The original “Willow,” directed by Ron Howard and based on an original story by George Lucas, wasn’t a blockbuster at the box office in 1988, but did garner two Oscar nominations and a cult following. Its actors — in particular Warwick Davis’ Willow and Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan — left a lasting impression on live-action fantasy storytelling. So much so that “Willow” lore has permeated pop culture in unexpected ways, including a storyline in the acclaimed FX series “Reservation Dogs”.
This is precisely the audience that “Willow” episodic writer Jon Kasdan hopes to attract to the new “Willow” Disney+ series. However, like the characters, you’ll have to be patient and wander around the woods a bit before fully understanding the fuss.
The original film follows Willow, a young Nelwyn wizard-in-training who leaves his wife and children behind on a quest to return a lost baby to the Daikini of Tir Asleen. The child, Elora Danan, has been prophesied to be the downfall of the evil Queen Bavmorda, who torments the realm. On his journey, Willow teams up with several companions, including the rogue Madmartigan and, eventually, the warrior Princess Sorsha, who falls for Mads and switches sides to kill her mother and save the Kingdom.
The “Willow” series returns to Tir Asleen with actress Joanne Whalley reprising her role as Queen Sorsha, who has reigned in peace for almost half a century after her mother’s demise. However, magic is outlawed, and Elora Danon’s identity has also been hidden, even from herself, a decision that estranged Willow from Sorsha.
In the pilot, we meet Sorsha’s two children, Kit Tanthalos (Ruby Cruz) and Airk Tanthalos (Dempsey Bryk). The former sparring with best friend and knight-in-training Jade Claymore (Erin Kellyman), and the latter fooling around with scullery maid Dove (Ellie Bamber). However, Madmartigan, the children’s father, and Elora, the most important person in the universe, are both conspicuously absent.
Galladorn, the second most substantial Daikini Kingdom in the North, and Tir Asleen plan to unite their kingdoms through a marriage between Princess Kit and Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori) of Galladorn. But the wedding is doomed from the start for two reasons. First, because Kit only has eyes for Jade, and second, the night before the nuptials, the castle is attacked, and Airk is kidnapped by monsters controlled by dark magic.
The Queen knows the only way to fight magic is with, well, more magic and sends Kit straight to Willow to help search for her brother. Jade, a reluctant Graydon, and a prisoner named Thraxus Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), familiar with the world beyond the realm, accompany her. They are followed by Dove, who is determined to save the love of her life.
The moment Willow meets Dove, he recognizes her as the missing Princess he saved as a child. However, Dove, er, Elora Danon, seems to be as confused as anyone, as she quickly shifts from unwelcome tagalong to the most revered person in the Kingdom in seconds. Thus the quest begins to save Airk, train Elora and learn the fate of Madmartigan.
If the original “Willow” was “Star Wars” in Middle-earth, then the new Disney+ series is “The Force Awakens” meets “The Legend of Vox Machina.” Here Elora is Rey to Willow’s Luke, who tries desperately to train her in magic while on a quest with a Paladin, a Rogue, an Artificer, and a Princess.
The dialogue mixes old English cadence with modern colloquialisms like a tabletop role-playing game. Willow often uses lengthy magical terms and colorful descriptions, while Elora shortens and translates his musings. This dichotomy is also present in the soundtrack, which runs the gamut from orchestral anthems to Night Panda and even the Beach Boys at one point. This mixing of themes makes the series layered and fun and has the greatest potential to bring together multiple generations of fans. The production design is also stunning when it’s not suffering from “Game of Thrones-like crushed color timing.
Everyone in “Willow” takes an emotional journey alongside their physical quest. But some are more interesting than others. The titular character gives a stilted performance in early episodes, while Elora stays frustrated and confused until she isn’t. The side characters end up doing much of the creative heavy lifting. Standout performances from Revolori and Chadha-Patel are both comedic and emotional, and although Kellyman and Cruz’s Jade and Kit make Disney history as the first openly queer couple, Kellyman’s journey through her own tragic past is an example of what gives this show depth.
The plot, although entertaining, suffers from pacing issues. Where the first two episodes launch quickly and provide well-choreographed action and suspense, subsequent episodes lag a bit. The middle of the season finds the plot running in place before shifting from the rescue of Prince Airk to a quest to find Madmartigan.
Kilmer does not appear in the seven episodes released to the press. But according to Kasdan, he might make an appearance. So the season finale will not only complete the characters’ quest, but might provide the Kilmer cameo that “Willow” fans have been hoping for.
“Willow” is Kasdan’s nostalgic love letter to fans of the original movie and includes plenty of easter eggs and lore from the “Willow” novel “Chronicles of the Shadow War” to keep hardcore fans happy. For those just joining the franchise, the weekly schedule will give you plenty of time to figure out what’s happening. Ultimately, “Willow” builds on original lore to introduce a new set of unlikely heroes, honoring what made the original special.
The first two episodes of “Willow” are streaming on Disney+ now. New episodes debut every Wednesday.