May 23, 1988 12:00 PM

Whose box office dollar do today’s movie producers covet the most? Adults’? Teens’? Kids’? Silly question. The greedy buggers want it all. Still, trying to lure more than one age group to the same movie is a risky business. As these three new movies show, filmmakers can end up alienating the one audience they need to attract.


You’re a kid, a grade-schooler. You’ve caught the TV promos for this epic fantasy, which is reported to have cost as much as $40 million. You know Willow comes from George Lucas, the whiz behind the Star Wars movies. You’ve seen ads for Willow products—everything from toy action figures to toothbrushes. You take the bait. Most likely some members of your family also will be hooked. The Star Wars trilogy didn’t extract $1.2 billion from the pockets of 9-year-olds only. Added insurance comes from Willow director Ron Howard, who has already scored crossover hits with Splash and Cocoon. What could go wrong? Sorry to bring bad news, kid. But when you and your family settle into your seats for Willow, the only suspense comes in seeing who falls asleep first.

Too bad. There could have been a movie here for the kid in all of us. Actually, there is about a third of one. At the heart of this overproduced jumble you can still hear the faint beat of the simple story Lucas conceived about 15 years ago while researching Star Wars. Willow, played with beguiling wit by 3’4″, 18-year-old English actor Warwick (Return of the Jedi) Davis, lives in a community of Nelwyns—a peace-loving race of little people. One day Willow, his wife and two children take in a baby girl they find in a basket floating in the rushes near their farm. Director Howard cuts to the baby’s face whenever possible to elicit audience oohs and aahs. But Willow is worried. The infant is a Daikini, a warmongering race of big people whose land surrounds the Nelwyns. Not just any Daikini, mind you. She is a female Moses, destined to grow up and set her people free from the evil Queen Bavmorda, played by Jean Marsh like a live-action version of the bad apple in Snow White. To Willow falls the task of speeding the child to safety after overcoming such obstacles as the queen’s army, assorted trolls, a deadly snow slide and a two-headed, people-eating dragon.

Lucas’ story is a shrewd and shameless steal from the Bible, Walt Disney, his own Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz (let’s face it, Willow is a Munchkin). Young children might have played into Lucas’ hands if he hadn’t insisted on going over their heads. As executive producer with a royalty on all ancillary products (7 percent is the industry standard), Lucas wants everybody’s trade. He throws in a love story to pull in the teens. Val Kilmer, a pop idol since his performance as the Iceman in Top Gun, plays a rebel warrior who befriends Willow and tries to bed the queen’s feisty daughter, English actress Joanne Whalley. Though married in real life, Kilmer and Whalley offer only a pale version of the Han Solo-Princess Leia romance in the three Star Wars pictures.

On the adult front, eyes are also glazing. Technical razzle-dazzle and gorgeous location photography in England, Wales and New Zealand are no substitute for characterization. Neither are Lucas’ frequent in-joke references. For example, the Darth Vaderish villain of the piece, General Kael (played by Pat Roach), shares the surname of The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who has castigated Lucas for his “toy business” tendencies.

Next comes a brazen bid for the senior-citizen contingent. The movie’s good witch, who keeps changing form (bird, muskrat, goat, ostrich, tiger), is finally revealed as an old lady (Patricia Hayes) who bravely takes on the bad queen in geriatric battle.

And what of Willow? There’s the rub. Lucas, Howard and company have misspent so much time pumping up subplots that they lose sight of the one character a young audience might care about and cherish. Willow has become an observer in a movie he should have dominated. But wait, there’s hope yet for a happy ending. Willow may eventually make a worthwhile video. With one hand on the fast-forward button, a kid can sift through Lucas’ high-tech rubble and find pieces of buried treasure. (PG)

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