Willow returns in excellent first episodes of new Disney fantasy series

Review by C.J. Bunce

Once upon a time there was a planet Earth where, if someone were to ask you what your favorite fantasy movie was, the most likely response would be The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke, Conan the Barbarian, or Dragonslayer.  Then came director Ron Howard’s Willow.  Based on a George Lucas story and starring Warwick Davis, who everyone knew as the actor behind Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi, it had great characters and a great story.  Just as fans of 1980s movies couldn’t have been happier that The Dark Crystal returned to provide one of the best TV series of the 21st century, we now have a sequel series to the 1988 fantasy classic Willow, and the first two episodes are now streaming on Disney+.

The return of Davis as Willow is magical–it’s the kind of return we were hoping for with Mark Hamill’s return to the movies as Luke Skywalker, only this time better writing, by none other than Jonathan Kasdan, lets audiences follow Willow as an older man brilliantly as a faithful continuation of the young fellow we met so long ago.  The series has the same look as the original, and if you love modern fantasy films like Snow White and The Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War, you’ll love what awaits in at least the first quarter of the first season of Willow.  It also may be the most George Lucas-vibed show you’ve seen in a long time.

The movie Willow is streaming on Disney+ and is worthy of a re-watch before digging into the series.  It starred Davis as Willow Ufgood, a young man who takes an abandoned baby named Elora Danan on a perilous journey to protect the world from an evil queen, played by Jean Marsh.  Along the way he encounters a criminal rogue named Madmartigan (played by Val Kilmer), and the queen’s sword-wielding daughter Sorsha, played by Joanne Whalley (trivia: once upon a time Kilmer and Whalley were married).

Although nearly 35 years have passed in the real world, the series is set 20 years after the movie.  Davis is back as Willow, now High Aldwin (the title carried by late actor Billy Barty in the movie).  Whalley’s Sorsha is now a queen, watching over a kingdom and her grown twins from her marriage with Madmartigan: Kit, played by Ruby Cruz (a bit of a well-cast Kilmer doppelganger), and Airk, played by Dempsey Bryk.  Madmartigan is feared dead.  The fate of Elora has been held secret for the past 20 years, but comes to light when Airk is kidnapped by henchmen of the Crone, an evil force whose future malice Willow has foreseen in a vision.

Kit and a small band set off to find brother Airk, including her unwilling and unwanted betrothed Graydon (the Spider-Man series’ own Flash, Tony Revolori, finally gets an interesting role), plus Kit’s loyal friend Jade (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Solo: A Star Wars Story actress Erin Kellyman), and Boorman, a thief who once fought with Martigan that the queen appoints to the task, played by Amar Chadha-Patel (The Wheel of Time, Aladdin).  

Davis’s performance is perfection, a high point for the actor who has donned prosthetics more often than not in films like the Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Leprechaun franchises.  He gets to play a middle-aged Willow in flashbacks, an older Willow in the present, and in visions a full-on Old Man Willow.  Davis’s real-life daughter Annabelle Davis steps in as Willow’s brave daughter Mims (who originally discovered Elora as a child, played by another actress)–a bow-wielding character that deserves her own spin-off series.

Although the opening episode introduces the characters and begins the journey, the intrigue, fun, the nostalgia, and stakes really kick in in the second episode.  Willow’s interactions with a young “muffin girl” called Dove, played by Ellie Bamber, provide the best scenes so far–they have great chemistry together and will hopefully be the focus of the story.  Graham Hughes (Clash of the Titans) is a soldier and friend of Willow who joins up in the next phase of this fellowship’s journey forward.

Stephen Woolfenden (Doctor Who, Harry Potter) directed the first two episodes.  The late James Horner theme to Willow is one of the most memorable, most rousing pieces of film music from the 1980s (Horner is one of the top 10 film composers of all time).  Check out the soundtrack here and listen to the theme here.  James Newton Howard’s new music teases notes from the original theme in more heroic scenes, and it’s almost frustrating we don’t get to hear the whole thing–hopefully he’s gearing up for a full reprise well before the final scene of the season.

Many members of the original cast have since passed, and Val Kilmer is not expected to return for this show, but advance marketing has listed Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton to reprise their Brownie characters, with Christian Slater, Julian Glover, and Solo: A Star Wars Story’s own Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo, listed in the cast.  Jean Marsh could also return in a future episode.

This new series may be the first time audiences have encountered George Lucas’s direct influence since Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the Star Wars prequels before that.  He wrote the Willow movie story, and it–and this sequel–share much with his Star Wars brand of fantasy storytelling.  This feels like a Lucas story.  Lucas worked with Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan on the Han Solo movie project before selling Lucasfilm to Disney, and it felt more like Star Wars than anything since.  Jonathan Kasdan’s story for this sequel marries the movie, Lucas’s story, and a new, faithful adventure expertly–thus far.  In the main plot thread Willow the man is a reflection of Obi-Wan Kenobi–another sorcerer/wizard who takes a young Chosen One away in hiding, to one day teach and pass along his magic and sorcery.  In many ways this Willow continuation story is providing more of that element than what Disney delivered earlier this year in its Kenobi series.  It’s also promising in that this series seems to be doing a better job of revisiting its title character, unlike we saw with both Kenobi and Picard.  But we’re only at the beginning.

And yet… Disney disregarded Lucas’s actual own vision for the Elora Danan adventures following the events of the movie, as seen in a trilogy of novels (Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn, and Shadow Star) Lucas co-wrote with Chris Claremont, available here at Amazon.  “When I wrote the story for Willow, I began with the pre-story,” Lucas said, “but the full story was yet to be told.”  The series is different than the novels, and yet readers of the trilogy will see some parallel concepts, beginning with a spoiled girl in the castle.

It’s a good year for fantasy, with The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones series, and now Willow.  Great nostalgia, good fun, and storybook-style fantasy, look for the first two episodes of Willow now with eight more arriving weekly, streaming on Disney+.

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