilmer is one of America's great screen secrets, heretofore eclipsed by Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" and Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid." With this key performance, a deliriously silly mix of Toshiro Mifune and Harrison Ford, he promises to win himself a place in the pantheon of Spunky Guys to Die For.

Ably he walks that hairline between mumbo and jumbo, between child's epic hero and man-size human dilemma. It's the line that Han Solo and Indiana Jones danced along -- a tightrope known to Alice, Babar and Bilbo Baggins alike. T.H. White, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll and Lucas himself have wisely addressed both the adult and the child. But "Willow" is a hollow fable. And all the finely spun costumes and glittering special effects from Narnia to Oz can't conceal the sham. We are always aware of the man behind the curtain.

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