`Willow': long on legend, short on fun. Children may take to this fairy tale easier than adults

George Lucas dreamed up the ``Star Wars'' movies and the Indiana Jones adventures, but he still hasn't used up his enthusiasm for myth, fantasy, and adventure. His latest film is the epic called ``Willow,'' and following his usual custom in recent years, he enlisted another filmmaker to direct it: Ron Howard, whose own fantasy credits include ``Splash'' and ``Cocoon.'' ``Willow'' begins with a dark and gloomy scene about a slaughter of the innocents. An evil queen is afraid of a rival who, according to a prediction, will someday take away her power. So she orders all the female babies in her land to be seized and done away with.

The future good queen has been born, although she's still a baby, and she escapes the bad queen's trap. But she lands in a place outside her own kingdom, in a land occupied by charming little people who don't know anything about this nasty business. These nice folks mount an expedition to take the baby home. Along the way they meet good people and bad people - some bigger, some far littler than they are - and have more adventures than you could shake a magic wand at.

Many characters in ``Willow'' are played by little people, and they're mostly terrific actors. As the title character, Warwick Davis is incredibly lovable, with a friendly smile that has you on his side from the start. Another feisty performance comes from Billy Barty, as an amusing wizard whose fortune-telling charms don't reveal anything at all. Among the big people, Jean Marsh - of ``Upstairs, Downstairs'' fame - is wonderfully menacing as the queen.

You can't help enjoying a movie like ``Willow'' at least a little. It has a fairy-tale story, likable performers, a zillion special effects, and a fresh, optimistic feeling that lets you know everything will come out OK in the end.

I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to, though. It took a while before I could figure out what the missing ingredient was. I tried to get in the swing of things, like the many children in the audience, who were obviously having a great time. But sometime during the second hour I pinpointed the trouble: The movie is so full of tricks and gimmicks that it doesn't care enough about being just plain funny.

I don't mean it has no laughs, or at least chuckles, once it gets past the first scene. If you saw ``Splash'' or ``Cocoon,'' you know Ron Howard has a sense of humor, and if you saw ``Star Wars'' or ``American Graffiti,'' you know George Lucas has a sense of humor. Neither of them has gone sour on us. But in ``Willow'' they keep straining to be fey and magical and cute.

``Willow'' is a good-hearted movie, and I'm glad there always seems to be a new generation of filmmakers to recycle the old Hollywood myths for a new generation of moviegoers. Children old enough to handle a PG rating will have a ball with this picture. But I wish Messrs. Howard and Lucas didn't work so hard at being legendary, and handed us a little more effortless fun.

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