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Composed, Conducted, and Co-Produced by:

Orchestrated by:
Greig McRitchie

Co-Produced by:
Shawn Murphy

Performed by:
The London Symphony Orchestra

The King's College Choir, Wimbledon
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The original Virgin release in the U.S. became extinct soon after it was sent to the market. For years, Willow sold for prices of up to $100, even though it could be found in some European stores for as little as $8. In 1995, however, the English branch of Virgin re-issued the CD (without much press at the time), and by 1997, the price had been lowered to $18. In June, 1998, a German release was made available for a regular CD price. Because of the score's popularity, it is still difficult to find; most stores do not carry any of its pressings.
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Buy it... if you are any fan of superior fantasy and adventure scores that combine orchestral majesty with exotic beauty, for James Horner's Willow is among the best of the digital era.

Avoid it... if you have absolutely no curiosity about the inspiration for most of Horner's self-references later in his career.
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WRITTEN 5/23/98, REVISED 12/24/07
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Willow: (James Horner) As the writer and producer for Willow, George Lucas promised more than he delivered with this fantasy adventure spectacle, though it's hard to blame rising director Ron Howard for the failure. Being as campy as it is, perhaps Willow was destined to be a guilty pleasure at best, despite strong production values, a decent concept, and Lucas' ability to inspire the most menacing villain's masks in the history of cinema. An unseasoned Val Kilmer is the stud and lovable Warwick Davis is the underdog, an unlikely pair on the run from and eventually seeking to conquer an evil queen in a land from long ago. Special effects from Industrial Light and Magic were heavily advertised at the time, and because of their efforts, Willow is visually passable even two decades later. In terms of its auditory experience, few have ever questioned the effectiveness of James Horner's score in the film. Marking the second collaboration between Horner and Ron Howard, Willow exceeded all expectations in its music. While Horner had already been recognized by the Oscars and produced the music for several blockbuster films, he had never tackled a score of this magnitude before. It would be the sister score to The Land Before Time, with both works featuring the exact same crew, performers, and general quality of sound. These two superior scores together in 1988, along with Glory the following year, would yield the kind of undeniable five-star results that had eluded Horner for much of his early career. In relation to the film score collecting community, Willow would maintain a broad and loyal following, and it set the foundation for many of Horner's more popular scores to come. The lingering controversy over the composer's habit of borrowing material from himself can usually be linked directly or indirectly back to Willow, a score which Horner admits was a creative breakthrough. The cynical sorts who write off much of Horner's early career because of his unashamed tendency of pulling inspiration from modern classical music (or, in the case of the Elora Danan theme here, the Bulgarian harvest song "Mari Stanke Le") can make their own reference points in Willow, though Horner's re-packaging of these ideas is so well executed that few mainstream listeners will care or even notice.

There are several reasons for the success of Willow's score, and one of them relates to the ingredients that Horner assembled. The performances by the London Symphony Orchestra have always been strong, but rarely have they excelled to even these levels of precision. The King's College Choir of Wimbledon provides women's and boys' ensemble voices, and while Horner has used light choral accompaniment throughout his career, rarely has it sounded as engrossing as it does in Willow and The Land Before Time. A collection of exotic, rarely known instruments would be discovered by Horner here and used in scores throughout his career, including the controversial shakuhachi flute. This would also mark the early days of collaborations between Horner and specialty soloists like Ian Underwood and Tony Hennigan. Finally, Horner's standard synthesizers for the era would accentuate the percussion in providing some ambient sound effects for scenes involving either dread or magic. One of the other reasons for the success of Willow is the abundance of harmonic statements. Horner writes several themes for the film and utilizes them often during the score; even at its most chaotic moments, the score references one of these ideas. It happened that Willow would be by far the longest score of Horner's career at the time (by half an hour) and, like The Land Before Time, this endeavor would feature wall-to-wall music that required that almost every cue be at least five minutes in length. Some cues would range to nearly 20 minutes, which presented a problem during the recording sessions if one of the soloists performing an exotic instrument was to misfire. The constant thematic reminders cause many of the lengthy cues to become miniature symphonies in and of themselves, much in the same style as "The Great Migration" from The Land Before Time. Horner made comments at the time about the numerous syncronization points per cue, causing the need to hit bold statements of each of the score's themes in the same cue. As such, Willow is a score that irritates some listeners in its lack of rearrangement for album, though anyone with decent editing software on his or her computer could do this at home. In that endeavor, all eight tracks on the album offer highlights and would require some cutting.

