‘Willow’ review: The Disney+ series is accessible fantasy, most charming
Offbeat fantasy doesn’t get much better than Ron Howard’s Willow. The 1988 film may have played out as a by-the-numbers epic about brave heroes overcoming despotic evils, but its reputation as an all-ages adventure outweighs its banality.
Now, with a sequel series on Disney+ (premiering today), Willow Ufgood (again played by Warwick Davis) and the inhabitants of this quirky universe make their long-awaited return. Fortunately, judging by the first three episodes, Disney may have a new family favorite on its hands.
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Willowits boiled-down lore and steadfast commitment to fun help bolster the show’s accessibility, but it’s the new cast that sells this eight-episode follow-up. The concrete plot, instantly lovable characters and geographically extensive conflict reflect the acrimony of a world that begs to be revisited. We don’t see much of this universe beyond what is relevant to the central quest, and that allows the writers to build out this world through the characters. After all, it’s the characters, not necessarily the world itself, that initially sold many of us on the 1988 film.
The plot here is straightforward: 20 years after Willow and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) defeated the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), Sorsha’s daughter, Kit (played by Ruby Cruz), and a tough group of misfits must rally against a new threat hell -Bent on their destruction.
On paper, it’s pretty standard stuff. In practice it is far better.
One of the things showrunner Jonathan Kasdan does best here is emphasize how much the new characters drive the show. Kit, the ostensible protagonist, is snarky, likable and insecure. Dove (Ellie Bamber) is the classic underdog with more than enough strength and courage to prove herself. Tony Revolori’s Prince Graydon is a likable inversion of the boneheaded, next-in-line archetype, a gentle youngster with a heart of gold and an ability to see the strengths of others. This guy doesn’t want this marriage any more than Kit does, and every mention of their impending union shuts him down.
And as much as we miss Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, the story doesn’t need him. Here, there are two characters, not one, who fill the void created by his absence. The first is Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), a rogue swordsman imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the city. The other is Jade (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s Erin Kellyman), an ambitious young warrior on the brink of knighthood who serves as a self-serious foil to the more playful Kit. Together, they scratch this special itch – and have a blast doing it.
Davis is at the top of his game, delivering what may be the standout performance of the series (right and right). His return as Willow Ufgood proves to be as gentle, loving and good-natured as it was in the original, but here he adds layers to the character. As powerful as Willow is, he often fights with those who underestimate him. Most of the time this doesn’t seem to bother him; but sometimes, especially when casting a complex spell, he lets self-doubt slip into his eyes and—very fleetingly—contorts his face into a mask of uncertainty. Davis conveys this turmoil beautifully, skillfully shifting from comic irritation to crippling uncertainty before defaulting to his no-nonsense demeanor.
Pair top-notch acting with engaging visuals, and you’ve got a sequel that looks set to be even more fun than its predecessor. Everything from the costume design to the brilliance of Willow’s spellcasting oozes passion for the material. Kasdan and company really care about this story, and every detail reflects that.
Even more striking than the characters and visuals, however, is how inventive Willow are with their perspectives. The opening minutes of the premiere cleverly establish a mystery that fans of the film will almost certainly not see coming. It’s a classic case of writers taking a concept further than they have to and turning it into a superior version of themselves.
Willow is a bouncy, lively sequel that leans heavily on the new cast and fulfills the unspoken promise that all great follow-ups inherently hold: to enrich what came before by delving deeper into why this world and its characters resonated in the first place. The final product is something that stands just as well on its own as it does as a continuation of Ron Howard’s classic film.
THE TELEVISION RANGE: Disney+’s Willow is a formulaic – yet tonally undaunted – sequel series that is certainly worth the wait.