The Disney+ series is a fun, twisty adventure
The original “Willow,” directed by Ron Howard and based on an original story by George Lucas, was not a blockbuster at the box office in 1988, but garnered two Oscar nominations and a cult following. The cast – especially Warwick Davis’ Willow and Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan – left a lasting impression on live-action fantasy storytelling. So much so that “Willow” lore has permeated pop culture in unexpected ways, including a storyline in the acclaimed FX series “Reservation Dogs.”
It’s precisely this audience that “Willow” episodic writer Jon Kasdan hopes to attract to the new “Willow” Disney+ series. But like the characters, you’ll have to be patient and wander around the woods a bit before you fully understand the commotion.
The original film follows Willow, a young Nelwyn wizard-in-training who leaves his wife and children behind in an attempt to return a lost baby to the Daikini of Tir Asleen. The child, Elora Danan, has been prophesied to be the downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda, who plagues the kingdom. On her journey, Willow teams up with several companions, including the rogue Madmartigan and eventually the warrior princess Sorsha, who falls for Mads and switches sides to kill her mother and save the kingdom.
The “Willow” series returns to Tir Asleen with actress Joanne Whalley reprising her role as Queen Sorsha, who has reigned in peace for nearly half a century after her mother’s passing. However, magic is forbidden and Elora Danon’s identity has also been hidden, even from herself, a decision that alienated Willow from Sorsha.
In the pilot, we meet Sorsha’s two children, Kit Tanthalos (Ruby Cruz) and Airk Tanthalos (Dempsey Bryk). The former spars with her best friend and knight Jade Claymore (Erin Kellyman), and the latter jokes around with the maid Dove (Ellie Bamber). However, Madmartigan, the children’s father, and Elora, the most important person in the universe, are both conspicuously absent.
Galladorn, the second most important Daikini kingdom in the north, and Tir Asleen plan to unite their kingdoms through a marriage between Princess Kit and Prince Graydon of Galladorn. But the wedding is doomed from the start for two reasons. First, because Kit only has eyes for Jade, and second, the night before the wedding, the castle is attacked, and Airk is kidnapped by monsters controlled by dark magic.
Knowing that the only way to fight magic is with, well, more magic, the Queen sends Kit straight to Willow to help search for her brother. Jade, a reluctant Graydon, and a prisoner named Thraxus Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), familiar with the world outside the realm, accompany her. They are followed by Dove, who is determined to save the love of her life.
The moment Willow meets Dove, he recognizes her as the missing princess he saved as a child. However, Dove, er, Elora Danon, seems to be as confused as anyone, as she quickly shifts from unwelcome tagalong to the most revered person in the kingdom in seconds. Thus begins the quest to save Airk, train Elora, and learn the fate of Madmartigan.
If the original “Willow” was “Star Wars” in Middle-earth, then the new Disney+ series is “The Force Awakens” meets “The Legend of Vox Machina”. Here’s Elora Rey to Willow’s Luke, who desperately tries to train her in magic while on a mission with a Paladin, a Rogue, an Artificer, and a Princess.
The dialogue mixes old English cadence with modern conversation like a tabletop role-playing game. Willow often uses long magical terms and colorful descriptions, while Elora shortens and translates her musings. This dichotomy is also present in the soundtrack, which at one point veers from orchestral anthems to Night Panda and even the Beach Boys. This mix of themes makes the series layered and fun and has the greatest potential to bring together multiple generations of fans. The production design is also fantastic when it doesn’t suffer from “Game of Thrones-like broken color timing.
Everyone in “Willow” takes an emotional journey alongside their physical quest. But some are more interesting than others. The titular character gives a stilted performance in early episodes, while Elora remains frustrated and confused until she isn’t. The supporting characters end up doing a lot of the creative heavy lifting. Outstanding performances from Revolori and Chadha-Patel are both comedic and emotional, and while Kellyman and Cruz’s Jade and Kit make Disney history as the first openly queer couple, Kellyman’s journey through her own tragic past exemplifies what makes this show depth.
The plot, while entertaining, suffers from pacing issues. Where the first two episodes launch quickly and provide well-choreographed action and excitement, the subsequent episodes lag a bit. Midway through the season, the plot finds its way into place before moving from the rescue of Prince Airk to a quest to find Madmartigan.
Kilmer does not appear in the seven episodes released to the press. But according to Kasdan, he may appear. So the season finale will not only complete the characters’ quest, but could bring the Kilmer cameo that “Willow” fans have been hoping for.
“Willow” is Kasdan’s nostalgic love letter to fans of the original film and includes plenty of Easter eggs and lore from the “Willow” novel “Chronicles of the Shadow War” to keep hardcore fans happy. For those just joining the franchise, the weekly schedule will give you plenty of time to find out what’s going on. Ultimately, “Willow” builds on original lore to introduce a new set of unlikely heroes, honoring what made the original special.
The first two episodes of “Willow” are streaming on Disney+ now. New episodes debut every Wednesday.