Review by C.J. Bunce
To say director Ron Howard’s Willow is a beloved movie isn’t an overstatement. From the mind–and original story–of George Lucas, this was fantasy from a filmmaker proven to know the genre, the one who delivered one of its best creations in space fantasy form as Star Wars. Like Jim Henson and his The Dark Crystal, Lucas delivered the movie Willow at the height of his almost magical success, when audiences hadn’t really seen a big-budget, mythic, live-action swords and sorcery fantasy movie. After two episodes I thought Disney had a possible hit with its new sequel series, also called Willow, but now that its tenth and final episode has aired, its place in the pantheon of fantasy series is secured. With a seventh episode that is one of the best fantasy episodes ever devised–with surprising story elements and gorgeous sets and scenery–actor Warwick Davis led a cast of new actors to build something that could stick around for a long time.
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). Joanna Whalley is back, her Sorsha is now queen, watching over a kingdom and her grown twins from her marriage with Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan: Kit, played by Ruby Cruz and Airk, played by Dempsey Bryk. Both Cruz and Bryk are doppelgangers for Kilmer–the casting of them as his twins is simply perfect. Madmartigan is feared dead, and although Kilmer doesn’t return, his son mimics him well as a voice from afar–a lovely addition to the film for fans of the actor and his character.
The breakout star of Willow is Ellie Bamber (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Les Miserables) as Elora Danan. She begins as the mousy girlfriend of Airk and servant cook called Dove, and by the end of the tenth episode she has grown to become a rising, promising sorceress. 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, 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 Madmartigan that the queen appoints to the task, played by Amar Chadha-Patel (The Wheel of Time, Aladdin). Revolori rises beyond his past roles as an actor with sincerity and skill. At many points he holds the high drama for the many twisted subplots of the season. Viewers will cheer Graydon by season’s end.
From the old guard, 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 young Willow in flashbacks, an older Willow in the present, and in visions a middle-aged 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. The return of Davis as Willow unveils to the world that this is an actor who should be considered for more big roles. His wisened sneer, his thoughtful mannerisms, charismatic voice, and middle-aged demeanor is the stuff that Hollywood will hopefully begin tapping into more regularly. 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, let audiences follow Willow as a more 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 the first season of Willow.
As I thought after the first two episodes, the series seemed to have lots of callbacks to ideas from George Lucas’s and other 1970s and 1980s movies. You can almost tell when this new fantasy fellowship is arriving at a Star Wars or Indiana Jones-infused moment. Kasdan knows fantasy and science fiction as well as anyone, and sometimes he takes turns you hope he’ll take, and sometimes he doesn’t. At times Willow gets to do things we only hoped to see Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda do in the Star Wars movies. Characters spar with swords and with wands in ways Star Wars has yet to do as powerfully. It’s fantastic knowing Joonas Suotamo–the actor in the last several Chewbacca appearances–is the man inside the memorable villain called The Scourge. Willow is not by any means predictable, but Kasdan tells a fantasy tale in the tradition of centuries of the best fantasy storytelling via myths, fairy tales, and epic adventures. Even an appearance by Christian Slater goes far in invoking nostalgia for his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves appearance. A few times the viewer will be able to tell some segues were somehow lost in the editing room, especially immediately after two key characters are killed and other cast members smile too quickly. Some off characters in the forest are introduced and then killed off too quickly and it doesn’t jibe with the rest of the story. But beyond a few questionable moments the series stays on track to the end.
Stephen Woolfenden (Doctor Who, Harry Potter) directed the first two episodes, with Jamie Childs (Doctor Who, His Dark Materials) really selling the show directing the final 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, but his sweeping new themes never rely on the past to increase dramatic emotion and tension, similar to how Danny Elfman didn’t rely on the classic Addams Family theme in his Wednesday series. As for the costumes, Sarah Young (Mad Max: Fury Road, Gods of Egypt) has crafted all new designs for the series that can only be called iconic. Her armor for Kit, Tolkienesque look for Willow, her trademark mundane wardrobe for Elora, and even her audacious incorporation of denim make for some memorable costumes sure to be regular apparel for the next cosplay conventions.
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. Watch the movie and the series in order, and you may agree the series is as good as–and possibly better at times–than the movie.
What more could you ask for? A second season can’t come soon enough (and the end credits tease at a possible third). An epic journey full of intrigue, fun, nostalgia, and stakes, all ten episodes of the highly recommended Willow are now streaming on Disney+.