REVIEW: ‘Willow’

NOTE: This non-spoiler review covers Episodes 1-7

In 1972 when George Lucas first dreamt up what would eventually become the 1988 film Willow, the foundation of the story was the idea of propping up, in Lucas’ words, “a little guy against the system.” As a fantasy adventure releasing in the wake of giants such as House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Willow, the Disney Plus streaming series that serves as a legacy sequel to the film, is certainly just as Lucas conceived it. Not nearly as hotly anticipated as House of the Dragon or The Rings of Power, Willow comes to the party as an overlooked underdog that might seem to find itself facing a steep climb to success in comparison to those powerhouses. 50 years later, Willow remains exactly what Lucas envisioned it to be. While it takes a beat to prove its worth and is certainly not made to appeal to the same audience as the House of the Dragon or The Rings of Power, the elements of Willow coalesce into a fun, heavily 80’s-inspired series that finds its own way in the epic fantasy genre.

The series navigates the familiar archetypes of a fantasy quest against a jaw-dropping array of scenery, with each episode moving from one spectacular, even if horrifying, setting to another. Shot in Wales, Willow takes full advantage of the varied geography of the country and some well-used CGI to fully realize the fantastical and familiar settings of Tir Asleen and Nockmaar while introducing some incredible (and spoilery) new places along the way. In terms of production value, Willow delivers from beginning to (almost) end. That extends beyond the settings to character designs that range from truly frightening (The Gales are going to give kids nightmares) to adorable (the mudmander that will give Falkor vibes to any 80’s kid).

As with the settings, Willow’s cast of characters works to find a balance between familiar and new. Warwick Davis returns as High Aldin Willow Ufgood and Joanne Whalley has what amounts to an extended cameo as Sorsha, now the Queen of Tir Asleen who is without the love of her life, Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan. Madmartigan’s black hole-esque absence is central to the series’ main plot as it can be measured by the effect it has on those around it. No one feels the effects of it more than his children, Kit and Airk Tanthalos, played by Ruby Cruz and Dempsy Bryk, respectively. The children of Madmartigan feel both familiar to the character-Kit, as a restless adventurer, and Airk, as a prolific lover of ladies-but incomplete as they strive to find their own ways. They’re joined in the cast by fellow newbies Erin Kellyman as Jade, Ellie Bamber as Dove, Tony Revelori as Graydon Hastur and Amar Chada-Patel as Thraxus Boorman. Much like the audience, most of these new characters may have only an inkling of an idea of who the great sorcerer Willow is, making it easy for newcomers to the story to catch up along with them. While Davis brings so much more to the role than he did as a 17-year-old in 1988, it’s the young cast of characters that propels the plot from its center.

(L-R): Graydon (Tony Revolori), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), Dove (Ellie Bamber), Kit (Ruby Cruz), Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and Jade (Erin Kellyman) in Lucasfilm’s WILLOW exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

The center of that plot is, of course, a quest that not only puts the heroes in peril but also forces them to examine who they truly are. Without delving too far into spoilers, it’s fair to say that each of Willow’s new heroes questions who they are along the way and that each of them come to find out that they are not necessarily who they thought they were going to be.

It’s no coincidence that the executive producer and head writer of a series that features people stepping out of the shadow of their father and discovering who they truly are is executive producer and writer Jonathan Kasdan. Just like the fellowship taking on the quest, the series takes time to find narrative coherence and that may be, in part, because Kasdan is undertaking a quest of his own, finding himself in the same way the new group of heroes does. Like Kit and Airk, Kasdan finds his way out from the shadow of a larger than life father (legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) over the course of the series. Like Kit and Airk, the series comes complete with echoes of the works of Kasdan the Elder (fans of Indiana Jones will find themselves reminded of some classic scenes); however, those echoes don’t define Kit and Airk nor do they define Willow. Rather like the heroes on the quest, Kasdan finds his own way while embracing the influence of the works of his father and others in the genre.

Toth (Charlie Rawes) in Lucasfilm’s WILLOW exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

It’s in respecting and understanding the genre, and the giants that built it, that Kasdan manges to build a series that while reminiscent of so many classics becomes content being its own thing. Each episode of Willow features exactly the kind of swashbuckling action fans of fantasy adventures would hope to see; each episode of Willow features some sort of dialogue of side quest that deepens the overall lore of the series; each episode of Willow features chivalry, honor and love. But the strength of the story is that in any given episode, any one of the fellowship may find himself/herself moving through the familiar tropes. Willow is not the traditional quest of one central hero surrounded by companions; in fact, the series provides enough time for each character to wear both titles.

Willow continuously plays with the familiar tropes of the genre in ways that are both reflective of the 1988 film and imbued with a sense of modernity. Want a swashbuckling knight who falls in love with a princess? Willow has it. Want crusty trolls? Willow has them. Want terrifying Bone Reavers? Willow has them, too. However, Willow, much like the Nelwyn sorcerer for whom it is named, has plenty of tricks up its sleeve and, if given a chance, will come to surprise you. As has been shown over the past decade or so, success is not a given for a legacy sequel. Jonathan Kasdan seemed to be well-aware that any attempt at a successful sequel to 1988’s Willow, a cult classic whose charm has grown over the years, would have to be earned. He did so by cleverly balancing the series between the past and the present, putting together a series that while slow to start, will have fans anticipating the next installment by the end of Episode 3. Willow is a worthy successor to the film that, just like its delightful bunch of young heroes, carves its own path through familiar territory.

Murphy’s Grading Scale: 8.0 (Very Fine)

Source: The Cinema of George Lucas,

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