Clearly, the powers that be were hoping for Willow to be a fantasy Star Wars. The film was produced by Lucasfilm, with a story by Lucas himself, Ron Howard behind the camera, and a slew of high-budget special effects (including some of the first digital movie effects of the sort Lucas would later fall hopelessly in love with). The movie failed to find its audience and had to settle for later cult success; plans for a trilogy were scrapped, and it would be over a decade until big-budget cinema fantasy came into its own with the back-to-back successes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. James Horner had collaborated with director Ron Howard once before, on 1985’s Cocoon, but Willow was an altogether different undertaking, with over 90 minutes of music needed to accompany dozens of exotic locales and characters. It was a situation not unlike that which would later confront Howard Shore; like Shore Horner endeavored to present a multitude of strong themes to bring the fantasy milieu to life.
Willow opens with an extended prologue, not unlike that of the concurrent The Land Before Time, which introduces many of the key themes and motifs of the score: an eerie three note choral theme, a sakauhachi-led theme that appears over the main titles, and an ominous, dissonant theme for Nockmaar Castle and its denizens which heavily incorporates Horner’s tried and true four-note danger motif. The next track, “Escape from the Tavern,” offers up the score’s centerpiece, a heroic brass anthem performed in rousing, swashbuckling fashion. There are several other minor motifs as well–indeed, Willow rivals The Land Before Time as the most thematically rich of Horner’s works to date.
The heroic theme is one of the strongest that Horner has ever penned, and is given lengthy and varied performances in virtually every track on the disc, with the aforementioned “Escape from the Tavern” as a highlight. Listeners have often claimed that this theme is lifted almost wholly from Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3; it’s certainly easy to see where Horner was inspired by the latter, but the swashbuckling Erich Wolfgang Korngold feel of Horner’s song is quite different from the much more stately chamber atmosphere of Schumann. Compared to other alleged Horner borrowings in Battle Beyond the Stars or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Schumann influence is more on par with that of Verdi on John Williams in Star Wars.
Horner’s sakauhachi flute theme, representing the more tender side of the fim, is impressive as well; the instrument lends the music an otherworldly yet melodic feel that perfectly captures the feel of a vast and ancient world. The composer would fall in love with the instrument after its major appearances in Willow, and sakauhachi solos would become a calling card for the composer in the future, appearing in scores as diverse as Braveheart, Clear and Present Danger, and Avatar.
Not all of Horner’s material in Willow is as strong, though. In particular, the Nockmaar Castle theme associated with the evil Bavmorda (and her almost parodically Vader-like henchman Kael, named after the movie critic Pauline Kael) is very difficult to enjoy. Assaulting the listener with repeated performances of Horner’s favorite four-note danger motif over a bed of seemingly random, shrill sakauhachi blasts. The danger motif, a musical signature appearing in most of Horner’s scores since its introduction in Star Trek II, is distracting enough on its own, but as it’s the lone tonal piece of an otherwise atonal and abrasive sound, its prominence is increased tenfold. The Nockmaar material is prominently placed as well, breaking up several of the lengthier performances of the other themes with its shrill dissonance. Compared to compelling villain themes from Star Trek II‘s Khan theme to Avatar‘s militaristic human theme, Willow‘s musical representation of its villains simply falls flat.
The album’s presentation merits discussion as well: despite being a robust 77 minutes long, Willow has only eight cues, including three that top the ten-minute mark. Many of the most rousing and enjoyable parts of the album, like the latter halves of “Canyon of Mazes” and “Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast” are buried by comparatively dull material or statements of the weak Nockmaar theme beforehand. This can lead to a frustratingly inconsistent listen, as the music veers from the heroic heights of Horner’s best thematic material to the meandering doldrums of comparatively uninteresting motifs. It’s not clear if the music was written that way of if tracks were combined for the album release, but in either case breaking them up into shorter cues (if gapless ones) would have aided the album as a listening experience.
Despite these weaknesses, the thematic complexity of Willow, as well as the powerful nature of the heroic and sakauhachi themes, make it highly recommended. If you’ve ever wondered how a Horner Lord of the Rings would have sounded, or are curious to see the composer’s take on John William’s Ewok celebration music (near the middle of “Willow the Sorcerer” and the clearest Star Wars influence on the music), Willow is your opportunity to do just that. If you’re seeking some of James Horner’s strongest thematic material and are undaunted by the duller and more dissonant parts of the album or by frequent use of the composer’s four-note motif, the comparatively rare album can find a place among the grand fantasy genre scores in any collection.