The post Willow Review: Fantasy Television That’s Here For a Good Time appeared first on Consequence.
The Pitch: It’s been quite a time for super-serious sci-fi and fantasy epics, as anyone who’s attempted to keep up with House of the Dragon, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, The Sandman, and many, many other shows will tell you. But here comes Disney+’s Willow, with a modern rock song in its heart, a young hot ensemble ready to jump into action, and its own take on swords and sorcery to share.
Willow? You Mean Three-Time MTV Video Music Award Nominee Willow, Don’t You? Okay, as a longtime fan of the 1988 film Willow, a person who has spent a lifetime yelling “What do you mean, you haven’t seen Willow?” at people… I know that there’s a good chance that most people are not familiar with the original Ron Howard-directed fantasy adventure.
So here’s the deal: In the original movie (with a story by George Lucas, who clearly had reread The Hobbit a few times beforehand), Warwick Davis starred as an aspiring sorcerer in a fantasy land whose young children discover a baby set adrift in the river near their village. Turns out the baby in question is the prophesied Elora Danan (a whole bunch of Reservation Dogs fans just perked up at that), destined to help bring down the evil queen who rules over the kingdom.
Willow and his allies also played a role in that queen-destroying battle, though, and the series picks up 20 years later to find that after rebelling against her mother (the aforementioned evil queen), warrior princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) has become a respected ruler of the kingdom of Tir Asleen, with her own children now coming of age.
Tir Asleen has known peace for decades, and Elora Danan herself has remained hidden from the world all this time. But when evil forces come to the capital and kidnap one of their own — just as reluctant tomboy princess Kit (Ruby Cruz) was making peace with her upcoming arranged marriage, too! — Sorsha sends out a rescue party, with the additional assignment to reenlist Willow in the cause of keeping the kingdom safe.
We’re Going on An Adventure! The original Willow is an exceptionally fun if flawed romp, anchored by the wildly charismatic Val Kilmer nearing the peak of his stardom but bogged down by some clunky storytelling. (Do I think it’s right that the original film only has a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes? No. Do I understand why that’s the case? Oh yes.)
This actually gives Willow the series an advantage over those other aforementioned fantasy series: While developer Jonathan Kasdan clearly has a deep well of respect for the original film, the fact that there aren’t a lot of die-hard Willow-heads like myself out there lessens the burden of trying to appease a large rabid fanbase.
There are ancillary Willow novels and other material out there, but no deep mythology to service, especially as a sequel series (as opposed to being a prequel, committed to landing at a certain end point). Thus, Kasdan is able to the original film as a jumping-off point for a whole new narrative, and the creative freedom that results has a palpable joy to it.
At least, the young cast seems thrilled to be here: There’s a bluntness to Cruz’s portrayal of Kit that sometimes comes off as too modern, but she sparks well off Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) as her best friend/bodyguard/”something more.” (The inclusion of an LGBTQ+ romance, something which comes pretty standard on The CW at this point, does feel somewhat groundbreaking here, mostly due to its matter-of-fact treatment.)
The rest of the ensemble, including Ellie Bamber, Tony Revolori, Amer Chadha-Patel, and Dempsey Bryk, all get unique opportunities to not just stand out individually, but reveal greater depths to characters that might, on the surface, seem relatively rote. And it’s great to see Warwick Davis back in action — he was only 18 when the original film was released, but even then had a remarkable gravitas, which has grown deeper and richer with age.
Rocky Territory: While production-wise the series makes great use of its locations, and shows a refreshing love of color and visual flair, there are a lot of elements to Willow as a series that might strike people as disjointed. The accents are one thing that stands out — most characters sound like they just ordered a Jamba Juice at a suburban mall, but Kellyman’s English accent persists, and others who appear make little effort at any sort of unified dialect work.
There’s also the show’s heavy reliance on modern pop and rock songs for the soundtrack, music that does work in the context of the show while also standing out as a choice that other shows of this genre wouldn’t make. Once you come to embrace it, it’s actually fun to anticipate what needle drops are on the horizon, but it’s certainly different.
But by far the most awkward element of the series is how hard it tries to incorporate Madmartigan, the legendary warrior played by Kilmer in the original film. According to Kasdan, Kilmer doesn’t appear in the first season due to COVID issues, so instead, Madmartigan stays present in the story via archival footage as well as frequent mention of the mystery behind his disappearance years ago. Madmartigan was absolutely an essential part of the initial story, but keeping the character in a state of limbo to the degree the first season does ends up being a distraction akin to waiting for Samantha to show up on And Just Like That.
The Verdict: There’s a lot of narrative packed into the first episode (not even including the substantial recap of the original film, should you need a refresher, because let’s face it — you probably need a refresher). But once the series pushes through all that set-up, later episodes find their rhythm, the episodic structure of the series lending itself well to side quests and surprise guest stars. (Surprisingly good guest stars, honestly, who are too fun as surprises to spoil here.)
This is not the original Willow, but that’s apparently good news for 47% of Rotten Tomatoes critics. And what this Willow proves to be is a bold, engaging, and above all else fun ride. That’s an area where so many of these other shows came up wanting, in their epic battles between good and evil; Willow doesn’t skimp in that area, but it’s not afraid to enjoy itself. And that brightness is just what it needs, to stand out in this crowded grey genre.
Where to Watch: Willow Episode 1 is streaming now on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.
Willow Review: Fantasy Television That’s Here For a Good Time
Liz Shannon Miller
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