Long before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy showed mainstream audiences how one hobbit could save the world, Star Wars director George Lucas conjured his cinematic tale of an unlikely small wizard. 1998’s Willow, written by Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, introduced audiences to Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a little person from the village of Nelwyn, whose heart and determination are needed to, well, save the world. Willow was a modest success at the box office and a diversion from Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Then it went away for thirty-plus years. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, no one was expecting Willow would be one of the franchises that would receive a second chance.
In the new Disney+ series, Warwick Davis once again returns as Willow Ufgood. It’s a direct sequel to Lucas’ movie, which featured supporting roles from actors Val Kilmer as Madmartigan the swashbuckling anti-hero, and Joanne Whalley as the evil sorceress’s not-so-evil daughter, Sorsha. Whalley appears in this sequel, but there are a whole slew of new faces, including the children of legacy characters and the now grown-up Elora Danan, the movie’s child of prophecy. It’s a bizarre franchise to develop a sequel for, but when every streaming service is releasing fantasy series such as House of the Dragon or The Rings of Power, Disney went into its own back catalog and found a fantasy world already developed and ready to go.
Still, the Willow series carves a nice niche for itself in this cluttered fantasy landscape. Of the three episodes (out of eight) that were available for review, it’s clear the show is intended for teenage viewers. Its lighter tone is definitely a strength when it comes to this newest adventure, as is the ability to set its own course as a sequel rather than a prequel. It also doesn’t hurt that Warwick Davis again provides indelible charm as Willow Ufgood; that same charm that served him well in the movie continues to work wonders here.
Audiences coming to Willow without having seen the movie might be a little lost as the series begins, though—even if the show does provide a light recap. The movie introduced us to the child of prophecy, Elora Danan, born to save the world and bring about the end of Queen Bavmorda. When the series opens, the audience learns that was only the beginning, and the true ancient evil will rise again and destroy Elora. In premonitions, Willow witnesses a world without Elora and how it would be the beginning of a new dark age. In order to avoid that dark vision from becoming a reality, Queen Sorsha decides that Elora’s true identity should be hidden away from everyone, including Elora herself.
The premiere spends a long time introducing the collection of new characters. Queen Sorsha protects the kingdom and prepares her children for their future. Her daughter, Kit Tanthalos (Ruby Cruz), is the princess of Tir Asleen and is engaged to marry Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori) of Galldoorn to unite the two kingdoms. There’s a problem with that engagement and it’s that Kit has her own aspirations in life—she wants to see what’s outside the barrier protecting the kingdom and travel the world with her close friend, Jade (Erin Kellyman). Kit also has a brother, Prince Arik, who’s a heartbreaker for many of the kingdoms’ young women. His latest conquest is Dove (Ellie Bamber), who’s in a romance way outside of her station in life as a lowly maid. But when an evil force known as The Gales attacks Tir Asleen and kidnaps Arik, the wedding is put on hold. A group comprised of Kit, Graydon, and Jade must set out to find the last great wizard, Willow, in the hopes that he can use his magic to help rescue Arik and stop the evil premonition from coming true.
Even though a big part of the movie’s initial success relied on the charismatic performance of Kilmer’s Madmartigan (he’s missing likely due to the actors’ health), there’s still a lot of fun to be had in this new world of Willow. Part of what made the movie so enduring was how wonderfully the characters played off one another, and I’m happy to share that this continues in the series. Cruz’s Kit has real agency with her desires, and instead of simply complaining about being married off, she takes charge of her future. Other characters also evolve in promising ways, and Davis intertwines with his new cohorts well, easily falling back into his old rhythm as Willow Ufgood.
As a series that’s made with teenagers in mind, Willow can often seem like it was constructed for a television network like The CW. This isn’t a ragtag group that you’d expect to go on a dangerous quest, but rather a diverse group of attractive young people. The CW-ish atmosphere of the show extends to the production design, too. Everything in Willow looks fine, if unspectacular: the action is dark and quick so that it can be hard to see what exactly is happening; the environments are largely nondescript woods and caverns; and good luck trying to even make out the forms of the villains. What makes all of this worse is that the villains haven’t even been defined all that well, regardless. Our characters mention an evil entity known as The Withered Crone, but the show hasn’t done a good job of defining exactly who or what that is.
Most of the biggest problems exist within the premiere, and afterward, Willow picks up a good bit of steam and starts showing its potential. Audiences who have held the original movie in high esteem for all these years will likely be pleasantly surprised. It’s delightful seeing returning characters, but it’s also easy to find favorites among those traveling with Willow for the first time. It’s not in the same sphere as its contemporary fantasy mega-shows, either with the production design or the political intrigue, but it also doesn’t have those ambitions. It manages to offer its own delights. I, for one, was disappointed when the screeners ran out; I’m looking forward to the next adventures for Willow and his new crew.
Willow premieres Wednesday, November 30th on Disney+.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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