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!