Revisiting George Lucas' Forgotten Epic 'Willow'

As Lucas returns to the genre with 'Strange Magic,' a look back at his first fantasy project.
Courtesy of Photofest

Strange Magic, the animated movie released in theaters this weekend, is actually the second attempt by Star Wars auteur George Lucas to create his own fantasy franchise to accompany his successes in the science fiction and, thanks to Indiana Jones, pulp genres. So whatever happened to Willow?

The origins of Willow actually lie back before the release of Star Wars; Lucas originally had the idea in the early 1970s, although he didn’t start to properly develop it until after the release of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, saying at the time that the visual effects technology necessary to bring the fictional world to life wasn’t ready until that point. As it happened, it wouldn’t be Lucas that would eventually bring the story to the screen — that task would fall to Ron Howard, fresh off the success of Cocoon and looking to develop a fantasy project for himself.

Read more THR's 1977 'Star Wars' Review 

Together, the two created something that mixed the camaraderie of Star Wars — and more than a few of its storytelling quirks, for that matter — with the stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Grimm’s fairy tales, with a story about a Hobbit-like creature and amateur magician saving a prophesied child from the armies of an evil queen. On paper — and, indeed, in trailer form — it seemed like a home run: Who could resist a movie like this?

The answer, it seemed, was “a lot of people.” While Willow was far from a flop, it nonetheless underperformed and met with critical apathy, with both Howard’s directing and Lucas’ screenplay coming under fire. (The screenplay was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for the worst of the year in 1988). While the movie had its fans, it didn’t have enough of them to make it the next Star Wars — or even the next Cocoon, for that matter; after all, that movie got a sequel (Cocoon: The Return, released the same year as Willow).

Not that the story of Willow ended there, however. Seven years after the movie came out, Lucas teamed with X-Men comic book writer Chris Claremont for a series of three prose sequels to the movie, collectively titled Chronicles of the Shadow War (The three books were Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star, released from 1995 through 2000). Those books were followed by rumors of a television series set in the same universe, with Lucas himself saying that it was a potential future project, albeit one that has yet to come to pass.

Considering the ingredients that went into its creation — the pedigree of the writer and director, a cast that included Val Kilmer, Jean Marsh and Warwick Davis — it seems unlikely (and unlucky) that Willow failed, the victim of a strange confluence of events as much as any true failure of the material. With Star Wars once more a going concern, however, the real question about Willow might be this: Given its creative pedigree, how long before someone tries to release a re-edited Special Edition or reboot the entire franchise?

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