There exist five major themes in Willow, with three of them dominating the proceedings. First is "Willow's Theme" itself, introduced in "Escape from the Tavern" and anchoring the concert suite and end title arrangements. Its heroic brass fanfare is the most catchy of Horner's ideas for the film, and it produces a significant amount of raucous fun in the score. Detractors, however, mock Horner's claim that this theme was meant to be Eastern European in style, citing similarities between it and Robert Schumann's 3rd Symphony. Regardless of its origins, Horner's intent was to satisfy the request of Lucas and Howard that he provide a swashbuckling theme for the film's action pieces, and he succeeds. The specialty instruments were Horner's self-proclaimed attempt to avoid mirroring Erich Wolfgang Korngold's establish swashbucking sounds too closely. The only fallacy of this theme in its application to the film is that it doesn't really represent Davis' Willow character as well as it does the action of Kilmer's Madmartigan, though by the time it's heard in the film, the two are a typically together. The second theme in Willow is its easy highlight, representing Elora Danan (the baby destined to destroy the queen) and featured by Horner over the opening title and a gorgeous traveling scene in "Willow's Journey Begins." It's the domain of the Japanese shakuhachi flute, existing in perhaps the most eloquent and beautiful form until Horner's strangely functional use of the instrument in The Mask of Zorro and its even better sequel. Whereas Horner would often use the shakuhachi, as well as the pan pipes, in a supporting role as rhythm setters of accent pieces (akin to the percussion instruments, really), they are the given the primary role of conveying the magical spirit of the softer themes in Willow. A third related theme comes in the latter half of "Elora Danan" and is a better match for the kindness of Willow's family as well as the provincial simplicity of their village. The downright gorgeous statements of this theme would be confined to this one cue early in the film and the outset of the resolution in "Willow the Sorcerer," but its rotation between woodwind instruments (in between ensemble string and choral interludes) is an undeniable highlight.

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Average: 4.21 Stars
***** 3,565 5 Stars
**** 985 4 Stars
*** 571 3 Stars
** 434 2 Stars
* 284 1 Stars
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The score is great, but the album is not
A Loony Trombonist - August 30, 2021, at 10:04 a.m.
1 comment  (12 views)
FVSR Reviews Willow
Brendan Cochran - June 10, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.
1 comment  (888 views)
pastiche or tribute? [EDITED]   Expand >>
tomalakis - May 5, 2016, at 1:26 a.m.
2 comments  (1891 views)
Newest: May 7, 2016, at 10:26 a.m. by
Donald J. Trump
(Comment Deleted by Poster)
tomalakis - May 3, 2016, at 11:08 p.m.
1 comment  (1072 views)
Music with balls!
Richard Kleiner - October 17, 2010, at 12:52 a.m.
1 comment  (2455 views)
Schumann music and folk song in Willow   Expand >>
roybatty - April 14, 2007, at 9:41 a.m.
4 comments  (10517 views)
Newest: October 14, 2007, at 6:25 p.m. by

Track Listings Icon
Audio Samples   ▼
Total Time: 73:16
• 1. Elora Danan (9:45)
• 2. Escape from the Tavern (5:04)
• 3. Willow's Journey Begins (5:26)
• 4. Canyon of Mazes (7:52)
• 5. Tir Asleen (10:47)
• 6. Willow's Theme (3:54)
• 7. Bavmorda's Spell is Cast (18:11)
• 8. Willow the Sorcerer (11:55)

Notes Icon
Horner and Howard
The following is a note from director Ron Howard about the score:

"One of the greatest challenges in making Willow was to transport the audience to a time when extraordinary acts of magic and sorcery were a part of everyday life, while keeping us in touch with the timeless human issues we all relate to. If Willow meets this challenge it will be in no small part because of the brilliant musical score contributed by James Horner.

James' score represents the best of what film music can be. It fills us with excitement as Madmartigan leads the charge into Nockmaar Castle. It makes us laugh when a Brownie, small enough for anyone to step on, blusters and hurls insults at Madmartigan, the warrior. It makes us cry when a brave little man ventures off to a hostile world, against forces seemingly far greater than himself.

The music is interesting, rich and emotional. The hauntingly beautiful theme for Elora Danan has a majesty and dignity that is almost spiritual. And the theme for Willow himself, while capturing all the innocence and compassion of his character, is also very mystical--it helps us understand his place in this world of wizards and soceresses.

I hope that you enjoy this music as much as I do."

Featured Willow Soloists:

• Ian Underwood (Fairlight)
• Kazu Matsui (Shakuhachi)
• Mike Tailro and Tony Hennigan of Incantation (Pan Pipes & Kena)
• Robin Williamson (Celtic Harp and Bagpipes)

Comments from James Horner about the score:

"Ron Howard and George Lucas wanted me to do something that was no-holds barred about its swashbuckling nature," Horner comments. "But in a certain sense, the best swashbuckling scores have already been written by those composers. It's hard to write something current that doesn't sound like something from the past."

The following liner notes by Daniel Schweiger for the compilation Passions & Achievements: A 20-Year Retrospective of the Films of Ron Howard include the following:

"Yet James Horner made Willow's music distinct by employing such exotic instruments as Celtic drums, pipes, and Japanese wind instruments, along with more traditional symphonic orchestration and choral voices. "I used ethnic instruments to diffuse the Korngold effect", Horner says. "Instead of having a normal concert flute, oboe or trumpet, I thought I could use a different type of instrumental gesture. Also, the main theme of Willow is more Eastern European in nature. It's the kind of approach that a Western European composer might not take for this genre."

