Before The Lord of the Rings films, Willow was the grand introduction to the world of fantasy for a whole generation, maybe more. And in an age where fantasy has been marred by a perceived necessity of “realism” and HBO-ness, this sequel series to the 1988 classic is more than just a welcome return to the heart of what makes fantasy a symbol for idealism.
Set nearly decades after the events of the film, Willow not only returns us to the premise and familiar characters of Tir Asleen and Nelwyn, but introduces a whole group of new characters–including ones we’ve already met but never quite witnessed their tale.
Straddling the fine line between catering to a new audience while also living up to the expectations and memories of older fans, Willow does struggle a tad with its tone and script. More than the original film, the Willow series is reminiscent of the Sam Raimi era of fantasy and adventure a la Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, and the recent Legend of the Seeker.
Thankfully, given the certain influence Willow would have had on Raimi, the trickle-down inspiration allows for a somewhat organic evolution of style for this series. Nevertheless, there is a sense of roleplaying where in it seems like an expert crew of Dungeons & dragons players have assumed characters in the Willow franchise, as opposed to a true sequel to the film.
This isn’t entirely surprising considering the shift in tone of more modern fantasy content but, at the very least, Willow avoids the tryhard cliches of Game of Thrones, or the borderline coma-inducing storytelling of Rings of Power. Similarly tiresome, but not as prominent, is the insistence of recent shows to tell only one story per season. It results in what feels like unnecessarily extended movies, for stories which could have been contained within a movie or two.
While it is understandable that Netflix and the era of binge watching may have lowered the average viewer’s attention span to no longer being able to process an overarching plot along with a story-of-the-week, it is incredibly restraining and an eventually monotonous experience–something which threatens almost all Disney+ shows.
Willow does balance this a little better than most, but it can still be improved upon. It doesn’t help the break in monotony ends up feeling almost entirely like filler content, but is at least entertaining even if not very significant.
A fun, but surely controversial addition, is the use of pop music and covers in the soundtrack. It certainly lends a new energy to the series, but also feels somewhat jarring, and may very well turn off some of the audience. The choice in music also reflects the overall conversational tone of the dialogue and humour–something which can easily be desired as Marvel-esque.
Holding it all together is the cast. Warwick Davis continues to be an icon of fantasy, lending his natural charm to the show as a whole. If the cast tease by Disney+ wasn’t already convincing of their chemistry, the series definitely allows it to shine. The romance subplots, however, are almost all cringe-worthy.
While Ellie Bamber, Erin Kellyman, and Ruby Cruz form a strong front for the adventure, Tony Revolori continues his streak of scene-stealing, and seems to have found his niche as nice guy Tony (at least outside of the MCU Spider-Man flicks), similar to his role in Apple TV+’s Servant.
Nevertheless, Erin Kellyman’s certifiable gravitas keeps the tale focused, and can be easily mistaken as the protagonist in this otherwise ensemble-drive series. Ellie Bamber, especially, shoulders a significant portion of the narrative, and rises to occasion remarkably so. Her role is sometimes easily overshadowed, but that’s par for the course with such ensembles.
Amar Chadha-Patel and the late-joining Christian Slater also hold their own, quickly becoming a duo viewers cannot help but like. Their presence is an obvious attempt to fill the hole left by Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, but both do not feel like knock-offs of the original.
Maybe this series need not have been a continuation of Willow, but if the movie absolutely needed a revival, this isn’t a bad way to do it. And it helps that it feels independent, with its own style and feet to stand on.