By Francesca Scrimgeour, Walt Disney Archives
“Absolutely, under no condition, whatsoever, is anyone in this family to fall in love with that baby!” Those were some of Willow Ufgood’s famous last words before embarking on a most remarkable adventure to protect little Elora Danan from the evil sorceress, Queen Bavmorda. As the story of Willow’s epic adventures of action and danger unfolds, it becomes apparent that at its core, this is a tale about friendship and personal responsibility, where the characters grow to want to live a compassionate life rather than a selfish one.
When envisioning the fantasy world of Willow, George Lucas knew he would have to create a perfect reality that transports audiences into the realm of Nelwyns, Brownies, trolls, and Daikinis. This film took immersion to the next level with its breathtaking, lush landscapes and vast snow-topped mountainous terrains. In addition to filming at Elstree Studios in England, the filmmakers added grandeur by filming on location in England, Wales, and New Zealand. To fully immerse viewers, the film relied on the weathered countryside of England, the haunting moors of northern Wales, and the glacial wilderness of New Zealand to build a world around Willow’s legendary saga. As important as the stunning film locations are, the inspiration behind the characters and the mythological world that they inhabit originated from the feature film’s concept art. Chris Achilleos and Jean “Moebius” Giraud were concept artists who contributed to the production of Willow and had the task of designing imagery for a world that exists only within the imagination. If “Moebius” sounds familiar, you might recognize his name as the electronic conceptual designer who also contributed to the sci-fi adventure film Tron (1982). That goes to show how versatile Giraud’s art was, from designing futuristic video game civilizations to mythical medieval monsters and warriors.
With the powerhouse of on-screen talent, it’s not surprising that the creators behind the scenes were just as brilliant. Disney Legend George Lucas, Willow’s executive producer and story originator, joined forces with director Ron Howard to bring the fantasy tale to the silver screen. Alongside this storytelling duo, craftsmen from other blockbuster films helped create the world of Willow, which included production designer Allan Cameron (1984, The French Lieutenant’s Woman), cinematographer Adrian Biddle (Aliens, The Princess Bride), special prosthetic makeup designer Nick Dudman (Return of the Jedi, Labyrinth), and Grammyâ-winning composer James Horner (Cocoon, An American Tail). Production designer Cameron felt like the realm of Willow existed in a nebulous time, so all the sets had to be designed from scratch with the environment matching the scale of the actors, from the nine-inch-tall Brownie characters to the six-foot-tall General Kael. To populate the world, prosthetic makeup designer Dudman had the herculean task of crafting trolls, beasts, and monsters along with the prosthetics for all the other actors. Adding to all this are Biddle’s gorgeous cinematography work and Horner’s rich, adventurous score giving the film a well-rounded infusion of movie magic.
Visual effects were completed by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic team, which included Dennis Muren, Michael McAlister, and Phil Tippett. These visual effects wizards were responsible for spearheading the magical, mysterious realm for Willow. Highlights of their work include visual effects like the stop-motion sequences for the monstrous two-headed Eborsisk, the magical fairy forest scene with Cherlindrea, and the pivotal faceoff between sorceresses Queen Bavmorda and Fin Raziel. One of the greatest special effects feats of this team was the development of the morphing (sometimes called MORF) technique. Creating the morphing effect was a huge undertaking because, at the time, the industry was still on the cusp of computer graphics effects. The metamorphosis of Fin Raziel from a goat to an ostrich with peacock feathers, to a turtle, then a tiger, and, finally, to her human form was revolutionary for its time. The visual effects team blended computer graphics with animal puppetry, a real tiger, and a younger actress to create seamless transitions between each form.
Although visual effects can broaden the palette of a film, George Lucas recognized that the storyline and characters are what make it all work. The story of Willow had been on George Lucas’ mind for many years, and Warwick Davis was the perfect actor to bring this story to life. After debuting in Return of the Jedi at age 11 as the Ewok Wicket, Davis was approached by Lucas to play the role of Willow. But don’t worry, he still had to audition to prove he was the best man for the job! Val Kilmer, famous for his role as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky in Top Gun, starred alongside Davis as Madmartigan, the outcast Daikini warrior that finds an unlikely ally in the Newlyn sorcerer.
To battle the brave and gallant heroes, the story calls for a dark and utterly remorseless villain, and Queen Bavmorda is that and more as the wicked sorceress. Interestingly, the actress who portrayed Bavmorda, Jean Marsh, also played another sinister sorceress in Return to Oz as Nurse Wilson and Princess Mombi. The wise magician of the Nelwyn village, the High Aldwin, played by Billy Barty, encouraged Willow to embark on the mission to return Elora Danan to her people and inspired him to trust himself. Barty’s performance may be familiar to Disney Parks fans as well, as you might recognize his voice as the royal purple pigmented dragon, Figment, from the original Journey Into Imagination attraction at EPCOT. Rounding out the ragtag crew of characters, Willow also features the redeemed warrior and daughter of Queen Bavmorda, Sorsha, played by Joanne Whalley, the virtuous sorceress, Fin Raziel, played by Patricia Hayes, and the terrifying General Kael, leader of the Queen’s army, played by Pat Roach.
The story of Willow, now available on Disney+, teaches us to have faith in ourselves and to listen to our own hearts. If you’re looking to conjure up an adventure that explodes beyond the boundaries of hopes and fears, journeying to the far corners of our imaginations, then this film is a sure bet that can’t be missed. Plus, see how many “Wilhelm screams” you can catch throughout the movie (if you know, you know). Farewell, Nelwyns and Daikinis! As the High Aldwin once said, “Magic is the bloodstream of the universe. Forget all you know, or think you know. All that you require is your intuition.”