‘Willow’: Disney+ Series Updates the Magic of a Beloved Fantasy Adventure
Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy adventure “Willow” has attained a particular kind of classic status over the years. Much of its legacy is linked to how for a certain age group of millennials, it forms part of their childhood VHS memories. It boasted swords and sorcery in a gritty, believable fashion and, with a story conceived by George Lucas, channeled a bit of “Star Wars,” especially with star Warwick Davis, who began as a Ewok in “Return of the Jedi.” Davis was quite endearing as Willow Ufgood, an aspiring sorcerer tasked with protecting a baby who, foretold by prophecy, would overthrow a mad sorceress. The movie ended on a cheerful note, but now the story continues in Disney’s “Willow,” a legacy sequel that pleasantly expands on much of the original’s magic.
The setting is fittingly many years after the events of the movie. Sorsha (Joanne Whalley reprising her role), who in the movie betrayed her evil mother Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) and fell for dashing swordsman Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), is now ruling over Tir Asleen. Madmartigan has apparently left, so Sorsha rules alone with their two young adult offspring, the self-assured Kit (Ruby Cruz) and flamboyant Airk (Dempsey Bryk). Like many a princess, Kit is frustrated over being betrothed to a prince, Graydon (Tony Revolori), for the sake of alliances. Her best friend Jade (Erin Kellyman) has just been accepted into a prestigious knight-training program, meaning she will soon leave. Wedding plans get disrupted by the sudden appearance of the Gales, servants of another villain, the Crone. They kidnap Airk and escape. Sorsha is aware of what is happening and sends Kit on a mission that includes Jade, the spoiled Graydon and another dicey addition, Air’s kitchen maid girlfriend Dove (Ellie Bamber). First, they must find Willow (Davis), who has now achieved prominence among his people, the Nelwyn. Only his sorcerer powers can help them defeat the coming evil and find the princess foretold by prophecy, Elora Danan.
Like more than a few legacy sequels, there hasn’t exactly been a clamor for another edition of “Willow.” With studios bringing back as many recognizable titles as possible, this is still not a surprising development. Showrunner Jonathan Kasdan, who wrote “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” updates the material to feel at home with contemporary fantasy trends, while constantly throwing in nods to the original. Most of the cast might not have been born when the movie was released, yet it’s those old enough to remember it who might be the first immediate audience. Initially it’s curiously fun to see famous characters updated, like all of us, by the passage of time. Joanne Whalley still gives Sorsha the edgy strength of her younger self, but now wiser and even more experienced. Then there’s Warwick Davis, who is also fascinating as an older version of the kind-hearted little person hero. He’s still overly careful but more courageous, and we learn in flashbacks that even after the movie it took him a while to still be seen as a sorcerer. The writing is nearly designed to make “Willow” fans gasp every two minutes when we see old comrades of Willow’s in his village, or when they all begin chanting, “Do the finger test!” The magic wand given to Willow by sorceress Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) is naturally included as well. Remember his little chant when he first tried the wand by a campfire and it sent him flying to the top of a tree branch? Now Willow must teach the same spell to a grown Elora Danan (who is quickly revealed in a sweet twist early in the season).
The nostalgia is then combined with new characters and settings that feel at home in recent fantasy shows every streamer churns out. Gone is the grit and starkness of the Howard film. Valleys are now pristine and practical effects mix with grand CGI. Very un-medieval songs like “Guess Who’s Back” by Beginners and Night Panda close out episodes. The new batch of warriors are young adults who speak in Gen Z tones, while continuing Disney’s practice of making new storylines more equal in terms of gender representation. Kit and Jade are the skilled fighters, while Graydon is the overly nice prince who would die if left alone in the wilderness. To almost make up for Val Kilmer’s absence, Amar Chadha-Patel is included as a long-haired, dashing but cynical thief named Thraxus Boorman (who comes up with these?). It is he who must use his expertise to guide the rescuers through unknown lands. While this is a fantasy world, characters deal with the kind of challenges your average high school graduate must endure, such as your crush moving away to pursue a career.
New styles are well intermingled with the original concept, which at the time was itself derided for being too thin in plot and originality. Now it works as an enjoyable, though not amazing, fantasy entertainment with humor and action. Somehow Willow has to again protect Elora Danan (who is cast much younger than someone who was a baby in 1988) and face dark clouds, ghouls and monsters. We also get Ralph Ineson appearing with that masterfully rugged voice as Commander Ballatine, who tangos with the dark side and delivers some good tension. Yet, if you don’t already care for “Willow,” it’s hard to see what the instant appeal is. The movie never had a cinematic sequel and remains a quirky cousin of the Lucasfilm pantheon. But as another work taking a walk down millennial memory lane, it’s enjoyable. It does a good enough job putting a fresh spin on what certainly remains a cherished pop culture memory for many who will be streaming.
“Willow” season one begins streaming Nov. 30 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Disney+.