The following is an excerpt from "Wall-To-Wall in WILLOW," an interview with Horner by David Leytze for the July, 1988, issue of Keyboard magazine.

How was Willow different from any of the other projects that you had done in the past?

    I used women's and boy's choirs, plus more electronic stuff and more ethnic instruments than I've used before.

Was the use of the electronics different from any of the previous things that you've done?

    I wasn't using any radical new pieces of machinery; I don't often change machines. It takes me too long to learn how to use and program one machine, let alone switch around. As far as the actual sounds went, there were a lot of different sounds that I've never ever used before -- atmospheric choral sounds and other sounds that blended well with the ethnic instrumentation.

How did you use the ethnic instruments?

    They were mostly flutes and shakuhachis, which are Japanese flutes, and South American flutes of various sizes, shapes and sounds. I was using the group Incantation to play on the sessions; they specialize in ethnic styles. The sounds that I was after were a mesh of all of these elements.

Were there any particular ideas that you had in the actual scoring of the music with these instruments, any particular things that you went after that you felt were new and different?

    I had never used all of those elements together before. In terms of any unique approach, I believe that there are very few unique appraoches to be tried anymore with live performers. I sat the players down in front of their parts and told them what I wanted, and that was that. The fact that it comes out sounding the way it does is because of the sound of the instrument or the unique coloring that the player puts on it. I didn't have them doing acrobatics while playing to get specific weird sounds or anything like that.

Are there any particular scenes or particular parts in the movie that you had trouble with, that you really enjoyed, or that were really difficult to get together?

    There are roughly 117 minutes of music in the score. 95% of the cues in Willow are over five minutes long. I would even say 90% of those cues are seven or eight minutes long. So each cue was a little symphony movement in itself. And in the course of any one cue, I might have had 50 synchronization points that I was trying to hit. Some subtle, some not so subtle -- trumpet fanfares, or weird orchestral textures, or stuff I was doing with the shakuhachi.

Can you give an example from the movie?

    I'm not allowed to talk specifically about the film. Just about every sequence in the film had some special effect or something going on which required a unique approach, or it required me hitting something on the screen. It was a major job getting through almost every sequence, because they were so long. And primitive instruments don't always play in tune. If you're playing a melody six minutes into a cue, and the panpipe comes in and the fellow's note cracks or the instrument doesn't speak properly, the whole six mintues is shot. You either have to do the whole cue again or do an innercut. There were a lot of complicated things going on just because of the length of the cues.

Do you ever feel limited as a composer and musician in the movie domain, that you can't really stretch out? Was Willow a breath of fresh air, musically?

    Yes, it was. Reel one, for instance, is literally music from the very beginning of the main credits all the way through to the end of the reel. And reel one goes into reel two, where music starts at the head and goes straight through to the end. And that goes to reel three and reel four and reel five and up to reel 12 like that. In the movie, there was a total of about eight mintues that wasn't scored. I've done long cues on other films, but I've never done so many for one movie. Every cue in Willow is a long cue. I think my longest score before this was about 92 mintues or 88 minutes, somewhere in there. This is sort of a world record for me.

Do you enjoy that freedom to stretch out?

    Oh, yes, very much. But it's a complicated thing. Not only do you have to keep your thoughts straight in the course of eight minutes and be able to make a beautiful piece of music, but you have to keep your thoughts straight in the whole piece, in the whole movie, so that you have recurring ideas or new twists on old ideas. It's a huge canvas that you have to keep very tight control of. You really have to keep you wits about you. Especially when you're doing the reels out of sequence, as I was. I would write something in reel three and then I'd have to jump to reel nine, because reels four, five, six, seven, and eight weren't ready yet. So I'd jump to reel nine, then to reel six, then to reels one and two. You have to keep all your ideas in your head all the time so that you know what you've done and what you're going to do. You have to keep all the balls in the air at the same time.

When you're scoring a particular cue, you're trying to describe the action through music. Do you score according to the whole eight-minute segment, or do you look at it sort of action by action?

    I watch the whole sequence I'm going to score and sort of get the sweep of it.

So it's an overall feeling, then?

    Yes, an overall feeling and mood. I find out where I have to twist an idea or change a mood. In special effects films you'll be going along and then all of a sudden you'll cut to a different sequence or a different scene, and then you'll cut back to the original scene, and so forth. You have to go with the cuts; you can't score right across then. You have to acknowledge different people, different characters, different time. Also you have the taste of the filmmakers to contend with, and they want certain things accentuated or not accentuated. So it's a real challenge to get through an eight-minute cue. To answer your question, you do have a sense of the overall feel, but within that feel you have to acknowledge very specific actions and very specific changes.
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The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten
or redistributed without the prior written authority of Christian Clemmensen at Filmtracks Publications. All artwork and sound clips from Willow are Copyright © 1988, Virgin Records America and cannot be redistributed without the label's expressed written consent. Page created 5/23/98 and last updated 12/24/07.
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