‘Willow’ review: Warwick Davis in the Disney+ series from the movie Ron Howard
In an episode of ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” youngest son Adam (Sean Giambrone, who plays the creator of the autobiographical sitcom) is given a severe judgment call. It’s Mother’s Day, but instead of spending time with his devoted, if meddling mother, he wants to see “Willow,” the potentially life-changing new George Lucas project. When the conflict comes to a head, Adam tells his mother he hates her, then sprints to the cinema for what he’s convinced will be the next big franchise from an unparalleled cinematic genius. He emerges two hours later in the grip of despair after realizing that “Willow” was barely worth watching, much less worth committing emotional matrix to.
In fairness to the 1988 film, “Willow” was not an abject failure, at least not in the way we currently think of cinematic missteps. With box office sales four times its budget and a passionate cult following, however small, “Willow” would have been for many producer-director teams the auspicious start of a long career. But it was a disappointment from Lucas, who made screen history as he retained the halo earned from the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” series. Then there’s director Ron Howard, for whom “Willow” is an odd, disappointing outlier in a hot streak including the likes of “Cocoon,” “Parenthood” and “Backdraft.”
The general indifference of “Willow” makes it an unlikely choice for a Disney+ series adaptation, but also a perfect one. Fandoms are fiercely protective of their respective mythologies, but in the case of “Willow,” there are too few fans of the film to rebel against a new creative direction. Series creator Jonathan Kasdan, who previously reworked Lucas lore in his script for “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” received Lucas’s general blessing to adapt a series from his characters. Kasdan clearly loves the source material, but also likes to build a new world on top of Lucas’ landscape.
The perfect balance of irreverence and irreverence is what immediately catapults “Willow” into the upper echelon of Disney+ franchises, and that alchemy could only have been achieved with a story as dusty as “Willow.” For as exciting as Disney’s Marvel and “Star Wars” franchises can be, their interconnectedness (to each other and to their wider cinematic universe) can be creatively limiting and draining for a viewer. Meanwhile, “Willow” doesn’t want a deeper commitment, it’s just here to please, and does so effectively that it completely revamps a franchise with trash cans.
Warwick Davis retains top billing as the title character, the heroic wizard who saved a baby marked for death by an evil queen who fears the baby will one day depose her. But there’s plenty of time for Willow Ufgood, who, as the pilot begins, is living her best off-screen magical life. Kasdan’s first task is to quickly run through a synopsis of the film, then establish the new characters who will soon be partnering with older characters like Willow. Twins Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Airk (Dempsey Bryk) will succeed their mother Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, reprising her role from the film) as ruler of Tir Asleen, or at least follow in her royal footsteps.
The latter option is the only one available to Kit, who is forced to marry Graydon (Tony Revolori) to bring about an uneasy détente between two warring kingdoms. For his part, Kit is more focused on holding on than his friendship with Jade (Erin Kellyman) after Jade decides to train to become a knight. Meanwhile, tough Airk spends time with Dove (Ellie Bamber), a chambermaid caught in a messy up-and-down love affair, as TV chambermaids so often are. Before Kit and Graydon can officially bring the kingdoms together, Airk is kidnapped, and Kit is sent on a mission to find him and return him home. Graydon and Jade join the search party, as does Dove, despite lacking the basic skills required for a dangerous mission. But first they must find and recruit Willow, who has specialist knowledge in the area.
A couple more travelers join the search for Airk, including Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) as a shrewd, sword-loving mercenary who agrees to join the mission. If that sounds remarkably like the outline of a beloved character from the film, that’s because Boorman is clearly designed as a stand-in for Madmartigan (Val Kilmer). Madmartigan still exists in the “Willow” world and features in the story, but without Kilmer, whose participation was ruled out by his battle with throat cancer. That makes it all the more impressive that Chadha-Patel works so well as a character, never failing to come across as a pale imitation of Madmartigan.
The performances are the main strengths of “Willow,” which certainly wallows in genre conventions (as the most unkind critics of the film pointed out) and relies on powerful execution to elevate it beyond fantasy-by-numbers. Davis is naturally brilliant in a role he’s longed to revisit since the film, as is Whalley, who slips easily back into Sorsha’s mannerisms and opaque motives. But “Willow” wouldn’t be what it is without Cruz, Kellyman and Bamber, a trio of young actors who form a more solid foundation for the show than any of the mythology that loosens it. Kellyman is particularly fascinating, as much the liveliest thread here as she was in “Captain America and the Winter Soldier.”
Amping up the romance from its earliest moments, “Willow” is so focused on smitten young love that the first half of the pilot feels almost like the sassy coming-of-age tale of “Riverdale’s” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, or “Gossip Girl” with magic and sword fighting. While the show later leans into its genre, Kasdan keeps the romantic entanglements moving like spinning discs that constantly threaten to shatter as love connections turn into love triangles and trapezes. The most notable of these relationships is between Kit and Jade, which is billed as Disney’s first proper queer love story. And it’s written beautifully, and in such a way that transcends gender and explores how difficult it is to figure out yourself and someone else at the same time.
The first three episodes are vividly plotted and generous with action scenes, but something doesn’t work with the early character moments, which individually can feel too compressed and rushed. But all the table setting pays off in the fourth episode, a bottle episode as a massive haunted mansion can be considered a bottle. The episode is where the show really tickles, successfully weaving together its romantic instincts with the creepiest elements of the world. It evokes the “Evil Dead” as told by JRR Tolkien and is an absolute blast. By the fifth episode starts with a chase sequence set to the Swedish punk band Alle! Everyone!, whatever opposition to this genre gem melts away. “Willow” is the real deal, almost good enough to justify blowing off Mother’s Day.