I really do love the Ron Howard’s Willow. I mean, yeah, it’s not a perfect movie, but in the relatively spare canon of “decent fantasy films,” it rates rather high. It rates in my top five, at any rate.
What do I like about it? Now, see, that’s something I’ve spent years trying to put my finger on. I mean, obviously Mad Martigan is awesome and everybody played a ranger in AD&D because they wanted to be him (admit it – you know I’m right). General Kael is pretty badass, Nokmar castle is a wonderful piece of scenery, the soundtrack is glorious, the Nelwyns are charming. None of that, though, is really it. It took me until yesterday, when I was watching the movie with my 5-year-old daughter for the first time, that I figured it out:
Willow Ufgood is an excellent, excellent male role model.
I mean, Martigan gets all the press, sure, and is a pretty decent guy in the end, but Willow is the shining moral center of that film and, honestly, I do love him for it. Part of the reason it took me a long time to realize his importance to me is because Willow does not conform to the typical male tropes that I, and every other guy, was raised to believe in. He isn’t strong. He isn’t powerful. He isn’t brash or clever or hard or any of that macho, chest-thumping crap. You know what Willow is? A good person. A good, competent father. A regular guy who goes out and does what’s right because, dammit, it’s what’s right.
I think what hit me most strongly this time around was his role as father figure. Fathers, as we men are informed from a young age, are not involved in childcare. They are not supposed to be accustomed to domestic duties and are, we are told, pretty clueless and stupid about children, women, and everything else that isn’t drinking, fighting, screwing, and making money. Remember Three Men and a Baby? Remember all the “hilarity” surrounding them changing a diaper or giving her a bottle and so on? You know what that told me, as a boy: taking care of babies is not your place, man-child. See how foolish and stupid these men are? That could be you!
Willow is none of that, though. Willow knows how to change a diaper. He understands when Elora Danan feels sick, knows why she’s crying, and cares that she gets fed. He even gives very explicit instructions to Mad Martigan when handing her over. The best part? The movie doesn’t even treat this as a thing. It’s like, “well obviously this guy knows how to handle a baby – he’s got kids!”
It’s possible I’m giving the movie a bit too much credit, here. Perhaps, from my 21st century perspective, I fail to realize that the movie is holding up these qualities of Willow’s as things to be mocked, but I don’t think so. Elora Danan could have selected anybody as her guardian, but you know who she picks? Not Mad Martigan, not Airk, not even Fin Razel – she picks Willow, the good dad. The farmer and bad sorcerer. The good and honest man who leaves his home and family (who he misses desperately) to take care of and protect an innocent baby from forces waaay beyond his power to contest.
The movie is actually full of subversive gender stuff, too. While I’m not calling it a feminist masterpiece, it’s worth noting that all the most powerful characters in the film are women (Bavmorda, Sherlyndria, Fin Razel). The primary male protagonist (Willow) learns from and takes advice from women constantly and is correct in doing so. The film passes the Bechdel test, too (though, you know, that’s a really low bar, admittedly). Even Mad Martigan is portrayed as a decent person with the baby – he knows how to hold her, he shows affection towards her – and this is never seen as degrading to his masculinity or anything of the kind. In this film, everybody cares for the baby. It’s a thing that humans do. Weird that such would seem somehow revolutionary, right? And yet…
Now, when I watch this movie, I realize that this is part of the thing I appreciated about it all along, but didn’t actually vocalize. I mean, as a guy, you’re not supposed to admire the parenting skills of another man. You’re supposed to love Mad Martigan’s swordplay (and I do) and be impressed by General Kael’s skull mask (and I am). For all that, though, the real hero here is a man who is a competent, caring dad. In the end, all those swords and armies and magic acorns and powerful wands don’t really matter for much. The coup-de-grace is basically delivered because Willow could get a baby in an eldritch sacrificial garment to stop crying long enough for him to perform a disappearing pig trick.
That, fellow dads, takes a special kind of magic, does it not?
Tomorrow is release day for Blood and Iron, book 2 of the Saga of the Redeemed! Get it wherever fine e-books are sold!
I’ve been thinking a lot about vengeance lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor 8-year-old boy who was killed in Boston in the Marathon Bombing. More accurately, I’ve been thinking a lot about his father. The family are neighbors of mine and, while I don’t really know them at all (met them once or twice, seen them around the neighborhood, etc.), their loss has weighed heavily on me. You see, I, too, attend the Marathon sometimes. I, too, have small children.
It is cliché, but having children changes you. It changes you in surprisingly odd ways, sometimes – things you just don’t anticipate. Prior to becoming a father, I could not imagine a circumstance that would lead me to such a passionate state where I might kill in a fit of rage. Now, I know it is a very real possibility for me. After Sandy Hook, I was a walking raw nerve if I was with my daughter. Not so much for her safety, per se, but I knew that I was not in complete control of my own rational faculties. I love her so much that, should some fiend harm her in even the slightest way, there would be no power on this earth that could prevent me from destroying them. This is a harrowing self-realization, and not one that I am especially proud of.
I have felt this surge of anger and anguish now in places I never knew it could exist before. I now find watching Aliens almost unbearable, as Newt looks a *lot* like my little girl, and the thought of her frightened and alone in a dark facility full of monsters is the literal stuff of my nightmares. I encountered it again in a movie I’d seen before but never been struck by. The movie is Minority Report, which tells the story of cops that can tell the future, but more importantly tells the story of John Anderton, a cop whose little boy was kidnapped right out from under his nose and who he never saw again. That scene in the public pool hurts even to think about. I empathize with the character on a deep emotional level.
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man is a fine actor. For evidence, I give you this scene, in which Anderton finally catches up with the man who kidnapped his son (don’t worry–I’m not spoiling anything major here. Still, spoilers nevertheless):
This moment, ladies in gentlemen, is a heroic one. A heroic one on a scale I cannot wholly fathom – something that makes Liam Neeson’s murderous rampage in Taken pale in comparison. It’s a pity the clip cuts off where it does, because to watch Anderton Mirandize the killer of his son is magnificent – the moment where reason and civility overcomes emotion and barbarism. The triumph of human decency over all in us that is indecent. My God, is that hard. That is so, so hard. I cannot say that I would be able to do as Anderton does. I hope that I could, though I even more fervently hope that I never have cause to find out.
Minority Report is a lot about free will and about predestination. Science Fiction is, by its nature, awash in such stuff – we writers of SF/F are in the business of imagining humanity’s future and depicting what we believe humans will become (or are). We are usually wrong, thank God, as the world is a better place than we think. This, in the wake of last week’s bombing, is important to remember, so I will repeat it: the world is a better place than we think. We can prove it, too. We can choose.