Three decades later, ‘Willow’ is back as a series and better than ever
Premiering Wednesday on Disney+, whose corporate parent conveniently acquired the property in its ingestion of Lucasfilm, “Willow” is a series-long sequel to the 1988 fantasy film in which an aspiring sorcerer (Warwick Davis in the title role) from a race of little people sets off to deliver a human baby, found like Moses in the bulrushes, into responsible large-people care. There are a lot of opinions among genre fans as to how best to execute such stories, but the series is fantasy as I like it best — funny, fun and just a little frightening, sometimes serious but never self-serious. If my year-end favorites piece were not already filed, “Willow” would have been a contender.
It has been 34 years since the film was released, though in the timeline of the series, “200 moons” have passed, or 16.66666 years, according to my calculator. Which makes all the younger characters teenagers, including Elora Danan, the baby whose safety is the main business of the movie and whose grown-up identity, hidden even from herself, is revealed at the end of the series’s first episode. (Every time her name was spoken, I pictured Devery Jacobs, who plays someone with the same name on “Reservation Dogs” — distracting, perhaps, but also pleasant.) As to returning players Davis and Joanne Whalley, as Sorsha — daughter of the movie’s evil sorceress/queen and now a queen herself — time has been kind to them. Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, the rogue-turned-hero Han Solo of the piece — who, we learn from opening narration, later married Sorsha and is the father of her teenage twins, Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Airk (Dempsey Bryk) — left a decade earlier in search of a magic breastplate and never returned. But he’s still very much a presence.
Kit and Airk are unconventional royals, not keen on what their station has in store for them. Airk, a bit of a rapscallion, is enamored of Dove, who works in the bakery; Kit, who dreams of life beyond the horizon, is betrothed for political reasons to Graydon (Tony Revolori), a nerdish prince from a neighboring kingdom, but would rather be crossing swords with Jade (Erin Kellyman), her best friend and sparring partner, who is set to become the kingdom’s first female knight. Before the wedding can take place, however, a mystic fog full of monsters descends upon the palace, and Airk is kidnapped. A quest is organized, in which our young heroes, including Grayson (smart kids come in handy), set off to find him. They are accompanied by a couple of adult chaperons — notably Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), a thief sprung from the dungeon, who has history with Sorsha and Madmartigan and knows the territory outside “the barrier,” a magical force field protecting the peaceable kingdoms from the less peaceable.
As in most any sequel to an adventure that ends happily, a new evil is rising, or an old evil is rising again, and both Sorsha and Willow can feel it coming. Because every fellowship needs a sorcerer, the party is sent to find Willow, who has gained stature in his community but nevertheless feels something of a fraud— the move by which he defeated the film’s villainess was not magickal magic but ordinary prestidigitation. He may not be much of a wizard — he is something of a wizard — but cleverness is more attractive than just waving a wand.
The series was developed by Jonathan Kasdan (son of writer-director Lawrence, younger brother of director Jake), who, born in 1979, would be just the age to have had “Willow” strongly imprinted on his brain. (In the greater web of show business “coincidence,” Kasdan co-wrote with his father the 2018 “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which was directed by the original “Willow” director Ron Howard.) Kasdan’s initiation into screenwriting was on “Freaks & Geeks,” and he’s wrapped the swords and sorcery in “Willow” around a teen dramedy, with characters just starting to figure out their lives and their love lives — and who will make mistakes in either case, keeping things open for further seasons. (“So you’re saying saving the world and having a relationship are mutually exclusive?” one will ask.)
IP gonna IP, but, cult status aside, “Willow” is perhaps not the first, or second, or third property one would have expected to see revived, so expensively and at such length. Leaving out the question of whether the show is “better” than the movie — its story by George Lucas, seemingly written with a dog-eared copy of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” open at his elbow — the series goes to more, and more interesting, places, with fuller characterizations, less predictable plot lines and sharper jokes. The movie was vaguely humorous, but the series is legitimately a comedy between, and often during, the scenes of suspense and violence. Temperamentally, it’s more “Princess Bride” than “Lord of the Rings,” with a hint of Monty Python in the way it sets modern dialogue and attitudes against a medieval backdrop, with lines like “You’re not the boss of me, princess” and “I’ve got to say, I’m feeling really energized and optimistic about this exorcism” and “I’m using my mind to remove that stick from your butt.” The series plays off of genre conventions without parodying them; it’s a self-aware celebration of the form.
That is to say, there are things you will have seen before, in new clothes. When a good guy is stabbed by a bad guy with a black magic staff, it’s immediately understood that possession is in his future. (You are not meant to be surprised when it arrives, but rather to wait for what you know is coming.) Elora Danan is the latest in a long line of prophesied Chosen Ones who must learn to use the force within her. And as in fantastical journeys from “The Odyssey” to “The Wizard of Oz” and beyond, “Willow” offers a tour of various landscapes and cultures, taking our questers through the Wildwood, across the Shattered Sea to the Immemorial City, from the seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest — no, wait, that’s “Elf.”
The show is big, in a casual sort of way; there are some major set pieces, including what struck me as a nod to “Indiana Jones” flicks — Kasdan’s father co-wrote “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but it doesn’t overwhelm human affairs with Gondorian grandeur or mystic hoo-ha. Focus is kept on a handful of characters, who do lose track of each other now and again, or break off into smaller groups for intimate conversation, but (the kidnapped Airk excepted) they are never out of one another’s sight for long. And Elora Danan’s isn’t the only mystery here; each harbors some sort of secret — in one scene, some of the team are dosed with a sort of truth-serum party drug, and a lot of information comes out — and more than one unsuspected relationship will be revealed.
As in the film, Davis is paramount, and he’s in a more complex role now, a mentor who still has a thing or two to learn, a grown-up herding teens twice his size. The actor was 18 in his first real part, when the movie was released — he’d played an Ewok previously — and, like his character, has developed since; his comic chops are especially well-honed. Whalley gets to do more substantial work in 10 minutes of the series than in the whole of the film. Chadha-Patel is ambiguously charming as a scalawag not entirely out for himself. The younger characters are lively and appealing, not the least because they can be a little impertinent; as much as they might seem forged according to type, the actors make them into individuals. Everyone pulls their weight.
Sequels are often a matter of diminishing returns, but “Willow” pays dividends.
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.