Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for Willow.
Out of all the major sci-fi/fantasy properties that had their heyday in the ’80s getting a second go-around via a legacyquel series, Willow—Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy film starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer—is a somewhat confounding choice. It’s got some rich set pieces and world-building and it has its fans who adore it (particularly among those who might’ve been kids when the movie came out), but the film, which got mixed reviews and did alright at the box office, might not have been an obvious choice. Were people necessarily clamoring for a Willow TV show set decades after the movie as they did with some of the other movies and shows getting mined for their IP right now?
Regardless of that answer, a Willow series (which is also titled Willow) is now upon us. And, at least based on the first two episodes, it’s a fascinating foray back into that world as a new evil threatens to overtake the world as we know it. While several actors are reprising their roles from the film, the series smartly puts the onus on its new characters, even if it takes some time to introduce the gambit.
Willow is set several decades after the film ends, long enough for Elora Danan, the baby prophesied to bring Queen Bavmorda’s downfall in the film, to grow up. But Willow’s (Davis) efforts to protect Elora weren’t the end of the troubles that faced them: In a prologue voiced by an older Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), Bavmorda’s daughter who switched sides in the film, Willow had a vision that “an ancient evil would rise again and destroy the future Empress, and her end would herald a new dark age.”
The rest of the kingdom is told that Elora disappeared but will return one day to take her rightful place on the throne. But the kidnapping of Sorsha’s son Airk (Dempsey Bryk) by evil forces will soon bring much of what she tried keeping under wraps for Elora’s protection to light, including the identity of the only person capable of saving the world. (Unlike other genre shows, we won’t have to wait an entire season to find out who Elora is.)
Leading the charge is Airk’s sister Kit (Ruby Cruz), a tomboy who’d rather fight with her sword than be forced into the purely political marriage her mother is making her enter. Her girlfriend Jade (Erin Kellyman), who strives to become a knight, quickly volunteers. Kit’s betrothed Graydon (Tony Revolori) is more comfortable with his nose in a book than with a weapon in hand but is ordered to protect her anyway. Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) is an imprisoned thief who’s promised a full pardon by the queen for assisting the quest, and Dove (Ellie Bamber) is a kitchen maid and stowaway who’s romantically linked to Airk who aims to do what she can to bring her love back home. And Willow, as the premiere sorcerer in the region (even if he’s become estranged from his once-friend), is recruited to help them locate Airk.
(Val Kilmer, who played Madmartigan in the original film—and is Airk and Kit’s father—isn’t in Willow’s first season because of health reasons, but Madmartigan is namedropped and mentioned often enough in the first two episodes alone to feel like he is. And the mentions are open-ended enough to leave open the possibility of him showing up later on.)
It’s a classic ensemble setup that allows a group of personalities to team up and clash even as they strive for the same goal. Kit and Dove are both impatient to get on with it, while Willow has his reasons for taking caution, and Jade’s orders to follow Willow take precedence over her girlfriend’s impatience. Graydon mostly feels out of place, but Boorman is a wait-and-see kind of guy who teases a mysterious past connection with Madmartigan. A trip to Nelwyn—which Willow calls home—introduces more characters, including Willow’s grown-up daughter Mims (Annabelle Davis), who discovered Elora all those years ago. Willow is often a walking, talking collection of exposition tasked with training a reluctant sorcerer in the making.
And once Elora’s identity is unveiled, a major question remains: In a world where the ability to cast magic fades if it’s not nurtured (if you don’t use it, you lose it mentality), is Willow too late to teach Elora what he knows? And even if he can, can he prevent the visions of a dark future he’s seeing?
Willow does its best to ensure that viewers don’t have to watch the 1988 Willow movie to understand the 2022 Willow TV show—the first few minutes of the series serve as a recap of the film, and we occasionally flash to footage from the film—but it probably helps if you’ve seen the original film. The visual effects are great, including some of the monster work, and its production design helps to enhance what we’re already familiar with. (Also: some fun knitwear in the mix!)
It’s too soon to tell whether Willow will fall into the nostalgia trap that so many IP reboots (especially Disney IP reboots) fall into, but so far, it’s a promising start. It’s full of quirky and likable characters with a clear goal, and Willow might have some magic up its sleeve
New episodes of Willow debut on Wednesdays on Disney+.