New from The HoloFiles from Josh and George Bate: REVIEW: Willow

By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.

When people hear of Lucasfilm, their minds almost always go to one of two things: Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Indeed, the production company started by George Lucas in 1971 is best known for creating and producing the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, but there are more than a few hidden gems in the Lucasfilm catalog. And perhaps none more ripe for re-exploration than Willow.

In Lucasfilm’s post-Return of the Jedi era of the mid-to-late 1980s, the studio produced projects like Twice Upon a Time, Labyrinth, Howard the Duck, and, most notably, Willow. Ron Howard directed the fantasy film from a script written by George Lucas with legend Warwick Davis starring as the titular character. The 1888 film was released to mixed reviews and, while it yielded disappointing box office returns, still turned a profit. Over the years since its release, Willow gained something of a cult following, which led to executive producer and series creator Jon Kasdan, known for co-writing Solo: A Star Wars Story with his father Lawrence), to lead a long-awaited sequel to Willow.

Flash forward 34 years and the new series Willow debuts on Disney+. Willow follows the events of the 1988 film (which are nicely recapped in a montage at the start of Willow’s pilot). The baby Elora, prophesied as a chosen one to bring peace to Willow’s mystical world, was left in the care of Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha at the end of the first film. Years later and Elora’s identity has been kept secret from everyone, including herself. When Prince Airk, son of Madmaritgan and Sorsha, is kidnapped, his sister Princess Kit (played by Mare of Easttown’s Ruby Cruz” teams up with a group of friends and strangers on a quest to save her brother and the world as she knows it.

Willow the series is an interesting next step for Lucasfilm and Disney+ as it does not have the passionate fandom that something like Star Wars has. While some may interpret this as audience indifference toward Willow, a more optimistic interpretation is that Willow is not hindered by fierce fan expectations. Instead, Willow is a mere sequel to an 80s fantasy film loved by some, but not so many. In this sense, creator Jon Kasdan needed to approach Willow in a manner suitable for Willow fanatics and newcomers alike. Thankfully, Kasdan excels in this department. Although Willow is undoubtedly a more fulfilling experience having watched the 1988 original, prior viewing is not strictly speaking necessary. Yes, Willow is a sequel and includes characters, such as Willow himself and Sorsha, from the 1988 film, but the series is more than capable of standing on its own two legs. In large part, this is attributable to Kasdan’s decision to center the story on three young women, who, like many of Willow’s new audience, weren’t around for the events of the first film.

Leading this trio is Ruby Cruz’s Princess Kit, the twin sister of Airk, whose kidnapping serves as the impetus for the series’ plot. Alongside her is Jade, played by Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Erin Kellyman, a knight and Kit’s love-interest. Rounding out this trio is Dove, played by Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals, Les Misérables), a kitchen maid who joins the quest to save the love of her life Airk. The trio of Kit, Jade, and Dove is the heart and soul of Willow; without getting these characters right, this follow-up to Willow would likely not have worked well. The actresses give such delightful, enchanting performances that it’s hard not to immediately start rooting for them upon their introduction in the series. Also of note here is the series’ brilliant portrayal of a central, queer love story between Kit and Jade.

The witty, back-and-forth, contemporary dialogue between the women, and the other members of their quest to search for Airk, is unlike typical fantasy fare and represents one of the series’ points of uniqueness. If there’s any criticism to be had for Willow, it’s that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to fantasy storytelling. Willow, much like its theatrical predecessor, is full of genre tropes that even the most novice of fantasy fans will recognize. But where Willow stands out is its characterization and tone. Whereas Game of Thrones took the maturity of an HBO drama like The Sopranos and adapted that to a sprawling fantasy story, Willow heavily leans on the teen / young adult themes and tones that made series like Riverdale, Teen Wolf, or Smallville so successful. The characters and their dialogue are contemporary and approachable and wouldn’t feel out of place in one of these other series at all. In turn, this gives Willow a different flavor of fantasy storytelling that may particularly appeal to adolescent audiences.

This trio of Kit, Jade, and Dove aren’t alone in this series. In fact, Willow is an ensemble piece from beginning to end. The trio are accompanied on their quest by Prince Graydon (played by Spider-Man: Homecoming star Tony Revolori) and Boorman (played by Amar Chadha-Patel). Chadha-Patel is arguably the series’ standout. A thief, who is older than the teens he is surrounded by, Boorman is the kind of witty, shady character audiences won’t be able to get enough of. In many ways, think of Willow’s version of Han Solo and you’ve got Boorman. 

For fans of the original film, there is plenty to adore in this new series. Jon Kasdan exhibits such an appreciation for Willow and this comes out in touching ways in each and every episode. Val Kilmer, who played Madmartigan in the film, is absent here as the actor’s struggles with throat cancer have prevented his involvement in more projects. Nonetheless, Madmartigan’s presence is strongly felt throughout the entire series. Unlike Kilmer, returning to the fold are Warwick Davis and Joanne Whalley, the latter of whom plays a surprisingly small role in the series. Davis, meanwhile, makes his debut in the last moments of the pilot episode and perfectly breathes life back into the character he introduced in 1988. Annabelle Davis, Warwick Davis’ real life daughter, plays Willow’s daughter in the series, a nice touch for Warwick Davis and Willow fans alike.

Verdict: 8/10

Willow is simply delightful. The ensemble at the heart of this story works well, with Ruby Cruz’s Kit and Mare of Easttown’s Ruby Cruz and Amar Chadha-Patel’s Boorman being particular highlights. Although viewing will certainly be enhanced if you’re a fan of the original film, Kasdan manages to tell a story that is quite approachable to newcomers. All in all, Willow is a success in wonderfully recapturing the original film’s charm, while telling a new story of its own.

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