Willow Reboot on Disney Plus Makes for a Surprisingly Fun Ride
For all the (justified) acclaim Disney+’s “Andor” has brought to the streaming service, it’s easy to forget just how much blood the Walt Disney Corporation is trying to squeeze out of the stones of its existing properties. Sure, it makes sense to flesh out the sprawling, IP-friendly worlds of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But was anyone asking for a streaming follow-up to “Willow”?
For those who’ve forgotten (that’s most of us, the odd ‘80s-fantasy fan aside), “Willow” is the red-headed stepchild of the Lucasfilm catalog. It’s the Ron Howard-directed sword-and-sorcery lark about a dwarf farmer-turned-reluctant sorcerer (Warwick Davis, in his first starring role), the magical baby that comes into his possession, and the evil wizard who wants to kill them both. Throw in a rakish, Han Solo-like swordsman (Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan) and some of that signature George Lucas imagination, and you’ve theoretically got the stuff of legends. Alas, “Willow” wasn’t meant to be, and no ILM wizardry could overcome a well-trodden, trope-filled script.
But the discarded failures of yesteryear are unmined caverns of franchise potential for the bean counters at Disney, so here we are with an eight-episode legacy-quel to the film. And, surprise, surprise, it isn’t half bad for what it is.
Set years after the original film, the series (developed by “Solo” scribe Jonathan “son of Lawrence” Kasdan) checks up on the people of Tir Asleen in the decades since the film. Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha rule the kingdom, but Madmartigan disappeared on a mysterious quest years ago. What’s more, the girl Mads and Willow fought to protect in the film (the infant Elora Danan) has also been hidden away for fear of a greater evil to come.
It’s not long before the kingdom’s peace is disrupted by the arrival of a gang of supernatural foes, who steal away Sorsha’s libertine son Airk (Dempsey Bryk) and haul him past the Shattered Sea, where none dare follow. But dare we must—this is an adventure, after all—and Airk’s headstrong sister Kit (Ruby Cruz) assembles a party of misfits to rescue him. Step one: Find the reclusive sorcerer Willow and enlist his aid.
Accompanying her is the usual gallery of D&D types: Kit’s best friend and knight-in-training Jade (Erin Kellyman), her wimpy husband-to-be, Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori), burly thief and brawler Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), and Dove (Ellie Bamber), Airk’s low-born side piece who carries a torch for the prince … not to mention a few magical secrets of her own.
One of the original “Willow”’s few charms came in the rapport between unlikely heroes Davis and Kilmer, and that sense of irreverence is compounded here. Our heroes are hardly the type for thees and thous; instead, Kit, Willow, and the gang lean hard on a thoroughly modern vernacular, dropping quips and banter with all the zeal of Joss Whedon characters. (Revolori and Chadha-Patel handle their parts with particular confidence, and Bamber proves a wry foil for Davis’ signature grumpiness.)
In lesser hands, this could fall flat on its face, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find just how easily it all goes down. Each member of the ensemble gets their chance to shine, both individually and when paired off: Kit and Jade negotiating their budding romance, Graydon struggling to prove himself after a life of pampered privilege, Boorman running from a dark, mysterious past, Willow training Dove in her newfound abilities, etc. Everyone has something to prove to themselves and the kingdom, and Kasdan and crew find a remarkable balance for each of their endearing characters.
It doesn’t all work, especially as the eight-episode season progresses and the beats get more repetitive. At times, the winking tone undercuts the show’s brushes with serious pathos; get ready for episodes to end on moody covers of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Enter Sandman,” which feels out of place even in the wry mode this show traffics in.
Plus, we still have to contend with the muddy cinematography and convoluted lore that are de rigueur for streaming shows like this. There are occasional moments of striking fantasy tableau: A haunted forest here, an abandoned city of statues there. But then, you get multiple fights that lose their middling fight choreography in a samey, day-for-night fog. The series almost certainly uses the much-vaunted “Volume” technology that’s made many a Star Wars show feel cramped and cheap. And yet “Willow” finds some innovative uses for it, especially on an extended trek across a desolate, walkable sea where they find loneliness and despair.
But any time we stray from our likable ensemble into the dirty business of the adventure, the show starts to lose steam—especially since the Big Bad of the series is hardly seen outside of a few hushed whispers. There are the usual sidequests, to be sure, but you find yourself caring less about whether Boorman gets his hands on a set of magical armor than his verbal sparring with Kit as they swan off to get it.
That’s the curious thing about “Willow,” though. As lost as the show gets in its convoluted mythology (everyone’s got a dark past or a secret identity/allegiance to contend with), the quieter moments with our stalwart party are the most effective. The true magic, it turns out, is building a good enough cast to wallpaper over the cavernous holes in your script.
In the end, I’m not sure if there’s an audience hungry for a nostalgic follow-up to “Willow.” But if there is, this is probably the way to do it: Give Warwick Davis the showcase the veteran actor deserves and inject it with a modern sensibility that works more than it doesn’t. It may not be the most necessary sequel, but it’s certainly fun. And really, isn’t that what matters in the end?
Seven episodes were screened for review.
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